November 9, 2012

Leave them laughing...and thinking

Priests who use humor in homilies say lessons in faith must be at heart of their message

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, shares a funny story at the start of his homily during the African Catholic Mass on Dec. 4, 2011, at St. Rita Church in Indianapolis. (File photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, shares a funny story at the start of his homily during the African Catholic Mass on Dec. 4, 2011, at St. Rita Church in Indianapolis. (File photo by Mary Ann Garber)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a fun story that includes electronic devices, touches of humor and an unexpected ending.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne shares the story as his favorite example of the way he has used humor in a homily.

“One time, I used humor with a little ‘show and tell,’ ” recalls Bishop Coyne, apostolic administrator of the archdiocese. “My point was to focus on the need to pray in the midst of our distracted lives. So on the pulpit, I had my cell phone, my iPad and my laptop. As I started to talk about the need to unplug and pray, my cell phone went off, and I answered it. I told everyone it was my dry cleaners.

“Then as I went back to my homily about unplugging and praying, my laptop spoke up, ‘You’ve got mail!’ Which I then answered in front of everyone. Told them it was my mother. Then back to the homily and suddenly I get tweeted on my iPad. Which I answered again. The community was shaking their heads and smiling and getting the point.

“So I thought I was done with my playfulness and was getting down to the main point about unplugging and praying when, without any prompting from me, someone’s phone went off in the community. We all started laughing. I told everyone, ‘It was not my doing,’ to which the person with the phone yelled out, ‘It’s for you, Father! It’s God!’

“Couldn’t have planned it better!”

That story shows the effective use of humor in a homily. The humor led people to laugh, but more importantly it helped them to focus on the point of the homily.

That combination is the key, according to Bishop Coyne and three other priests in the archdiocese who have a reputation for using humor effectively in their preaching.

“Humor in a homily is a means to an end,” Bishop Coyne notes. “It should always serve the Catholic message the preacher is trying to communicate with his audience. It should not be just a ‘throw in.’ Whenever someone comes up to me after Mass and says, ‘Bishop, that was a great story, it was a great laugh,’ if I have a chance I like to ask, ‘Thank you, but what was the point?’ If they can’t remember the point of the homily, then the use of the joke or story has failed.”

Father Glenn O’Connor understands that “walking-the-tightrope” connection between humor and homilies. He even has a humorous story about tightrope-walking that he has used in a homily.

“This guy walked on a tightrope, and he got really good at it,” begins Father O’Connor, pastor of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield. “He went farther and higher, and pretty soon he took the net away. Then he pushed a wheelbarrow across the tightrope. And next he put a person in the wheelbarrow and pushed it across the tightrope.

“A guy saw him and was so impressed that he offered him a half a million dollars to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope pushing the wheelbarrow. He did it successfully, and he came back to get his money. He asked the guy who was paying him, ‘Did you believe I could do it?’ The guy says, ‘Yeah, I believe. I just saw you do it.’ He asks again, ‘But did you really believe I could do it?’ The guy says, ‘Yeah.’ So he says, ‘Well good, then get in the wheelbarrow this time.’ ”

Father O’Connor waits for the laugh, lets the story sink in and finally makes his point, “It’s a story of faith. Get in the wheelbarrow and trust God.”

Known for his wit and storytelling skill, Father O’Connor still preaches caution about the use of humor in homilies.

“Everyone has a style, and humor comes into that,” he says. “There’s a place for humor, but not for telling a lot of jokes. If it fits, it’s fine. We can’t take ourselves too seriously all the time.”

He also shares the best advice he has heard on humor and homilies, advice he was given while he received priestly formation at the former Saint Meinrad College and at Saint Meinrad School of Theology from 1973 to 1980.

“It would be a shame to preach a homily on the word of God and the only thing they remember is the humor or the story,” Father O’Connor says. “If it overshadows the word of God, you’ve gone too far.”

Msgr. Joseph Schaedel shares the advice that Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein gave to priests about using humor in homilies.

“He always said a preacher should not attempt to use humor unless he’s the kind of person who jokes around anyway,” says Msgr. Schaedel, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “I think he’s probably right. I generally joke around about a lot of things.”

Msgr. Schaedel often uses humor at the beginning of his homilies as a way to get people’s attention.

“If I can get people to look at certain areas of their life and laugh about it instead of condemn it, I think that’s the better way to go,” he says.

“I recently used humor to make a point about people thinking the grass is always greener for someone else. I told how a single lady put an ad in the paper. It said, ‘Husband wanted.’ She got 300 replies, and they all said the same thing: ‘You can have mine.’

“We always want somebody else’s life. But the crosses in life that we all have, that God gives us, are the crosses he thinks we can bear. We don’t have to look for other crosses.”

Father Kevin Morris is also known for using humor to make a point about faith.

“I don’t mind telling a story about myself or my family,” says Father Morris, pastor of the Richmond Catholic Community parishes of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary, and chaplain of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond. “There are some things in life that are funny. People think, ‘Well, this happened to me, too.’ If you get them thinking about ‘us,’ then the community grows. Then the ownership of the community falls into place.”

He also sees another possible benefit of a humorous story that helps make a point about faith.

“Who knows, maybe they’ll tell that story to someone at work and it will connect with them, and they’ll come to church or back to church,” Father Morris says. “You plant a seed.”

In a recent homily, Father Morris talked about the joy and honor he gets from meeting with couples who are planning to get married.

“They take a test, and I go over the results of the test with them,” he says. “Almost always, they agree with the statement, ‘We’ll have no conflict as long as we love each other.’ I chuckle about that. I tell them, ‘You’ll be surprised about what you’ll go to war over.’

“I connected it to the Gospel where Jesus and the Apostles were on the way to Capernaum. Jesus asked them, ‘What were you arguing about?’ They were arguing about who is the greatest among them. The Apostles all went silent. It makes you think, especially when we’re arguing with the people we love the most and who love us the most.”

It’s all part of the serious business of connecting people to the word of God, the priests say. Leaving them laughing is fine, but only if it leaves them thinking more about their faith.

With that goal, Father O’Connor gets a twinkle in his eyes as he shares the story of perhaps the shortest homily ever given—a homily that used humor and made its point in just two words.

He heard about the clever homily when he was associate pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville from 1980 to 1982.

“The parishioners told me about this one homily that was given like back in the 1940s,” Father O’Connor says. “The temperature was 95 degrees that day, and there was no air conditioning in the church. The priest got up, read the Gospel, shut the book and said, ‘Hell’s worse.’ Then he sat down. No one ever forgot that.” †

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