The sanctuary was radiant that Easter morning. Quilted banners behind the altar displayed a giant sun rising on cobalt waters and sumptuous green fields, with tulips of many colours rioting over the landscape. And overhead, stained-glass panels surrounded the church with bright scenes depicting the biblical themes of creation, exodus, wilderness, and gospel.
One wouldn’t have expected the priest, then, to drone on like the Reverend Lovejoy in a Simpsons cartoon, Allaay-lu-yia, Alaay-lu-yia (which means “a shout of praise”), Let us praay-ay. But this is what we heard; and after reading the story of the women coming to the empty tomb, this pastor gave an oration redeemable, if at all, only by its brevity. I would have called it short and to the point, only it didn’t seem to have a point. It went something like this: If you were more familiar with this story, you’d see that it contains much emotion — fear, anxiety, excitement. But Christ is risen. So don’t sit on these gospel words, take them out into the world. Happy Easter to all. Even this took the priest 10 minutes to say, and the “logic” of it still eludes me.
I don’t mean to be a grinch who steals Easter, but another year the festivity was stolen from me again in a different church. Here is a precis of the priest’s homily: Often people think, if only I had been alive at the time of Jesus, I’d have been such a good believer. And I wouldn’t have had this priest yelling in my ear all the time. But we must focus on the big realities. Christ is present in the church’s sacraments, so I want you to do these things as a gift for me: attend mass every week (repeated three times). Go to confession — I worry about the church giving the host to unprepared people. Be pro-life in the Catholic way, not like those fence-sitters. I want 30 boys from this parish entering seminary next fall — you’ve heard of the shortage of priests, right? Celibacy isn’t always fun, but when I look at some of the kids in this parish, I’m glad they belong to you, not to me. Pray every day, say thanks to Jesus, think about the Middle East, and how lucky we are to have peace here where we can be so comfortable. And give me enough money to build a new church and a rectory with a swimming pool. We have an overflow crowd in the gym today — what did Christ ever do without a microphone?
Lots of laughs at his antics from the crowd, but from the priest himself not one word about resurrection, or hope, or faith.
Later a few friends went for brunch, and one of them asked me, “I’ve been waiting to hear what you think of our priest. You haven’t said anything.”
“Well, he was amusing,” I began, hoping not to offend. My wife, sensing the hesitation, took off with a reference to something he’d mentioned, so bailing me out, and the conversation led safely back to familiar church routines.
It happened that I attended another Easter service with the same priest and if anything heard an even greater trivializing of the sacred day. The “substance” of this homily again seemed to be: act like good Catholics, and laugh at my jokes. He told of a child who, when asked the meaning of Easter, explained, “When Jesus comes out of his grave and sees his shadow, there’s only six weeks of winter left.”
From this the priest concluded: So kids understand at least something about Easter, and you should set a good example for them. Attend mass every week even if the priest is 95 years old and you can’t hear him, or if he’s a big-mouth like me (and gesturing toward the cross behind him), it’s GOD who’s doing the sacrifice of the mass. You should be here because we’re Catholics, not Baptists. You’ll find the schedule for mass and confession in the yellow pages. And don’t give me excuses about your kids being too naughty — I know how naughty they are, I have nieces and nephews myself . . .
After communion this priest spent nearly as much time wiping the chalice as he’d taken with his homily, and I wondered what the scorned Baptists might think. A pastor who treats his flock like actual sheep, and the faithful so sheepish on this high hallelujah day — it must be another of the church’s great mysteries.
For me, a non-Catholic, words often are the sacraments, but on these Easter days it was images and colours that ransomed the celebration.
I know it’s hard to have faith. But clowning and preachifying will not help to make the old story mean something new. Thankfully I’ve known priests whose homilies were so artful and inviting that I’d have thought their oratorical skills native to them, while privately they admitted that one of the greatest challenges of priestcraft is to say something worthwhile to the gathered souls.
It’s the priest’s word, after all, that’s said to turn a wafer into a sacrament.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors' writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.