No jokes please, just break The Word

No jokes please, just break The Word

About a year and a half ago I felt convicted by the Lord to start breaking ‘The Word’ at mass. I am not a scripture scholar and to be honest while I passed my scripture classes in seminary with flying colours, little entered my head or my heart. If I write scripture exegesis today it is with much fear and trepidation yet with the confidence that that while the words are mine, the thoughts are His.

I always took the trouble to prepare my homilies but in time came to realise that most of them were what people wanted;  interesting stories, jokes, anecdotes and ‘practical examples’.  For this I received much acclamation and was constantly called to preach across the Archdiocese of Bombay.

When the people of this tiny parish in Malad East, to whom I  minister ( and they do the same right back)suggested the need for a better understanding of scripture, I thought to myself, why not do it where is should be, at the time of the homily. At every Eucharist, we are fed from two tables, the table of the bread (altar) and the table of the word (lectern). The ‘breaking of The Word’ is exactly what it means, explain the scriptures. It is not a time for lengthy catechesis, not a time for imparting life skills and most certainly not a time for a moral lecture.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Phillip is led by the Spirit to approach the Ethiopian eunuch, the finance minister of the Queen of Candace. He was reading the prophet Isaiah but had no understanding of it for he says to Philip, “How can I unless someone guides me.” (Acts 8:31) And guide him, Philip did. This is the role of the priest and deacon at Mass, to explain the scriptures.

So should we not tell an anecdote at all? Should we never crack a joke or share life examples? Of course we should but the question must be asked, what drives the homily, the anecdote or the scripture? If the anecdote or example helps deepen the understanding of the scripture then by all means uses it.

When we were in seminary we were taught a method of preaching a homily. The long and short of the method was this; begin with ‘a starter’, explain the scriptures, give a few examples and perhaps share a personal example (testimony). While this sounds excellent on paper the demand for a ten minutes homily leaves the explanation of God’s Word to barely two minutes. This is certainly no feeding for a hungry flock.

Recently there was a report that Pope Francis (whom I dearly love and respect) made an off the cuff remark about brief homilies. While I understand the intention of the I Holy Father I wish this statement be not taken too seriously by priests or the laity, for I believe that if the word of God is broken well then people are willing to listen to a homilist for hours on an end. The problem is when the homilist does not prepare and this to my mind is the real issue.

In the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Apollos from Alexandria (Acts 18:24) He is described as not only a “an eloquent” speaker but also one “well versed in scripture” . If Apollos was able to speak with “burning enthusiasm” it is because he was not only “instructed in the Way of the Lord” but also “well versed in scripture”.

Paul himself is another example of a man on fire for the Lord. At every stop he made on his missionary journeys, be they a marketplace, besides the river or in a synagogue he always preached the Word of God. Perhaps the only place where he did not do so was in Athens (as some scholars suggest) and may I say made little impact on the Athenians.

It is my belief that seminary studies focus a tab bit too much on doctrine and insufficiently on scripture. While I agree that even a lifetime is not enough for scripture study, I believe that my foundations in the study of scripture were weak, to say the least, and I lay no blame on any of my teachers but on the system that tries to balance too much in the seminary curriculum.

Perhaps the most outstanding preacher I ever heard was the late Fr Leslie Ratus. Not once did his homilies need to lean on an anecdote, example or joke. He broke The Word for us because I believe he had a command over the knowledge of scripture. Fr Leslie had a doctorate in Sociology ( if I am not mistaken), scripture was self-taught and it was his conviction that  saw the establishment  of  the ‘the ministry of the word’ a two year course for lay people conducted every Sunday at the seminary in Goregaon  East, Mumbai.

Each one of us experiences a terrible void in our lives, an annoying emptiness that haunts our being. It is one that the pleasures of this world, no matter how fascinating or alluring can never fill. That emptiness in the lives and hearts of youth and adults needs to be filled by bold preachers who challenge their congregations to carry their Bibles to Church every Sunday just as they without fail walk out of their homes with their cell phones, keys and wallet. The Word of God is our text book, the answers to the examination of our life lie in it and the preacher must be its teacher.

It is God’s word that needs to fill our hearts on Sundays not the stories or jokes of men.

Fr Warner D’Souza

Written with malice to none

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11 thoughts on “No jokes please, just break The Word”

  • I agree so completely. I get so frustrated becaue we have no nourishment at the table of the word. I have given polite feedback to the priests that we need less stories and more scripture. I have raised it openly with the Parish council and with the bishops.
    I have seen in my own life how scripture has given me strength to deal with challenging circumstances. Scripture has brought me healing and guidance, courage and hope when all i wanted was to give up.
    One of the main reasons we lose people to Christian sects is’not being fed with the Word of God.’
    I pray that the Catholic Church will feed her sheep with the Word that comes from the mouth of God so that we can really learn to live abundant lives.
    Thank you Fr Warner from writing this.

  • Very crisp n well intended article. You might have wanted to add Fr Leslie Ratus was inspired by this reading (Acts – Philip & the Ethiopian) and wrote an inspiring series ” Unless some man shows me”

  • I agree totally on all your points… well explained Fr. Warner.
    And yes, the congregation will hang on to EVERY WORD of a Powerful Speaker with a Powerful Message…. dozing would be unheard of (of course there’ll be an occasional sleep-deprived parishioner, but don’t take THAT personally 😉)
    Finally what you said about the jokes, anecdotes and examples are very true.. I myself enjoy them and use them when I lecture too… they may be important to CATCH initial attention, but they should definitely be related to the message and must LEAD to a deeper understanding of the Word… otherwise they are just “noisy gongs”. 👍

  • What about children’s liturgy how do we as catechist encourage them to reflect on the word of God especially as little as 6 year old…currently we have the para liturgy for them whilst older children go for mass – Is this helpful or we should let them for the regular masses.

    For older children like 8-14 and older at the children and youth masses the scriptures are explained and appropriate examples given.

    • I believe that the system of Children’s mass is a huge mistake. We grew up with no children’s mass but attending mass with our parents. I never attended Sunday school( i did however attend first communion and confirmation catechesis) My Mother was the one who taught me the faith and the one who guided me at mass. It was she who taught me rubrics at mass and to see in the consecrated bread, the body of Christ. Today for ‘pastoral’ reasons of having Sunday school followed by mass we have separated the first teachers of the faith( see the rite of Baptism) and handed this over to well meaning but ( in my opinion ) often untrained teachers.
      The argument in favour of a children’s liturgy with the intention to engage the children at their level also fails when the clergy allocate masses by rotation. Not all priests are skilled enough to engage children at their level( as not all teachers are child friendly)
      What irks me the most is that we have separated and perhaps broken up the family as an institution by making them come to mass as a fragmented unit.It is for this reason that you rarely see families attending mass together.

  • Charles Robert Dcruz · Edit

    I agree with you Fr. Warner.

  • Fr. Warner your words of wisdom rings a bell in my ears. Of the years gone by and even till date how a Priest/Minister breaks Gods word at Holy Mass. There have been times when the homily has been so boring or totally ridicules when the Priest/Minister has tried to use rhyming words etc to explain the Word of God to the congregatimon. Congregation was in a split of laughter …It was more like an entertainment. Recently I was fortunate to attend Mass at St Jude’s Parish Malad East Mumbai. Where I enjoyed being part of a solemn Mass.Where you celebrated the Mass. Your idea of breaking the Word of God for the children and adults with their own personal Bibles is exactly what we all need. It put me to shame to see how the young children knew every scripture so well, they had the right answer for everything. How enjoyable that was.That day after Mass at St Jude ‘s as I was reflecting I thought to myself. Why can’t other Parishes follow this practice of carrying and learning from your own Bible and have a one to one communication with the Priest/Minister…This brings us closer to God, our religious belives and faith.Your absolutely right Our Bible is more essential than our cell and other accessories that go in our bag but of our lives.
    ThankYou Fr Warner for explaining these wonderful scriptures daily and sharing with us. God Bless You.

  • Hello Fr Warner,As you may know that we reside in Jamaica and my mom who belongs to st jude parish with whom I speak on a regular basis usually shares with me your homily during mass.So for the last few months we as a family gather every morning and after we have read the daily readings use the reflections that you share on “potty padre” and it has helped us a lot in the understanding of the scriptures especially the book of acts.May the Lord continue to use you to spread his eternal Word.

  • Very true Father. But I guess preachers use jokes and anecdotes to get people to listen to them and then they convey their message of how v can lead better lives spiritually. I pray that you and all priests may be blessed by the Holy Spirit to guide the people and may your preaching bring a thirst and deep longing for the Word.

  • Good to read your insights and your journey towards discovering the need to break the word!

  • The thing is, nowadays people do not want to listen to scripture and our priests give in to what people want and not what they need. This is well written, Father. Beautiful points covered


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