Profanity in a Homily

Rome, (Zenit.org) Father Edward McNamara, LC | 2177 hits

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I recently attended a Mass. During the homily (which focused on our faith as Catholic Christians), the priest used profanity not just once ("... The hell it is!", quoting from Flannery O'Connor) but twice (this time a more personal exhortation: "We are damn fools!"). I have to say, it made me very uncomfortable for the remainder of the celebration of the Mass and was off-putting enough that I was still bothered by it later that night during my compline prayers. I work very hard to refrain from using profanity -- which is becoming harder and harder to do and escape from in the society in which we live. Are there instances when profanity is acceptable? -- D.B., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A: Here we are more in the area of personal opinion than of any strict rules.

First of all, it is necessary to recognize that the concept of profanity, at least regarding some words, depends on local usage. Certain words perceived as profanity in one context might be taken as simply emphatic in another.

Therefore a priest should be attentive to local sensibilities and avoid using language, even in quotes, which might upset a portion of his hearers. At the same time, if a visiting priest uses a word that raises eyebrows or drops a jaw, he should at least be granted the benefit of the doubt as being unaware of certain lexicographical subtleties.

This is more so when one moves from one country to another or even changes languages. More than once I have experienced hapless visiting clerics unintentionally provoking everything from shock to giggles because of the double entendre of expressions that were perfectly innocent in their native countries.

However, it is a different question for a preacher to deliberately insert a swearword within a homily. This is something that I believe should be avoided even to underline a point. Although I do not think that this problem is very common, indeed probably quite the opposite, I will attempt to outline the reasons involved.

First of all, during the sacrificial action a priest represents Christ in his preaching as well, and he should avoid terms or expressions that would be unworthy of the Lord. It is true that Our Lord at times uttered some colorful and forceful invectives in order to shake the complacency of those who opposed his message. But we do not find anything that resembles crude or inappropriate language.

Second, the purpose of the homily is to communicate Christ's message to the faithful. The priest therefore should strive to make the best communication of all and hence avoid anything that might constitute an obstacle to the faithful's acceptance and assimilation of the message into their lives.

Finally, the parish community is composed of faithful of all ages, and the priest should be an example for all. It would be a pity if parents who would not expose their children to parental guidance movies would find the same words at Mass.

In his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" Pope Francis does not address this specific topic. I believe, however, that the principles he enunciates regarding the homily show that it should be always a positive message and that it would exclude any conscious use of what might alienate some of the faithful in sacred preaching.

For example he says:

"135. The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor's closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God's word, a constant source of renewal and growth.

"137. […] The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion. The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren.

"139. We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself. What are the implications of this principle for preachers? It reminds us that the Church is a mother, and that she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved. Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them. The spirit of love which reigns in a family guides both mother and child in their conversations; therein they teach and learn, experience correction and grow in appreciation of what is good. Something similar happens in a homily. The same Spirit who inspired the Gospels and who acts in the Church also inspires the preacher to hear the faith of the God's people and to find the right way to preach at each Eucharist. Christian preaching thus finds in the heart of people and their culture a source of living water, which helps the preacher to know what must be said and how to say it. Just as all of us like to be spoken to in our mother tongue, so too in the faith we like to be spoken to in our 'mother culture,' our native language (cf. 2 Macc 7:21, 27), and our heart is better disposed to listen. This language is a kind of music which inspires encouragement, strength and enthusiasm.

"140. This setting, both maternal and ecclesial, in which the dialogue between the Lord and his people takes place, should be encouraged by the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures. Even if the homily at times may be somewhat tedious, if this maternal and ecclesial spirit is present, it will always bear fruit, just as the tedious counsels of a mother bear fruit, in due time, in the hearts of her children."

Later he offers some practical counsel to priests to aid them in preparing a homily, including dedicating the necessary time for prayer, reflection and study (No. 145), and reverence for truth in trying to understand the meaning of a text (Nos. 146-148).

Finally he reminds priests that "The preacher also needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need to hear. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people" (No. 154).

If we priests take to heart the Holy Father's message, it will surely improve the quality of our preaching and spread the joy of the Gospel.

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