Sounding Board

Forgiveness and Sunday sermons

9/11 remembered.  Yesterday, Americans celebrated the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down two New York towers and killed hundreds of civilians. One can find in YouTube quite a number of videos depicting the event from different angles. Reflections on the event can also be found in various media outlets. Meanwhile the US government has issued warnings that more terrorist attacks could be coming.

The reactions of those directly affected by the event have been very varied. Some still harbor anger and resentment against the faceless perpetrators of the crime and they often direct their resentment indiscriminately at Muslims in general.  Others have learned to forgive, even if they cannot forget, and they warn against generalizing judgment about Muslims.


There is a widely reviewed PBS video titled “Forgiveness: A time to Love and a Time to Hate.”  (http://www.pbs.org/programs/forgiveness/) It is an exploration of various stories ranging “from the Amish families for the 2006 shooting of their children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; the struggle of ’60s radicals to cope with the serious consequences of their violent acts of protest; the shattering of a family after the mother abandons them, only to return seeking forgiveness; the legacy and divisiveness of apartheid and the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa; the penitential journey of a modern-day Germany, confronting the horrific acts of the Holocaust; and the riveting stories of survivors of the unimaginably, brutal Rwandan genocide.”

A Jesuit writer who was about to review the video was warned by another Jesuit who said: “Don’t be like so many religious voices who urge reconciliation at the drop of a hat, often enough before they have even acknowledged any real and painful conflict!” A reviewer also wrote: “Once a uniquely religious word, forgiveness now is changing and there is no consensus about what it is and what it is becoming. However you define forgiveness, its power is real—and never more so when it struggles with the unforgivable. Inevitably, as Helen Whitney reveals (in the PBS video), its new role in the world raises serious and complex questions: why is forgiveness in the air today; what does that say about us and the times we live in; what are its power, its limitations and in some instances its dangers; has it been cheapened or deepened… or both?”


I have never experienced being a victim of an atrocious offense myself. Hence, I cannot really say from experience what it means to be willing to forgive and how capable I am of forgiving. In the gospel reading for yesterday, Peter asked Our Lord whether one must be willing to forgive seven times. We might say that Peter was already being overly generous. But Our Lord corrected him saying seventy times seven. Of course we know that Jesus would later say from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I can only pray that, if ever I should be confronted with a challenge similar to those recounted in the PBS video, I will have at least the “seven-time” generosity of Peter.

About Sunday sermons. In talking with friends I often hear complaints about the quality and length of Sunday sermons. I smile when I recall that when I was a kid, my father, who was a town physician, would walk out of the church after the gospel to visit his patients and still be back for the Credo! I did not complain then because at that time, when I reached a certain age, my mother did not object to my walking out to talk with friends during the sermon. I guess that was part of how I got my vocation to the priesthood!

Recently I came across an article which can keep doctors from walking out to visit their patients during the sermon. Let me share it with fellow priests. I quote:

“Eight minutes, tops. That is how long an average Sunday sermon should last, according to the Rev. Roy Shelly of the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans. On weekdays, sermons should be even shorter: three to five minutes. The goal is not to shorten the liturgy, as some restless pew sitters may wish, but to be succinct and stay on point. It is much more difficult to speak for eight minutes, Shelly says, than to preach for 20. In the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: ‘If you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I’ll need a week.’

“In workshops with preachers, Father Shelly employs a neat teaching tool. First he asks the preacher to summarize his message in one sentence. After the sermon is delivered, parishioners are asked to write down a one-sentence summary of what they heard. These are collected and reviewed later by the preacher.

“In addition to brevity, preachers should be persuaded to stay focused on the week’s readings. Avoid using the pulpit to speak about service trips or the March for Life. There are other times and places to address such subjects. Well-prepared, scripturally-grounded sermons are essential to a good liturgy. They could both satisfy a spiritual thirst and bring disaffected Catholics back to the pews.”


Good luck!

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TAGS: 9/11 10th anniversary, Roman Catholics, Sunday sermons, terrorist attacks
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