When I spoke to the bishop and priests of Lincoln, Nebraska a few months ago, one of the priests asked me, "What is the first thing you think we priests can do to advance the faith?" I gave my usual response: Start using apologetics homilies.
Most homilies run about ten minutes. Every homily is supposed to be grounded in the readings of the day. Sometimes this is done smoothly, sometimes less so. Actually, it's fairly easy to find something in at least one of the readings that hits home apologetically. (Paul's writings are especially good for this.) There's little excuse for not having a clearly visible connection between the topic of the homily and the readings.
That said, let me define what I mean by an apologetics homily: I mean a homily overtly apologetical and dramatic and long (by Catholic standards).
Begin with the last quality. Our Protestant friends, at least many of them, are used to sitting still for a sermon that lasts an hour or more, and many of them stay later on Sundays for Sunday school (yes, there are adult versions), or they return to church on a weeknight for further instruction. The average Catholic spends 45 minutes a week at church. Many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists (and a smaller proportion of Protestants in the liberal denominations) spend four hours or more.
If Catholics and Protestants are biologically indistinguishable, Catholics, with a little practice, should be able to remain on their posteriors as long as Protestants.
I'm not asking Catholics to go from 45 minutes weekly to four hours. I'm not asking for miracles. I'm asking only that they go to 55 minutes, the difference coming from a homily that is 20 minutes long instead of ten.
Of course, it isn't the length of the homily that matters so much as its content. A good 20-minute homily can pass quickly, just as a good book, no matter how long, seems to be finished far too soon. But a bad homily, the kind taken out of the latest issue of some pop culture magazine, seems eternal, even if the clock advances only five minutes.
What the folks in the pews want, I told the priests in Lincoln, as I tell priests elsewhere, is substance and drama. The two go together. By drama I don't mean histrionics. If the substance is present, the drama is present within the substance itself.
There's a natural drama within the very explanation of the faith. Just explaining what we believe (and why) attracts people. But it's advisable to "advertise" upcoming topics.
Here's how it would work. This week at Mass Father announces that in next week's homily he'll discuss, say, the charge that Catholics worship statues. He'll look at Exodus 20:4 (let's assume that's one of the readings) and at the complaint that the veneration of images amounts to idolatry. He'll urge everyone to bring a Bible to Mass because he'll be flipping from verse to verse--some verses in the readings for the day, others not. (The missalette won't suffice.)
Fine, you say. A good plan--but does it work? I submit as evidence the case of a priest in a Midwestern diocese. He prefers to be anonymous, so you'll have to trust me that he really exists. He does, and so does the success of his apologetics homilies.
When he was transferred to his new parish last year, he discovered all the Masses were losing attendance, slowly yet consistently. He was assigned the noon Mass, the only one he has been able to celebrate each week. (He rotates through other Masses; because of his irregular scheduling, he can't introduce apologetics homilies into them.)
His first topic was baptism. He began a five-week series of 20- minute homilies, the reading for the first week being the baptism of Jesus by John. Over the course of the series the priest defined baptism and original sin, explained the necessity of baptism, discussed how baptism is administered, and refuted the charge that only baptism by immersion is valid. Then he went on to other topics. Some are handled in one homily, others take several.
He saw astounding results. The noon Mass had been attracting only 200 people when he arrived at the parish. In only six months there were 500 people each week--standing room only. Significantly, the other Masses lost no one to his Mass, for the simply reason that the noon Mass is given in Spanish, all the other Masses in English.
Nor did the increase come from other parishes. The priest reported to us that the additional 300 people were almost entirely dropouts from his own parish, the relatives and friends who had lost interest and simply had ceased going to Mass.
Imagine what would happen if this priest's success were duplicated in every parish, at every Mass. Our churches would be crammed, and no doubt giving would rise faster than Mass attendance. The priests would be happy because they'd know they were hitting home. Everyone would be pleased.
Not bad for an extra ten minutes weekly, eh?