On Christmas day we went for Mass to a very famous, and very big, church in the major American city where our second child and his wife live. The Mass was lovely. A beautifully decorated church, a reverent celebration, lectors who made you hear the story afresh, a booming organ and a cantor with an astonishing voice.

The celebrant was, I think, a bishop. And his homily was . . . astonishingly pointless and trivial.

He Said Nothing Wrong

And long too. He said nothing wrong, but he said nothing particularly relevant either. He chuckled a lot. I don’t remember enough of it to give examples, because I didn’t think to start taking notes, but as a proclamation of the Gospel, it was just bad. If he were a homiletics student, I’d give him a F.

I could, and I don’t exaggerate, have preached his homily in two minutes, maybe three — he took about twenty — and done it far better. I tried to force myself to be receptive, but I couldn’t. It was just awful, and the effort to suss out whatever of value he had to say was too much on Christmas afternoon.

But I’d survive a bad homily, because I’m someone who believes all this stuff. And after the homily I’d meet Jesus in His Body and Blood. Other people, maybe not. The bishop had several hundred people in front of him, a good number undoubtedly at Mass once or twice a year, and he gave them not a single reason to come more often.

He undoubtedly meant well. He surely thought he was saying something valuable. But if he did, he lacks a necessary self-unawareness. Perhaps not his fault. We are all bad at seeing our limitations. Maybe he was overworked and tired and quickly tossed together what thoughts he had and then — I saw no sign he had a manuscript or notes — just kept talking. Again, perhaps not his fault, though he could have found three good quotes or shared a memory of Christmas or used some other workaround that would have fed the people before him.

The twenty minutes of triviality may not have been entirely his fault. But it is the fault of someone who lets men like that mount the pulpit at a Mass with perhaps hundreds of people who need — who need for their happiness in this world and the next — to hear the Good News of that baby in the manger clear and hard. He was not the only hopelessly inadequate preacher who entered the pulpit on Christmas.

No, He Doesn’t Have to Preach

Yes, he’s a bishop or else some other higher cleric. But no, that doesn’t mean he has to preach when he can’t, when he has so little sense of the amazing story he’s been given to proclaim.

I don’t mean he has to preach an evangelistic or an apologetic homily. I’m not expecting a deep reading of the day’s Scriptures. He just has to share the story and talk about what it means. He just has to tell the people in front of him what an amazing thing it was and is that Unto us a child is born, etc. He could simply talk about what the baby in the manger means to him. That would be compelling, assuming the baby does mean something to him.

The Church wastes a huge amount of her capital, her unique opportunities to speak to people who put themselves in the position of hearing what she has to say. Christmas Mass may be the biggest of these. Even the culture conspires to get people into church this one day a year. People go because it’s pretty, or fun, or special, or it makes their parents happy, or their husband or wife. They go because it’s the only part of their childhood religion they’ve kept. Some must go because they sense something is being said and done at Christmas Mass they need to see and do.

But instead of asking “How can we use these rare, precious chances to proclaim the Good News we have to proclaim?” the Church as an social institution says “Who’s on the rota?” or worse, “Who’s got the status to do the big Masses?” It’s business as usual in an institution that serves its own interests as an institution.

Which institutions do, of course. But we know that. It’s basic sociology. Knowing that, the Church should play against it. By, for example, finding priests — even if they’re young priests ordained a week ago — who can preach to preach at Christmas, and bring to people who come once a year the tidings of great joy.