Posted September 04, 2012 in Word Made Flesh:
Regardless of the Homily

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

September. School. Yuk! I hated going to school and I had to go for 25 years—from age 5 to 30. But I loved learning, and it was a blessing whenever I had a teacher who could connect the two.

After I was ordained, when I thought that I had at last finished going to school, I was immediately assigned to teach in one of our diocesan high schools! And I didn’t know the first thing about teaching.

So that September, feeling like a five-year-old going to school for the first time, I was on the lookout for teachers with a reputation for making learning come alive—hoping I might learn to do the same. One such was Sister Mary Eileen, who taught science.

In those days teachers did a little bit of everything, and one of Sister Mary Eileen’s other jobs was bookkeeping, a job she probably got because she had the gift for making every penny count.

Some of those "pennies" were being wasted by students who left lights burning in empty classrooms at the end of the day. So knowing she would never find out who had left them on, she devised a technique to help everyone learn the cost of electricity.

Whenever the lights were left on, Sister Eileen would go to that classroom. Then, in front of the whole class, she would take the class list, pull a long hatpin out of her sleeve, close her eyes, and take a stab at the list.

Whoever’s name the pin landed on had to go to the science lab on his or her lunch hour, mount a stationary bicycle, and pedal enough electricity into a battery to burn a light bulb for however many minutes Sister deemed necessary.

Sister Eileen of the Bike ‘n Bulb, as we called her, wasn’t punishing. She was a teacher, and she was teaching a lesson—a lesson learned not by the lifeless gathering of information from the Internet but by pedalling, by feeling in your body what energy costs.

Few of us go, or are meant to go, to school to seriously study Sacred Scripture. But every one of us is meant to learn something wonderful from the Scriptures every time we hear them or read them.

But I must say I think that sometimes it seems just about impossible for this to happen at an ordinary parish Sunday Mass.

People come into the church from all sorts of situations and are experiencing all sorts of distractions—and except in rare cases, with no preparation whatsoever for the readings. Yet in less than five minutes, we priests read a thousand words or more to them from all over the Bible.

But I am convinced that it is possible for everyone to learn something from Sacred Scripture at the Liturgy of the Word—regardless of their schooling or how the readings are read or the content and quality of the homily.

In fact, for many years now, I have been doing something with the Mass readings that is similar to pedalling a stationary bike to learn about the cost of electricity.

When I am not giving the homily—and most times I am not, because there are several priests at Madonna House—I do not read the Mass readings before Mass.

Then at Mass, during each reading, I listen for a "word" (not literally one word, often it’s a phrase or an image), a word that sings to my heart or mind.

As soon as I get my word, I simply ponder it. It’s like humming a line from a new tune while the record plays on. Sometimes the rest of the reading enhances that word, fills it out, and sometimes it doesn’t. But either way my heart is learning something from that "word."

Moreover, even if I don’t consciously remember what that word was afterwards, it is in my heart if I have been listening to it instead of just hearing a thousand words the way I did in school.

And every month, as I prepare to write this column—and I am free to choose the readings from any of the Masses of that particular month—I do the same thing. The professional commentaries and concordances are for later—after I have gotten a word.

What I do is pray through the readings for one of those Sundays. That means I give a reverent though quick glance at each one (including the Responsorial Psalm), just looking (listening) for a word, any word.

Sometimes I get one immediately. (Amen!) Sometimes I don’t get a word at all. And sometimes I get so many I don’t know what to do with them. (That’s when I appreciate the gift of having a good editor.)

The point is this: if we think of Scripture as something to listen to, rather than as something to study like we did in school, then we can receive something very special and unique every time we hear it read.

It is amazing how often that word suddenly begins to connect with other events in my life—sometimes consciously, sometimes not; sometimes right away, sometimes later on.

This month, as I prayed through the Scriptures beginning with the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (the readings for September 2nd), the word that came right off the page and bit me like a bug, was, "teaching based on listening."

The readings are filled with it: In the Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), for example, Jesus warns us that we have to listen and learn.

Well, at first, given all the other possibilities there must be in these readings, I didn’t find this a particularly exciting word. But I accepted it, closed the book, and listened for a while to just the word, "teach."

And, voila! It led me to think about September and school (Yuk!) and that led to my recalling certain teachers who had a special gift for teaching.

And all of that reminded me about how, only a few years ago, the Holy Spirit taught me that new way of taking in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass.

What a joy it has been to learn this! Article finished.

Oooooops, I almost forgot to turn out the lights!


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