What does a priest do in a parish that expects long homilies, if he has come from a parish that dislikes them? This was my situation when I arrived at the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius in Brooklyn, with its primarily Caribbean congregation that favors masses running to an hour and a half. One Sunday a parishioner alerted me to my homiletic lacks when she whispered in my ear after the main mass. "Please," she said as we stood in the sacristy, "could you talk a little longer?" In one sense, it seemed a partial compliment. At least the content of what I had said was OK. But for someone accustomed to giving homilies of no more than 10 or 12 minutes, her comment came as a challenge. A friend who attends the much bigger and upscale St. Ignatius on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, assured me that the 10-12 minute variety was about all he could tolerate.
A first effort at homily lengthening occurred on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, January 24. It happened to be a Saturday when I had the vigil mass. What came to mind as I prepared my homily was not Francis de Sales’ life, but a prayer of his that has long since been part of my daily meditation. Given to me by a friend, it addresses a major issue in the lives of most of us–namely, gnawing anxiety. Here is the prayer: "Have no fear of what tomorrow may bring. The same loving God who cares for you today, will take care of you tomorrow and every day. He will either shield you from suffering, or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations."
Commenting on this prayer became part of my enlarged homily that cold day in February of this year. I mentioned at the end of Mass that some copies were available for any who might want one. The copies soon ran out, and a parishioner offered to run off more. They too were exhausted in the following weeks. The experience gave me at least one idea for expanding the length of a homily in a way that might not bore people, and might, in fact, strike a helpful chord in their daily lives, filled as they often are with anxieties that can be crippling. Even since, I have kept my eye out for prayers that do address some of the thornier aspects of life, along with brief but true stories of generosity and service to others--a theme at the heart of any effort to live out a Christian vocation. But on that cold, gray day, St. Francis de Sales’ prayer, at least, was a winner.
George Anderson, S.J.