Joseph Cardinal Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, addresses during a Christmas Eve service at the St. Patrick's Cathedral in Karachi, Pakistan in 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Feeding a Finicky Flock

Priests have just a few homily minutes to whet their appetites of the ‘nones’ and make a difference

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Besides the regular busyness of preparing for the Christmas season, priests have one of the most important responsibilities facing them. It’s the task of feeding the flock, including the blank faces of people who identify as “nones,” all in a 7-10 minute homily.

On Christmas, these nones come in droves, pushing the regulars out of their pews, perhaps feeling slightly out of place and at the same time possibly having a sense of entitlement, expecting to be bored unless the priest gives them something valuable to consider. And, unfortunately, the “value” of Mass is oftentimes reduced to the homily.

We don’t need another study to prove what common sense tells us: If people aren’t being fed, they go elsewhere.

Certainly, liturgists will protest, but we have the Word of God and the sacraments! That’s certainly true, and I’m not denying it. But, Jesus gave us the Eucharist “after” he preached! That’s the kerygma that people are looking for. Our Catholic liturgy contains the most profound and deepest Truth, but, unfortunately, the nones aren’t prepared to receive that gift. That’s where the homily has to help whet their appetite.

At Christmas, priests have to realize that 7-10 minutes can make a big difference. That’s what we need to focus on this Christmas season!

Keep It Short

Even before I was ordained, I was organically and subliminally told by many priests that the Christmas Eve Mass, and especially the children’s liturgy, shouldn’t be complicated. Ironically, the pageants, the play, the excessively confused message about St. Nicholas and the Lord makes this particular liturgy incredibly complicated. Priest mentors told me not to preach a very challenging homily, not to scold the people for not coming regularly, and to keep it short. Somehow the parking-lot traffic became a more important focus than saving souls.

As a zealous young priest — and not too uptight (depending on who you ask) — I understood that timing was important, but was confused about how to do my job as a preacher. My background as someone who performed on stage and my personal memory of sitting in the pews made me sensitive to timing. I remembered how painful children’s liturgies can be, so I agreed: Keep it short and not complicated. I also wondered why preaching to save souls implied scolding? Why is telling the Good News interpreted so negatively?

As a Church not known for effective preaching, I believe we are missing out on a great evangelization opportunity during Christmas. The lost flock is home. They are hungry. Therefore, I’m not going to throw out insipid and pious platitudes. These folks crave the Lamb of God, whether they know it or not. I’m not going to substitute the meat of faith with sugar canes!

But how do we bring the truth of the Gospel, and the deep message of Christmas, to a bunch of people who may not care?

I say, give them what they’re hungering for. Give them the “gifts” of faith!

A Former None

Take, for example, a young man named Josh. One year, he came to Christmas Eve Mass with his family out of tradition. He grew up Catholic but didn’t personally take ownership of his faith. He lived like every other young adult. He lived with his girlfriend and the mother of his child. She eventually came out as a lesbian, and now Josh was searching. Josh didn’t hate God, but he certainly didn’t know him.

He came to the children’s liturgy looking for a message of hope as an adult. That’s very telling!

I celebrated that Mass. I didn’t know Josh, but I did know that people like him were sitting in their pews. These nones are searching for something to replace their nothing.

I preached my homily, which I had worked on for a long time. At the time, I didn’t think my message was that impacting. It was tough preaching over the crying babies, the standing bored folks in the back, and while listening to people’s excessive coughing because of the incense. But somehow Josh heard something valuable enough that he did come back to church the next week. He made an appointment to talk to me. I was shocked. He was listening! The People of God are listening!

Josh showed me, as a young priest, that while respecting my mentors’ advice to keep the Christmas homily short and sweet, it also required a profound preparation to craft a message for this unique crowd. Admittedly, that’s not easy to do while preparing for everything else. But, we have to remember that our few moments of sharing our faith in the homily is probably one of the most important things we can give to this hungry flock. It would be wonderful if everyone came and grasped the truth of Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist, but let’s admit the finicky flock isn’t ready for it.

My mentors would be happy to know that I didn’t yell at or admonish my parishioners for not coming regularly. But, I’m not sure why preaching the truth has to be interpreted as yelling or admonishing? I also didn’t water down the Gospel message. Instead, I did what any priest-chef would do. I asked the Good Lord, “What are people hungering for in their faith, and how can I serve and satisfy their cravings?”

That’s a good question to begin when preparing for your Christmas homily.

Important Disclaimer

In writing this article, I thought about the homily that I delivered that made Josh want to come back.

But I want to make sure you know that I’m not sharing this with you because it’s the “best” Christmas homily you’ll ever hear; it certainly was not. I’m also not encouraging you to use my homily for your homily — although you certainly have my permission (even though you don’t need it). I’m not even claiming it’s a good homily. But, I am trying to encourage you to make sure your Christmas homily isn’t a bunch of pious platitudes, and that you consider this approach — a more intentional way of preparing for a homily that seemed to work for one of those “nones.”

I prepared my homily by asking the questions: What are people looking for at Christmas? What do they want to hear from me? What do people expect to hear?

The first thing that came to my mind was “gifts.” People want gifts! For many, the wrapped package is more important than Christ’s presence wrapped in bread or the Divine Child wrapped in swaddling clothes.

You see, my homily preparation wasn’t about what I wanted to tell them. It began with me asking myself a question about the people I’m called to serve, feed and nourish.

It’s a question that can be quite convicting. But it’s also a great way to prepare for the Christmas season and our Christmas message — screaming kids and all. It’s a question that Our Father in heaven answered by sending us Jesus.

What To Preach

At that Mass, I tried to let people know that I wanted to give them something valuable — GIFTS! While kids only heard that my homily was about getting gifts, the adults realized that I was trying to share myself, my priesthood, my faith with them. They appreciated that I was addressing the kid in each of us. I told them, I have five gifts to share with them along with a little explanation of each.

(1) G: Generosity. Modern society has become cheap, with God and one another. Whether it’s counting virtues or holy hours, being a Christian requires generosity if we want to inspire generations of future Catholics. Saints show us generosity, even witnessed in the ultimate act — martyrdom. I had to ask myself, have I become cheap in feeding this hungry flock?

(2) I: Inspiration. In an age of people professing to be “spiritual” but “not religious,” we know that people watch Ted Talks and read self-help books because they are seeking to be inspired. They want something that will encourage deeper reflection to motivate positive actions. But if we can only give what we have, we must ask ourselves, what (or who) is inspiring to me? Without being inspired, we won’t be inspiring.

(3) F: Fatherhood. Today, the male gender is prejudged as toxic masculinity. But, we know that healthy Christian families need loving and present fathers. As priests, we must ask: Am I a loving father or just a spiritual disciplinarian — a formal image of fatherhood only at the altar while neglecting the domestic church’s altar: the dinner table? How am I a father for my spiritual children?

(4) T: Thankful. It should be obvious why the highest form of prayer is the Eucharist — thanksgiving. As a priest, we have much to be thankful for. But, as always, the things for which we are most grateful can pose the greatest challenges, or pain points, in our priesthood. For example, working with the laity. It’s a joy, but also a great challenge. We sometimes are tempted to do things on our own, rather than rely on and be grateful for the gifts of the laity. As such, are we thankful for the laity, and prove we are grateful by celebrating them, providing formation for them, and creating opportunities so that the laity can assist us and minister alongside us? I’m not advocating a confusion of ministries between ordained and the baptized, but encouraging a true relegating of ministries to laity and being thankful they are willing to help as a spiritual family.

(5) S: Sincerity. Of all of the gifts that we ought to be sharing in our homilies, sincerity, for me, is one of the toughest to offer. Most priests have been beaten up by the media, at parish councils, by an angry parishioner, by jealous brother priests or even by a bishop. It makes our desire to appropriately and sincerely express vulnerability limited, and we hide behind a stoic attitude that says, “We need strength to guide our people in this ugly and hateful world, even if it means avoiding our weakness.” That’s so unlike St. Paul! Sincerity implies vulnerability. And this is not easy. I know when priests appropriately and sincerely reveal who they are at a homily, as opposed to simply dogmatizing, doctrinating or force-feeding faith, they become more effective communicators of the Good News. We need more sincerity. Our flock can tell who’s a phony.

The Big Deal

When I finally met with Josh, he told me that he heard nothing “new” about the content, but he heard a different motivation. In the past, he felt the priest talked “at” the people. This time, he felt I was talking “with” him. He felt that just by starting my homily by asking, “What can I give to my parishioners this Christmas season?” changed the tone of the homily. He felt like I wasn’t trying to tell him what to believe, but that, as a loving father would do, I wanted to do something for my people. He sensed how I wanted to offer a bitter truth, but wrapped it in something sweeter.

Not a Recipe

When I taught homiletics in seminary, the students almost wanted an exact foolproof recipe for a “perfect” homily. It made their homilies as exciting as reading a recipe! This Christmas, while there may be too many other things to do to prepare for the masses and Masses, I sincerely encourage you to consider a process of feeding your flock with what they’re hungering for the most. They are hungering for YOU — their spiritual father — to feed them with the GIFT of yourself in your next Christmas homily. 

FATHER LEO E. PATALINGHUG is a priest member of Voluntas Dei, best-selling author, host for EWTN’s “Savoring Our Faith,” radio and podcast host, internationally acclaimed speaker, and creator of PlatingGrace.com and TheTableFoundation.org.

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About Plating Grace

Father Leo E. Patalinghung has a mission to bring families back to the dinner table, to save the family and help the world become more of a family.

The movement is known as Plating Grace and its emphasis, according to the website fatherleofeeds.com, is to “bring families back to the dinner table — away from work, school, TV, games and the many other things we get caught up in — to share a delicious meal together, communicate and love one another and be nourished — body, mind and soul.”

The website connects site visitors to Father Leo’s recipes, television shows, YouTube channel, podcasts, merchandise, events and travel.

The site adds: “Plating Grace is centered on one fundamental concept: the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships.

Research has been done to show that the family that eats (and prays) together will stay together, so it is our mission to give families the tools they need to come together at dinner time and be nourished — body, mind, and soul.”

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