Flannery O’Connor, probably the greatest Southern Catholic novelist of the 20th century, liked to tell a story about a relative who converted to Catholicism, which was a highly counter-cultural move to make in the “Baptist belt” of the American South in the 1950s.
Pressed to explain the choice, the relative allegedly said, “Well, the preaching was so bad I figured there must be something else to keep folks coming back.”
That’s a bit of a caricature, but it captures something real about how Catholics and Protestants have been seen, at least at the level of stereotypes, in the United States over the years: Catholics are great at liturgy, at art, at “smells and bells,” but when it comes to preaching, Protestants, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, usually run the table.
Those perceptions are, of course, over-generalized. Still, there’s at least a grain of truth captured in this stereotype, which is the idea that on the scale of priorities for Catholic clergy over the years, preaching sometimes just hasn’t rated that high.
All this comes to mind in light of an experience I had this week in Key West, Florida, while attending a couple of morning daily Masses at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea celebrated by Father Arthur Dennison. Several members of the Crux team were gathered in Key West for meetings.
Although Key West in reality is a culture all to itself, it is technically part of the American South too – indeed, literally as far south in the United States as the public can go, with only roughly 90 miles separating its southern tip from Cuba.
Thursday’s Gospel was drawn from Luke 7, in which Jesus speaks of John the Baptist, the key line from which is the following: “Among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.”
In all, the Gospel reading that morning ran to 171 words, featuring the typically crisp language for which the public utterances of Christ are justifiably renowned.
After the Gospel, Dennison paused to deliver his homily. There were the usual signs of people settling in, getting comfortable, perhaps trying to sneak in a quick check of messages or a peek at the bulletin, that usually precede an experience people expect will stretch on for a least a few minutes.
Here’s Dennison’s entire homily, word-for-word, which was immediately burned into my memory.
“To be entirely clear, Jesus said that among those born of women, John was the greatest. To be equally clear, we should listen to him and respond.”
Frankly, the brevity was so stunning my colleagues and I did a double-take, unable to process at first that Dennison was actually finished and was moving to the altar to begin the liturgy of the Eucharist.
The next day, the reading was from John 5 about how John the Baptist brought a lamp to light the way to Christ, a robust 85 words in total. Once again Dennison summarized the reading, and then added this: “John brought light, but there are those who still refuse to see.” Twelve words, start to finish.
After I heard him do it so succinctly again, I said: “He’s my new candidate for the greatest homilist I’ve ever heard!”
To some extent, I was being facetious – breakfast and a day in Key West awaited, and two 10-second homilies in a row were an unexpected bonus. Plus, this was daily Mass in front of a small congregation.
On the other hand, I wasn’t entirely kidding. If you look at Dennison’s utterances, the heart of the matter in each case was all there. As one of my colleagues put it, it was the “kerygma” itself, entirely unadorned.
As anyone who’s sat through a random sample of Catholic homilies recently could confirm, that’s often not the typical experience. Too often, it’s hard to detect the evangelical forest for the verbal trees.
On Friday, I went up to compliment Dennison on his economy of expression. He told me it’s deliberate, something he’s been doing at daily Mass for years, ever since he arrived in Key West.
“Anybody can talk for five minutes and maybe have a vague idea of their opening point,” he said. “To do it all in one sentence, you really have to think about it.”
He conceded that he isn’t quite so crisp on Sundays, a point we confirmed over the weekend. Yet even then, the discipline of carefully measuring every word throughout the week obviously had an effect, as Dennison on Sunday was able to weave Scriptural erudition, humor, and keen pastoral insight with no wasted time or prolix constructions.
Upon reflection, I realized what Dennison delivers is a reductio ad absurdum on the idea that there’s any necessary correlation between length and substance.Were it up to me, videos of him at daily Mass would be shown in homiletics courses around the world.
For the record, I’m aware it’s taken me 859 words to make that point – three times the length of the two Gospel readings and homilies we heard in Key West. On the other hand, I never claimed to be Luke, John or Father Arthur Dennison!