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No jokes please, just break The Word

The ‘breaking of The Word’ is exactly what it means, explain the scriptures. It is not a time for lengthy catechesis, not a time for imparting life skills and most certainly not a time for a moral lecture.

No jokes please, just break The Word

By Fr. Warner D’Souza
About a year and a half ago I felt convicted by the Lord to start breaking ‘The Word’ at mass. I am not a scripture scholar and to be honest while I passed my scripture classes in seminary with flying colours, little entered my head or my heart. If I write scripture exegesis today it is with much fear and trepidation yet with the confidence that that while the words are mine, the thoughts are His.

I always took the trouble to prepare my homilies but in time came to realise that most of them were what people wanted; interesting stories, jokes, anecdotes and ‘practical examples’. For this I received much acclamation and was constantly called to preach across the Archdiocese of Bombay.

When the people of this tiny parish in Malad East, to whom I minister (and they do the same right back) suggested the need for a better understanding of scripture, I thought to myself, why not do it where is should be, at the time of the homily. At every Eucharist, we are fed from two tables, the table of the bread (altar) and the table of the word (lectern). The ‘breaking of The Word’ is exactly what it means, explain the scriptures. It is not a time for lengthy catechesis, not a time for imparting life skills and most certainly not a time for a moral lecture.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Phillip is led by the Spirit to approach the Ethiopian eunuch, the finance minister of the Queen of Candace. He was reading the prophet Isaiah but had no understanding of it for he says to Philip, “How can I unless someone guides me.” (Acts 8:31) And guide him, Philip did. This is the role of the priest and deacon at Mass, to explain the scriptures.

So should we not tell an anecdote at all? Should we never crack a joke or share life examples? Of course we should but the question must be asked, what drives the homily, the anecdote or the scripture? If the anecdote or example helps deepen the understanding of the scripture, then by all means use it.

When we were in seminary we were taught a method of preaching a homily. The long and short of the method was this; begin with ‘a starter’, explain the scriptures, give a few examples and perhaps share a personal example (testimony). While this sounds excellent on paper the demand for a ten minutes homily leaves the explanation of God’s Word to barely two minutes. This is certainly no feeding for a hungry flock.

Recently there was a report that Pope Francis (whom I dearly love and respect) made an off the cuff remark about brief homilies. While I understand the intention of the I Holy Father I wish this statement be not taken too seriously by priests or the laity, for I believe that if the word of God is broken well then people are willing to listen to a homilist for hours on an end. The problem is when the homilist does not prepare and this to my mind is the real issue.

In the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Apollos from Alexandria(Acts 18:24). He is described as not only a “an eloquent” speaker but also one “well versed in scripture”. If Apollos was able to speak with “burning enthusiasm” it is because he was not only “instructed in the Way of the Lord” but also “well versed in scripture”.

Paul himself is another example of a man on fire for the Lord. At every stop he made on his missionary journeys, be they a marketplace, besides the river or in a synagogue he always preached the Word of God. Perhaps the only place where he did not do so was in Athens (as some scholars suggest) and may I say made little impact on the Athenians.

It is my belief that seminary studies focus a tab bit too much on doctrine and insufficiently on scripture. While I agree that even a lifetime is not enough for scripture study, I believe that my foundations in the study of scripture were weak, to say the least, and I lay no blame on any of my teachers but on the system that tries to balance too much in the seminary curriculum.

Perhaps the most outstanding preacher I ever heard was the late Fr. Leslie Ratus. Not once did his homilies need to lean on an anecdote, example or joke. He broke The Word for us because I believe he had a command over the knowledge of scripture. Fr Leslie had a doctorate in Sociology ( if I am not mistaken), scripture was self-taught and it was his conviction that saw the establishment of the ‘the ministry of the word’ a two year course for lay people conducted every Sunday at the seminary in Goregaon East, Mumbai.

Each one of us experiences a terrible void in our lives, an annoying emptiness that haunts our being. It is one that the pleasures of this world, no matter how fascinating or alluring can never fill. That emptiness in the lives and hearts of youth and adults needs to be filled by bold preachers who challenge their congregations to carry their Bibles to Church every Sunday just as they without fail walk out of their homes with their cell phones, keys and wallet. The Word of God is our text book, the answers to the examination of our life lie in it and the preacher must be its teacher.

It is God’s word that needs to fill our hearts on Sundays not the stories or jokes of men.

(Fr. Warner D'Souza is the priest-in-charge, St. Jude Church, Malad East) with permission)

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