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Homilies that connect and inspire

By: 'Peter Maher' - 5th of April 2018

Review in The Swag:

One of the greatest compliments I have received in my priestly ministry was a mother who commented sometime after I left their parish, that when they attended a Mass I was celebrating, that Sunday never passed without someone in the family, including the teenage children, commenting on something I said. She noted that they didn’t always agree with me, but they did talk about the issues raised. She then commented that after I left that parish the homily was never discussed.

I think the homilies in this book would have the same effect. Richards is a great storyteller and I think this is the greatest compliment on these homilies. Richards understands that to preach the gospel it must be enculturated into the context in which it is being preached. As Pope Francis says, if the word remains on the page it becomes ineffectual and lifeless, it must find a home in the reality of people’s lives. This book is filled with creative ways of making the word of God alive and active in contemporary Australian society. The stories are creative, relevant, thoughtful, prayerful and spiritually rich. This is a book to savour and enjoy over the three year cycle of the Sunday lectionary.

The homilies are more than clever. They are filled with good biblical, spiritual and secular scholarship. Richard’s background in literature and the dramatic arts shines through with relevant application to deeply human questions. The biblical stories bristle with meaning as Richards crafts a union between our spiritual tradition, the arts and life. His use of personal stories in lesser hands might seem a little self-referential, but here it always alerts the reader to the matter at hand with the insight of personal and interesting anecdotes.

The treatment of the text, ‘you are my friends if you do what I command you’ is as fresh as can be. What does commanding have to do with friendship? Richards explores his own story of priestly crisis four years after ordination. A story emerges of a priest in genuine crisis but on a search for meaning. Yes there are demands and commitment, but in friendship these are not to be burdensome but negotiated. His search results in deciding that the real meaning of friendship with Jesus is not to be a doormat but to choose how to respond to the situation according to one’s means. This is living the commandment of love.

Other examples of this master preacher are the poetic reflection on the road to Emmaus and the process of recognition, and his almost psychological working of conscience illustrated with references to Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and a quote from CS Lewis: ‘I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy’.

It is the firm belief that the gospel finds its meaning when in dialogue with other voices from the world of literature, drama and our lives, that so brightens every page of this book.   

As with my friend commenting on my homilies, I found that I did not always agree with the author. When Jesus offers the disciples his body and blood, Richards minimises the importance of myth and ritual, without adding anything but it is a mystery we’ll never understand. I think a greater nuance about the role of ritual, language and its connection to Catholic Eucharist would serve the thinking congregation better. Although the references to family life are regularly insightful and welcome, I wonder how the reference to sons needing their fathers in his homily for the Feast of the Holy Family would be received by single parent families or gay couples raising children. These were among a few minor things that irked me but as my friend says even when we didn’t agree, we still talked about it.          

How often we hear people complain about the quality of the homily. For priests, reading this book can only inspire us to better things. For all who follow the lectionary, it will nourish, excite and inform you with its intelligent delightfully human exposition of our sacred texts, even if you don’t agree with every statement. Richards is a master educator in the best sense. He should also teach homiletics. I think this book should be required reading for all students for the Australian priesthood. 

The Rosewood Table, Sunday Reflections for Everyday Living, Patrick Richards, 2017, St Paul Publications, 266pp. Reviewed by Peter Maher.



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