There’s this part of the Catholic Mass called the “homily.” It’s like the “sermon” of other denominations, albeit usually a lot shorter. For whatever reason, I tend to do my most creative thinking during homilies. That’s probably true of most people. According the Catholic Encyclopedia, the homily, in brief, intends to mix the specific practicum of everyday experience with the generic spiritual/philosophical treatise offered by the Gospel. It’s said to be the oldest form of preaching. These inspirational words must therefore prod one into reflexive thought; hence, my tendency to brew ideas as the priest speaks in the most general of terms.
Today was different. Not only was it Scout Sunday and I was dressed in uniform to accompany a small covey of Boy Scouts as they brought up the gifts, but today the priest didn’t communicate merely in generalities. Today he named specific names. Today, he pointed to me and proclaimed “Chris Carosa does not pray out loud during Mass. He prefers to remain silent.” My immediate reaction: Smile and make a motion with my forefingers closed to the thumb across my mouth as if to say I have zipped my lips. (Don’t worry, the priest wasn’t hollering at me, he used me as an example of how everyone prays differently.)
Ironically, today of all Sundays, I would have stood and spoken had the priest called upon me to say a few words about Scouts and Scouting this Scout Sunday. I had no expectation to speak going into Mass and I had no prepared remarks, but this is what I would have said:
Thank you Father for giving me the opportunity to extol the virtues of the Boy Scouts as we begin Scout Week. But first, allow me to interrupt my unprepared remarks with an impromptu story I never thought I’d ever reveal in public.
Many, many years ago, there was a Cub Scout, not much older than the boys here. Except, unlike those listening attentively right now, he liked to talk in Church. His parents, loyal Cub Scout leaders and, more importantly, dedicated parents, scolded him and reminded him to be quiet, to be respectful to those around him. They told him his job at Church was to not talk, but to keep his eyes on the priest and his ears carefully tuned in to what the priest said. Talking, they warned, was a sign of disrespect, not just to the people around him, but to the priest, too.
But this little boy wouldn’t stop talking. Upon returning home from Mass, his parents punished him. He had to atone for his public disrespect – a disrespect not only against his community and priest, but against his parents as well. And so he got down and kneeled, back straight, for one hour. But the young boy still didn’t listen. Week after week, the hour-long Mass was followed by the hour-long kneeling. Eventually, the boy learned to respect with earnest silence. Some would say he learned too well.
And so, on this Scout Sunday, a silence is broken to celebrate on this day a year of centuries. You see today marks the end of the year-long celebration of the first hundred years of Boy Scouts in America. It also marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. We perhaps best remember Reagan for his continual reference to John Winthrop’s shining “City upon a Hill,” itself likely an allusion to Matthew’s Gospel.
Think a minute about Winthrop’s Puritan metaphor for America. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sailing across a placid still sea. Arising from the horizon you see a small mountain reaching towards heaven. On that large hill, you see a gleaming city, shining under the aura of God. You’re not there, in this paradise, but you can see it. And, amidst the squalor of your creaky seventeenth caravel, its damp deck soggy with sea water, you extend your hand forward, trying as ever to simply touch what you see. But you can’t. It’s too far away. So, with greater determination, you sail closer to the city, fierce in your conviction that one day you will live there.
If Ronald Reagan praised an idealized America some say only existed in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, then the Boy Scouts represent the realization of that ideal. Every day, boys across America – indeed, across the world – vow “upon their honor” “to do their best” for their God and Country, “to obey” and “to help.” Some see Boy Scouts as only an excuse to camp, but, remember, their motto is “Do a Good Turn Daily.” You’ve seen their value to the community in the various Eagle Scout projects dotting our community – and even our own church. You see them marching dutifully in community parades, honoring veterans with flags and cleaning up out parks.
And yet, we must never forget, this is an ideal. It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because adults in our community trust in this ideal, believe in this ideal and want to encourage this ideal. I’m sure Ronald Reagan understood the difference between metaphor and reality. To him, the shining city represents an ideal to continually strive for – something to keep sailing towards.
But ideals serve another purpose. Like the slave in ancient Rome who rode behind the victorious general in the Grand Triumph whispering “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!”), the ideal reminds us we mere men, not God. We can only aspire for the ideal, we can never become the ideal. In short, we are not perfect. Sometimes we don’t talk enough. And sometimes we talk too much.
And, with that, I’d prefer to err on the side of the former.
Thank you and enjoy your Superbowl party.