I was perusing America Magazine, admittedly to find something silly that I could use my God given sarcastic talents to ridicule. As it turns out, my sarcastic talents provide me and my clan an evolutionary advantage. (Who Knew?) However, even though I am genetically superior to the sarcastically challenged, I would not be able to display my genetic edge today.
On my excursion, I ran across an article by a turtleneck wearing Jesuit (not good signs) but incredibly found myself in agreement. Fr. John Kavanaugh, an professor of ethics at St. Louis University (also a bad sign), was writing about the recent Wright / Pfleger disaster. Imagine my surprise when he actually made sense. Yes I have been drinking, too much to drive but I am probably ok to fly a plane. Anyway, Fr. Kavanaugh addresses the problems of the preacher as the center of attention.
Neither Pfleger nor the other three pastors are crazy persons. But they do have problems of their own. And they are the problems of the preacher. The preacher’s main temptation is in the preaching. In that wholly unmerited position and opportunity, in the context of sacred word, worship and sacrament, one is attended to, listened to by believers. There is a terrible seduction in this. One can preach to the choir and hear a chorus of approval.
As a preacher myself, I know there are few moments to compare with the affection and approval of parishioners after Mass, especially if you have been helpful in strengthening their faith. But the most distressing moment for me was the one homily I gave that evoked applause. Of course, it was gratifying; but it was disturbing. What was the applause for? The Gospel? The Eucharist? Maybe the stirring indictment of both church and state? Or for me?
There are many styles of preaching. But I have always felt a suspicion of styles that call too much attention to the preacher, whether by extravagant display or studied hyperbole. This becomes particularly dangerous when “preaching to the choir,” who applaud your indictments of everyone but the choir.
The priest preacher is a mediator. The danger is that the mediator can become the message. If the preacher is short on self-knowledge and personal restraint, his own preaching becomes, sadly, more important even than the Eucharist itself or, in non-eucharistic congregations, more important than even the Gospel. The preacher becomes the message. And that is disastrous.
The disaster finally hit Father Pfleger and the parish he loves. It also wounded Barack Obama. In the senator’s search for a new faith community, I hope he finds a church that nourishes his faith and family. I hope, also, he finds a preacher who is more into the Gospel than he is into his performance.
I doubt Fr. Kavanaugh would share my opinions about what exacerbates these problems within the Catholic Church, however credit should be given when credit is due. Fr. Kavanaugh is on the money. Does this mean I will revisit my reflexive opposition to anything a Jesuit says? Probably not. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.