My homilies are not, so to speak, "set in stone." They morph, they flow, they change from Mass to Mass. I've used the metaphor before, but I look at preaching a homily the way people use batting cages. You know, get in the cage, pop some quarters into the machine, 10 baseballs come at you, your job is to hit them. When I do it, the first round of batting cage baseballs is all about simply making contact with the ball; fouled off, bouncer to the pitcher, I don't care. The next round is about making decent contact with the ball: not just hitting it, but hitting it solidly. Once I've got this down, the rounds after this are when the fun begins. Now that I'm "in the groove", so to speak, it's time to see what I can do with the ball. Can I pull it? Can I go opposite field? Can I hit a power homer straightaway center field? Can I deliberately hit a base hit between the 3rd baseman and shortstop? Two weekends a month, in my parish, a Deacon preaches two Masses, leaving me to preach the other two. But the other two weekends (and the occasional fifth weekend in the month), I preach all the Masses. On those 4-homily weekends, the "batting cage" philosophy goes into effect.
Except for a Homiletics class I took in the seminary, I have never preached a word-for-word prepared text. Years ago in my political days I read a book of collected speeches by President Ronald Reagan, in which he revealed that he used a kind of written shorthand for notes for his speeches. My years of watching political speeches taught me that prepared texts do not keep peoples' attentions for long, so I made the resolution long ago to stay away from them. The papers I read from the Ambo are actually just the notes of what I want to say, things that jar my memory. If you read them out loud, they make little sense. They are, so to speak, the bat I will use to swing at these baseballs that will come at me. And what are the "baseballs", metaphorically speaking? The ideas, the concepts, the thoughts I want the people in the pews to hear, to understand, to think about and hopefully to take with them out of the church when Mass is over.
For the first homily, on Saturday night, I'm just concerned about getting my timing down as I'm delivering the homily. The Saturday night crowd is this subculture the Church has created whose overriding attitude is that Mass is something to be gotten out of the way so Sundays can be free for whatever reason. Believe me, many are sitting through my homily pondering not what I'm saying, but whether they'd rather go to the diner for dinner or for Chinese food?
Yes, I know what they're thinking. I can read minds. I'm also a Jedi Knight. I just haven't figured out how to use the Force to lock the church doors so they can't all blow out of Mass early.By the end of that homily, I know whether the jokes work, whether something is worded awkwardly, and whether my notes take me where I want to go. After the homily is over, probably like most Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, I think of what I could have said that would have been better. So on Saturday night the homily again gets tweaked for use at Sunday Masses.
The second homily happens at the first Mass on Sunday, and here that's the 8:00am Mass. The 8am crowd is, in some ways, like the 4:30 crowd from last night, except they've resolved that the Sunday is all theirs' AFTER Mass. The tougher thing about the 8am Mass crowd is to get a reaction from them. It's early in the morning, and very few are keen on laughing out loud (and certainly not answering any questions if I give them a 'pop quiz' on what they remember from last weekend's Mass?). "If you get the 8am Mass crowd to laugh out loud", I've told visiting clergy, "you've essentially jumped through two hoops. You were funny and you were funny enough to get a reaction out of them." That means I have to work harder to get my message into their heads, and so therein lies the connection to the second round of batting cage balls. I need to not just make contact with the balls, but good, solid contact. It's the "Pete Rose homily": mostly base hits, with the occasional strikeout and the rare home run.
If I've done that, then the next two Masses become the fun homilies. Having in my head what I want to say and how I can get that message out of me best, I can now have some fun with the homilies. Maybe a new opening? Maybe a quote from someone? Maybe a new joke? Maybe a different ending? Maybe a line from the weekend's readings that I didn't focus on before? The other homilies I focused on the Gospel; maybe this time I'll tackle what the 2nd Reading has to say and why it was included this Sunday? It would be personally boring to me to give the same exact homily multiple times at Sunday Masses, and if I'm bored with it I know that will seep out into my delivery and body language. The fear is that it leads to the "He doesn't care, why should I care?" attitude.
I tell you all of this as the world's HUGE-EST preface: In passing along my homily from this past weekend, I'm not really telling you what I said verbatim. I'm really synthesizing all four homilies, and in doing so presenting myself in the best possible light.
That being said, It's now more than an hour later than when I started typing. Now I'm hungry, and so you'll have to wait a little longer for the homily.
[It's the next day now - and here's the homily]
I'm always amazed how, more often than not each week, the Sunday readings seem to come have some relevance to both local and world events. A few weeks ago, last Monday, knowing what we'd be remembering this weekend, I looked at the readings, and there it was in front of me: "Lord, how often must I forgive?" I thought, "Whoa, Lord, you're good."
On this weekend when it seems that every channel on TV is re-presenting the events of ten years ago, begging us to remember the feelings we had, this weekend the Lord puts in front of us "The f-word": Forgiveness.
What can we say about forgiveness? We know that it's so important that, when Jesus gives the Apostles the Our Father (a prayer in which we ask for 7 things), He makes a point of having us ask God to forgive our sins. But he didn't stop there! He put a condition on it: "Forgive us our trespasses ...as we forgive those who trespass against us." In other words, we're asking God to only forgive our sins as much as we forgive those who hurt us.
That's the point of today's parable in the Gospel. The servant owes the King a huge amount, he can't pay it, and the King decides to forget about the whole debt. We call that "Grace": a free gift from God. Over the course of our lives, we've had thousands of those "grace meetings" with God, some graces we know about (going to Confession, receiving Holy Communion), some graces we won't know about until after we die. So the King forgives the huge debt of the servant, and that same servant refuses to forgive the debt he is owed by another servant. Matthew makes a point of telling us there's physical violence: the one servant chokes the other! Then the King finds out, and there's another meeting. This time, there's no grace, just judgment. We'll have thousands of "grace meetings" with God, AND, like the servant, we'll have exactly one "judgment meeting" with The King.
This time, I noticed the King has "torturers". St. Matthew makes a point of telling us there is more than one of them (he uses the plural). How do you get that job? Is there an exam you have to pass? Is it a civil service job? Do you start as an apprentice torturer and then work your way up? Can you imagine the job description? So he sends the servant to the torturers until he "pays the debt". THAT'S WHAT WE DO TO OURSELVES. When we refuse to forgive, we send ourselves to the torturers over and over.
The 1st Reading from Sirach lays it out so beautifully. "Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.", and, "Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?" Once again, we can only expect God to forgive our own sins if we show Him that we are trying to forgive others who hurt us, just as He Himself does.
Why do we do it? First, because as St. Paul tells us in the 2nd Reading, "whether we live or die, we are the Lord's." But also because of what Sirach says, "Remember your last days." In other words, remember there will come a time when your life in this world will end, and think of what really matters in consideration of that. I was watching a show last night about the phone messages made by people trapped in the Twin Towers to their families. Knowing their lives were in danger, did they call their enemies to tell them, "I still don't like you!"? No, they called their families and said, "I want you to know I love you." When lives were on the line at Ground Zero, humanity wanted to give: store owners gave out food, cases of water, sneakers, whatever they had and people needed. Furniture owners sent recliner chairs to the site so rescuers could take breaks. Towns around the country sent filter masks, gloves, and even their own fire and rescue squads. Lines went out the door at Blood Banks around the country, as people wanted to give their own blood. Children around the world sent stuffed animals to the children of the deceased.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is like the "Cliff notes" to the Catechism itself, says this in talking about forgiveness:
Compendium #595 – “Mercy can penetrate our hearts only if we ourselves learn how to forgive – even our enemies. Now even if it seems impossible for us to satisfy this requirement, the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit can, like Christ, love even to love’s extreme; it can turn injury into compassion and transform hurt into intercession. Forgiveness participates in the divine mercy and is a high-point of Christian prayer.”"Even if it seems impossible" - the Church knows it's going to be hard for us. Forgiveness isn't a reflex like breathing, that a baby is born knowing how to do. Forgiveness is a learned behavior; we have to learn to know how to do it. It means we're not going to be good at it at first, but if we practice it, we'll get better at it. And not just in words, but to forgive, as Jesus says, "from the heart".
On this weekend, yes, we absolutely pray for the repose of the souls of those who were killed ten years ago. We pray for the families who lost loved ones and still feel their loss. Free will allowed evil men to commit an evil deed that killed thousands of people and directly affected all of our lives today (you know this if you've had to take your shoes off in an airport or bring 8 forms of identification just to renew your Driver's License). But free will can also be used for good. No one held a gun to police and firefighters and ordered them to try to save people in the Twin Towers or at the Pentagon; they freely chose to do so. No one demanded the passengers of Flight 93 over Shanksville get out of their seats and attack the hijackers; they freely chose to do so. God has given humanity a share in His free will. It means the decision rests with us to use our free will for good or bad intent. Forgiveness is a good. Forgiveness is more for ourselves, saying, "I won't let those who hurt me hurt me anymore. I won't let hate eat at me from the inside like rust." Today, whether it is a world event like 9/11, or a struggle with another person, or even a mistake we know we ourselves made, we ask God to give us the grace to "participate in the divine mercy", and forgive.