Would you believe that a priest actually preached about the dangers of contraception to a group of nursing home residents? Not long ago a member of my Jesuit community recalled that back in the 1960s, he and his pals initiated an informal survey designed to answer the following question: What was the worst homily or sermon ever preached? When he announced this wholly diversionary contest to various friends, responses poured in, as he said, "from around the globe." There were fruits from a variety of sources: priests, women religious, theology students, lay preachers and the like. My first reaction was that this would be a nearly impossible category to judge. Wouldn't one need to recall accurately a homily from years before? Would the Worst Homily (or sermon, I use the term interchangeably) have to be poorly conceived, poorly delivered, and poorly understood, or would just one of these requirements suffice? As I listened to my friend's memories of this contest, however, it quickly became clear that notion of the Worst Homily hinged instead on a particular insight or phrase that so impressed itself on the listener's ear as to be irremovable or at least unforgettable. This made the contest eminently easier to judge. "So what was the winner?" I asked. The Worst Homily, he declared, was one in which the homilist turned his attention to the question of salvation. (And, believe it or not, the following stories are neither fictional nor intended to be irreverent. All were actual homilies.) "The death of Jesus was pre-ordained by God for our salvation," explained the homilist, "and the person who understood this better than anyone was Mary. In fact," he continued, "Mary was so intent on our salvation that, if the centurions hadn't nailed Jesus to the cross, Mary herself would have done so." "You're kidding," I said. "Ha!" said another Jesuit. "That's nothing." He then related the tale of a priest concelebrating a Mass, who heard the presider note in his homily that Mary was so powerful that she could "rescue anyone whom God had condemned to hell." After Mass, the presider asked the priest how he had enjoyed the homily. In response, he gently expressed surprise at the presider's comments about Mary. "Oh, of course, that was incorrect," said the homilist. "What I meant to say was that Mary can rescue from hell anyone who was unjustly condemned by God," leaving the concelebrant now even more perplexed about the existence of an unjust God. Another friend recounted a story of a Christmas Eve homily he had heard years before, on the very Christmas-y topic of contraception. "Reflect for a moment," thundered the preacher, "what would have happened if Mary had used birth control!"
As the women laughed over this memory, one eighty-year-old sister said, "Maybe he knew something we didn't!"