Dear Father Smith,
Several days ago, I spoke with you on the phone regarding my growing frustration with the apparent reluctance on the part of the priests at St. Paul to use the homily of the Mass to challenge parishioners, young and old, on issues which I believe are or should be fundamental to the Church’s pastoral mission. My frustration reached an all time high this past weekend, as my family and I listened to a somber, uninspiring and largely unintelligible homily on purgatory delivered by Deacon Fred, a homily which you later characterized as “the finest presentation of church doctrine on the subject of purgatory you had ever heard.”
You may have been right about Deacon Fred’s homily. I certainly am not an expert on the subject of purgatory and do not pretend to have the theological training required to challenge your assessment of Deacon Fred’s thoughts on the issue. But what I can tell you, based on my personal experience, the experience of my family (which now includes a teenage son and daughter) and the glazed/catatonic look in the eyes of innumerable parishioners seated around me is this: the St. Paul community is not likely to benefit from or be inspired to become better people by any more sermons on purgatory.
I have a long history at St. Paul. In fact, I have seen St. Paul grow from its infancy and I will be the first to acknowledge and applaud St. Paul for the leadership role it has assumed in the Archdiocese when it comes to outreach ministries, legislative initiatives, and its generous support of the poor in our community and in much less fortunate communities throughout the world. In the process, however, I sense that St. Paul has lost sight of the challenges and the needs that exist in its own backyard, needs that cannot adequately be addressed in weekly or monthly group meetings, needs that regularly should be addressed in the homily of the Mass.
Hopefully, a few examples will begin to illustrate some of those needs:
Why, on a sunny, South Florida weekday or weekend afternoon, can I drive 5 miles in any direction from St. Paul and not see a single family playing together in their yard?
Is it because mom and dad are both working? Is it because mom and dad are working too much? Is it because mom and dad are too busy or too self-absorbed? Is it because parents have forgotten or perhaps never fully understood the degree of selflessness that parenting requires? Is it because we are fearful of elements in the community that threaten the safety of the family? Is it because we, as a community, have lost our sense of the primacy of family (what Pope John Paul so eloquently referred to as the “domestic church”)? Is it because the Church seldom, if ever, meaningfully challenges parents and grandparents on any of these issues?
I suspect it is a combination of these factors. But if we can agree that a healthy family is the cornerstone of a Christian community, then it seems to me these are issues that should be addressed in thoughtful, thought-provoking, straightforward homilies, filled with gospel relevance, spiritual guidance, encouragement and hope.
Why is it that marriages, within and outside of our parish community, continue to fail at an alarming rate and/or are plagued with discord, conflict and dysfunction?
Is it because we don’t understand the importance of commitment? Is it because we don’t understand the true meaning of unconditional love? Is it that we don’t understand the covenant that is the marital relationship? Is it that perseverance is a forgotten virtue in our society? Is it that we’ve lost sight of the transforming power of forgiveness? Is it because St. Paul and the Church do not do enough to educate and/or challenge parishioners on these issues?
Again, I suspect it some combination of these factors. But if we can agree that a healthy marital relationship is an essential ingredient of the body of Christ we call the St. Paul parish community, it seems to me these issues ought to be explored in thoughtful, thought-provoking, straightforward homilies, filled with gospel relevance, spiritual guidance, encouragement and hope.
Why is it that an increasing number of middle school, high school and, even more disturbingly, elementary school children in our society and in our parish struggle with lack of affection, depression, feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and low self-esteem?
Is it because of all or a combination of the factors set forth above? Is it because we place unrealistic expectations and pressures on them to achieve?
Is it because all of us have lost sight of the inevitability of mistakes? Is it because we have become insensitive to the power and frailty of a child’s spirit? Is it because we choose to segregate, isolate or disenfranchise children from the faith community either physically (under the label of a “children’s liturgy”) or by selecting homily topics (e.g., purgatory) that are unintelligible or wholly irrelevant to school age children and their daily struggles?
Is it because it’s easier to relegate these issues to a ministry than it is to spend the time constructing homily messages that touch parishioners, young and old? Is it because our children don’t fully understand their importance in God’s plan and the special nature of their gifts, gifts which caused Jesus to remark that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15)? Is it because we, as adults, don’t realize or take the time to fully appreciate and communicate the gifts our children bestow on us and the lessons they have to teach our families and our faith community?
At the risk of being redundant, I believe it is a combination of all of these factors. But if we accept Jesus’ charge that the kingdom of God belongs to “children,” then it is incumbent on St. Paul and the Church to address these issues in thoughtful, thought-provoking, straightforward homilies, filled with gospel relevance, spiritual guidance, encouragement and hope.
I simply refuse to believe that by addressing any of these or a myriad of other equally compelling family and social issues in the setting of the Mass, the Church risks alienating or failing to reach significant numbers of parishioners. On the contrary, I am convinced that the community is thirsty for guidance and support on these critical issues. I am equally convinced, or I would not be taking the time to write this letter, that if St. Paul continues to ignore these issues or to relegate them to weekly or monthly meetings of small ministry groups it eventually will lose parishioners to other churches and denominations who are not afraid to focus on the relevance of the gospel message to their members’ everyday lives and to challenge them to grow, even though that challenge may make the messenger and the recipient a bit uncomfortable at times. Worse yet, it may lose members entirely.
I appreciate your prayerful consideration and trust my words will be accepted in the loving and constructive spirit in which they are intended.
Ten years later, I’m still waiting for a response . . .