I've Heard Lots of Interesting Homilies, But This Takes the Cake

Eduard Lebiedzki, “The Sermon” (1880s)
Eduard Lebiedzki, “The Sermon” (1880s) (photo: Public Domain)

Perhaps it is the sin of pride, combined with the insuperably torrid dog days of summer, but I’d thought I’d heard almost every type of summer homily that could be conceived.

From pastors and curates, and the traveling missionaries and transitional deacons who tend to pinch-hit for the parish priests during the summer months, I’ve long heard such standbys as: “We need a new roof for the upcoming winter”, “The bishop expects big things from our little parish in the fall fund drive”, and “Come for the air conditioning, stay for the salvation of your soul”.

For the most part, Catholic clergymen are not known for their riveting homilies. As the old saying goes: “Protestants go to Church to listen to the preacher, Catholics go to receive Holy Communion.”

However, on a recent trip to another state, the celebrant held forth for twenty-two minutes on two disparate things that I’d never encountered before.

First: the summer traffic.

Apparently the traffic jams were so great on the interstate that day that the priest—who had to travel some great distance to celebrate this 2:00 p.m. Traditional Latin Mass—assumed that there had been a horrific multi-car pileup. But when he started to pass by the exits for the beaches, he saw great numbers of vehicles peeling off to go to enjoy the sea, sand, sun and suds.

This sat poorly with the priest, as he was furious that so many people were busy rushing to the beaches and not to church on Sunday. This made me slightly uneasy as there’s no way to really know if any (or all) of the people in their over-packed SUVs and minivans had already fulfilled their Sunday Mass obligation, but I suppose he knew better than I the souls and intentions of the Catholic vacationers.

After railing against these beach bums—who had, ironically, with their traffic nearly made him late for this Mass—the priest somehow segued into the Perfect Prayer: The Our Father. Here, I thought, we are on much safer, surer, and saner grounds for sermons. Who isn’t familiar with a homily on The Lord’s Prayer?

However, not content with dropping one homiletic bombshell, the priest went for a brace of them: “We have been praying the ‘Our Father’ all wrong!” He said. This salvo certainly got the attention of me and the fifty-odd souls who were present.

“It’s not ‘Our Father’—it’s just ‘Father’—look it up in the Gospel of St. Luke! By putting ‘Our’ in front of ‘Father’, we are making ourselves, our wills more important than that of Our Heavenly Father. Even in Latin it’s ‘Pater Noster’—‘Father, Our’!”

Setting aside the syntax and semantics that the priest was delving into, it turns out that he is, technically, right: in St. Luke’s account the prayer is simply:

Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do no subject us to the final test.

Still, is it presumptuous, as the homilist suggested (or stated, rather) to address God as “Our Father”?

According to The Jerome Biblical Commentary: “‘Father’: the Lucan introduction to the prayer; Matthew has added the words, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’. Matthew is closer to the form of Jewish prayers, Luke to Christian prayers whose expression probably goes back to Jesus himself.”

I think the point the good priest was trying to make was that we may sometimes lack humility in our prayer: we can only address God as “Our” Father through the redemptive suffering and death of His son. Otherwise we are nothing more than His “useless servants”.

Further, the calling out of “Father!” is a much more immediate, direct address to the God whom we may call on at any time and who “already knows what we need even before we ask.”

Whatever the sermon lacked in terms of scriptural scholarship and understanding of semantics, this homilist certainly held us captive with his singular reading of the Lord’s Prayer. (And the traffic report for the local beachfronts.)