Father Donal Godfrey of the University of San Francisco is a gifted preacher and campus minister, and someone whose preaching has inspired me. Almost twenty years ago, I met Donal when he provided assistance for the Sunday Masses at Saint Monica’s in Moraga.
As a practice, we customarily rotated the preaching, so the priests had the opportunity to hear one another. It was very effective for the congregation and helped me to gain greater exposure to my priest colleagues, and hear their personal witness to the gospel. Donal and I credit how Father Declan Dean’s ministry at Saint Monica’s and most especially his preaching remain a model for both of us.
I interviewed Donal Godfrey at the Jesuit Residence, the University of San Francisco on May 23, 2017; and he preached on the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) at Saint Agnes, San Francisco on September 10th.
MR: I am Father Mike Russo, and welcome to Sunday to Sunday. This is a program about the art, craft, and spirituality of preaching. Today, I am at the University of San Francisco, where I will meet Father Donal Godfrey. Join us now, as we speak with him. Jesuit Father Donal Godfrey, good to be with you.
DG: Good to be with you, Mike.
MR: Was there a collective high five when the pope was elected a few years ago?
DG: Initially, I think a lot of Jesuits were very nervous, but I can tell you people have come around, and I certainly love Francis.
MR: Where were you at the time?
DG: I was in El Salvador with a group of students from the University of San Francisco, where I work, and we were in a hotel listening to it all on TV, and the students were all saying to me, “Oh, you must be so excited as a Jesuit.” I wasn’t so sure if I was excited. I was a little nervous about having a Jesuit as the pope, to be honest.
MR: But, you are excited now?
DG: Now I am excited, yes.
MR: And he has certainly spoken a lot about preaching, and his concerns for preaching.
DG: Yes, and he has shown a good example by the way he preaches daily in Santa Marta. It’s short, to the point, he has a story, he is good at engaging people, and not going on too long. His message in Joy of the Gospel is a very beautiful introduction to preaching, I would say, to anybody really.
MR: Absolutely. So, what is your concern for preaching today? I mean he has concerns, but what do you think is the major obstacle for good preaching?
DG: I don’t think—generally speaking—I don’t think Catholics take it seriously enough. I think we could do a much better job of preaching. A good friend of mine is a great preacher, Alan Jones. He was the dean of Grace Cathedral. Wonderful preacher. Preaching there is taken very seriously. I mean he is expected to give a twenty-minute sermon on Sunday, but he would set aside several days of the week to prepare for that. I don’t have that luxury when I preach, but we could do better in terms of taking the time to pray it through, do our scripture analysis, and also to consider the community that we are preaching to.
MR: What day of the week do you suddenly realize, oh I have got to preach on Sunday?
DG: If it’s a weekend, I will start on Monday. I will begin on Monday by going over the readings, letting them speak to me, maybe—it depends on my week and how crazy busy it is or not. But, I certainly start on the Monday by reading them and maybe praying with them on a Monday and then doing some study later—middle of the week. Usually—but every day. It’s sort of it will stay with me for the whole week, even when I am in the gym maybe, or somewhere else. Something will come to me. It’s not just something that I sit down and do on the day. You know, allow it two hours or something to it. It’s actually something that percolates through the whole week for me.
MR: Here at the University of San Francisco, you have among the most diverse communities anywhere in the country, right?
DG: Yes. We do. We are the second most diverse Catholic college I think—or maybe college.
MR: So, there are events, whereas university chaplain, you speak to the entire assembly at a graduation–?
DG: Sometimes. I don’t get that opportunity all the time, but I do sometimes.
MR: So, how do you plan for that? I mean how do you know? There may be many people in the group that are not Catholic.
DG: If that’s the context, then I have to be more sensitive to that. Usually, it’s not so much a sermon, but it will be an invocation or something like that, that will be in a context that’s very—but even the mass of the Holy Spirit, I had preached at that, and I know that plenty of people there will not be Catholic. So, I have to be sensitive to that, but I can still speak about Jesus and the gospel, but I must do it in a way that doesn’t presume that everybody in there is Christian or Catholic. I have to tell the story in a way that accepts, in a way, that allows people who are not Catholic to be part of the celebration.
MR: And you are inviting them in?
DG: Yes, inviting them in and not telling them that they have to become Christian or something like that. So, it’s being sensitive to who is in—who you know will be in the church.
MR: Do you write your sermons out?
DG: I do write them out, unless it’s a short reflection on a weekday. I do tend to—that’s my style. Some people don’t, but that’s how it works for me.
MR: Are they all filed away?
DG: I type them out later, if people—well, quite often somebody will ask for a copy and that’s my incentive to type it up.
MR: Do you post them?
DG: Only occasionally, from time to time. Somebody will say could you post that. So, some of mine have been posted, but I don’t have a blog or anything like that.
MR: Do you have guides or resources you go to online?
DG: Yes, I do. I do use some online resources. Text Week is one of them beucase they have a variety of Catholic and Protestant sources, so they are not just from a Catholic background. I will look up the acts of Jesus there, different kinds. Especially if the text is something that you need to—the context is not clear you have to understand the context of the scripture, because of course, it’s very easy to misappropriate something for our time, unless you understand the context in which it was written.
MR: A little more difficult homilies or sermons you have given over the years, ones where you have gotten some feedback, could you explain?
DG: Well, sometimes it’s hard when something major happens in the world. It’s a hard—I mean it’s 9/11. I had to preach the very weekend. It was a difficult time to preach. Or, the election of Trump was a difficult weekend to preach. You have to know your community very well, and you have to—you can’t ignore when something that major happens, you just can’t ignore it. You also have to know yourself and your community to be able to speak into it, because it’s easy to misjudge the occasion also. So, I do think different communities—I would speak differently in different communities. It doesn’t mean that I won’t say something that I don’t really believe, but I have to present it in a way that this community will hear. So, I can get away with something—not get away with—but, I can say something at St. Agnes Parish where I help out in San Francisco, that if I am out in—if it was in the suburbs in Moraga, I would have to be different. I wouldn’t say it’s—I am saying something contradicting it, but just presented in a different way.
MR: Because I think one of the experiences for many people going to church is they want to come out better, happier, ready to meet that week. I mean the last thing a preacher should do, I think the worst thing he could do perhaps, is make that one hour miserable because they are overreactive elements that people often can be prone to, today.
DG: In terms of it—just give me an example.
MR: Well, the challenge of a challenging homily, I mean the point is not to change people, but to have people rethink what–.
DG: Yes, that’s a delicate thing. You can’t tell people—I don’t think it’s—it’s not about—it’s not dogmatic. It’s not to be moralistic. It’s not to boast just the acts of Jesus. You need to help people find hope, even in difficult circumstances. But, also challenge them, but you have to love people to challenge them. You have to know them to challenge them. When I help them most on the redeeming end, was maybe the Catholic LGBT community, largely there, you have to be—because they are people who feel very vulnerable, you have to love them and know them very well to be able to challenge them in an appropriate way. The message that they have heard again and again is of condemnation. So, until you are from within the community, it’s only then that you can actually issue a challenge from the gospel, because the gospel challenges us all, whoever we are, including the LGBT community. But, they have been so wounded by the church, hitting you all the time, you can’t hear the challenge because the challenge doesn’t come through because there has just been condemnation. So, when you know that you are loved and accepted, then, of course, it’s possible. I was able to challenge the community because it was from within the community, and from my love of the community, not from above or outside.
MR: Of course, Pope Francis has given us this wonderful metaphor, being the shepherd must have the smell of his sheep.
DG: Yes, that sends a very strong metaphor, and I love it. I know what a shepherd smells like because one used to visit my grandparents in Ireland. It’s actually not a horrible smell, but I would remember that I would know that he was in my grandmother’s kitchen, because he did smell of the sheep. It wasn’t lack of hygiene, it was just that he was so closely associated with his sheep, that he actually did smell of them, but it wasn’t a nasty smell. So, I am sure St. Francis knows what it is. I mean that’s a very close association and it’s only then that people would hear you, really, because otherwise, it’s just something—I don’t know—a lecture or you know.
MR: You were born in Liverpool—you and the Fabulous Four, the Beatles—and tell us a little bit about your education. As a Jesuit, at least in theory, has a lot of education behind him?
DG: Well, yes probably. A fair bit to myself—how much can–?
MR: Well, don’t start at grade school, but how did you get here in the states?
DG: Ah, well I came here as a member of the Irish Province of the Jesuits, so I came here for studies. So first, at Toronto, to the Jesuit school there. The University of Toronto. Then I came to Berkeley and did an S.T.L. later, a doctorate in ministry there.
MR: At this?
DG: Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
MR: Once you—well, many people come here and once they discover California, they have real difficulties going back.
DG: Some people do, and I mean it was a discernment that happened over a long period of time for me, including being called back for a while to Belfast. So, this discernment that this was where I was supposed to be, was not an easy or short one.
MR: Here at the University of San Francisco, what do you think is your greatest challenge as a campus minister?
DG: Oh gosh, here its very—we have actually a very—though we are a Catholic Jesuit University, we are really perhaps 35% of the university is Catholic and then in name, so its—my challenge is to meet people where they are, across the range from atheist, to Buddhist, to Hindu, to Muslim, to Christian, to Catholic.
MR: And there is only one you.
DG: Yes, but actually I like that challenge because—and its not my mission to make them Catholics here. The parish is different. But here, the mission of a Jesuit university is not to convert people, but I do help them understand the Jesuit mission and Ignatian spirituality. So, they can appropriate our mission in a way that makes sense for them. Is life giving for them. So, I feel a success—a dear friend of mine was the dean of the law school, Jeff Brandon. He used to say, he used to say, “I am Jeff Brandon, SJ. Still Jewish.” But then he would say how being in a Jesuit institution, helped him become a better Jew, he went back to the temple, he took his faith seriously. I thought that’s what I am here for. Not to make him a Catholic, but to help him be a Jew.
MR: In fact, I think somewhere the Vatican II documents, there is a statement that the preached word can change lives.
MR: Have you seen that?
DG: I have seen that, yes.
MR: You have seen that in your own work?
DG: Yes, in fact somebody I didn’t know, but a parishioner at the Most Holy Redeemer emailed me a couple of weeks ago and one of them said, “Oh, remember—your sermon brought me back to the church.” I just happened to be visiting with a friend, and I think the theme was all are welcome at the table. I can’t remember what the gospel was. He said, “Whatever you said, that’s the moment, listening to you, that I decided I had to be a Catholic.” He has been a Catholic ever since. He felt very alienated from institutional religion as a gay man.
MR: How have you as a person been touched by this whole experience? Where do you get your greatest solace?
DG: The experience of?
MR: Of being a minister in this community.
DG: Well, preaching is part of that. Actually, I love preaching. I am not sure I actually want to be in a regular parish where you preach every week. I think that’s a lot.
DG: Because I find that it’s a lot of work to preach well, and it doesn’t just happen. You don’t just get up on Sunday morning and preach well. I actually have to put energy into it. I love that, it becomes part of my prayer for that week, it becomes part of my week. My conversation with myself, with God, and with this community where I am preaching—there is this sort of three conversations. Of course, I do encounter God in myself, and in the community, but I sort of see it as three conversations going on through the week in preparing for the sermon.
[PAUSE IN AUDIO]
MR: The homily is the one place where scripture is most relevant and the task of the preacher is to break open the gospels so that we can really listen to God’s word in our own lives. Today, we are with Father Donal Godfrey as he is preaching and presiding here at St. Agnes Church in San Francisco. Let’s listen now to Father Donal as he helps us to reexamine our lives in the light of the gospel.
DG: A reading from the Holy Gospel According to Matthew. Jesus spoke to the apostles. If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If he or she listens to you, you have regained your brother or sister. But, if the person does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church and if that person refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I tell you whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in Heaven. For, where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. The Gospel of the Lord.
[Praise be to the Lord.]
I admit that when I read this gospel earlier in the week, I didn’t like it. Jesus here seems to give us a license to excommunicate and exclude people from church and don’t we say at St. Agnes that we welcome everyone here?
All too often I see a church that sometimes seems more like a purity cult than the Christian faith. Yesterday Pope Francis in Columbia quoted in the Chronicle this morning said; “The church is not a customs post. It wants its doors to be open. Look beyond rigid rules and norms of church doctrine to go out and minister. Some Catholics rigidity,” he said, “belies the gospel and dated call to help others who aren’t so perfect and need consolation.”
Although I never shared this in a homily, I felt the disdain of being shunned on occasions by so-called Catholic blogs, such as church militants, for having the audacity for asking that the voice of LGBTQ Catholics would be heard with respect in the church, through my book, on Most Holy Redeemer Parish, in the Castro. Those who identify with the LGBTQ community and the Catholic church, know what it is like to be at the receiving end of an excommunication and hate.
Passages such as this in the gospel have on occasion, been used to justify such attacks. Unlike this gospel, however, groups such as church militant, never engage in a civil or any kind of conversation with those they are writing about. Here at least, in the gospel, we have due process required and canon law at its best is a liberating force, I believe. Due process and civil polity, it seems to me, is breaking down in our society right now.
I have been struggling recently, as I told a group of colleagues at the University of San Francisco where I work during the week. Perhaps it’s because I am grieving the loss of my dear mother who died earlier in the year. That colors everything for me. But, it’s also watching the breakdown of civil discourse in our country and watching the empowerment of hate and violence. This week I had lunch with a dreamer at the University of San Francisco where I work. That very morning, we heard that DACA is to be phased out. This decision is personal for me. These are our people. Whether its DACA and immigration issues or kind words were spoken about white supremacists in Charlottesville, while sheriffs are being pardoned or bombast about North Korea, or denial of the Paris Accord, science, and climate change, in a time of ever-increasing heat waves, fires, Harvey’s and Irma’s. I have to stop now, or my whole sermon will become a rant.
But it has left me feeling worn and exhausted and down. Perhaps this is the intention. Even God seems distant to me right now. God seems like the sun on a day of San Francisco fog. You know it’s there, but you just don’t feel or see it. Deeper reflection on this gospel, I think what we are—and I looked up a few scholars—I think what we are observing here is Matthew’s church struggling because it had no procedures for dealing with seriously errant believers.
The words of Jesus here must be placed in the context of the entire gospel, which is I think what Pope Francis is saying. Jesus in the movement he founded, the Jewish movement he founded, broke down barriers. Learned to love and accept Gentiles and tax collectors has his friends. It’s ironic, because of Matthew himself, of course, was one of the worst sinners as a tax collector. We always must root the Christ of our faith in the historical Jesus. While its true that the institutional church has sometimes excommunicated the wrong people—not only the LGBTQ community, but St. Joan of Arc, St. Mary MacKillop, modernists Galileo and so on—it’s also true that we must always have a way to tell some that their continuing behavior means that they are excluding themselves from the community we call church. This isn’t a statement about their salvation, but a statement about their basic and our basic values as followers of Jesus.
As an extreme example, think of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Blasphemously using Christian symbols to support their hate and racism. Everything Jesus was against. Is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to come out as a practicing Christian in San Francisco?
Father Antonius Spadaro is a close associate of Pope Francis and loves St. Agnes. He is a regular visitor here. He in a recent article approved by the Vatican in Civilta Cattolica, he addresses this issue. It must have touched a nerve because you may have seen three articles published in our local Catholic paper criticizing it. However, I believe his central point is valid. Much of the opposition of Pope Francis in the United States comes, as he says it, from an alliance between a certain form of Catholic fundamentalism and a certain form of evangelical fundamentalism.
I quote. However, the most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobia and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations. The word ecumenism turns into a paradox, into an ecumenism of hate. Church militant, the website, and Stephen Bannon, are singled out in his article.
Later today on 60 Minutes, when Mr. Bannon will say that the Catholic church in the United States needs—his words—illegal aliens to fill the churches, I say to Mr. Bannon, who is a Catholic, welcoming the stranger is an essential part of the doctrine of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In these times, excruciating times, I am encouraged by seeing good will everywhere.
In this community here, the vigil during the week that Mattley wrote to us yesterday about on our steps, our welcoming immigrants. Countless other things that are going on in the local situation of people coming together to help one another, support one another. I can’t say that the fog has lifted from me, but I will say it is as if the fog has lifted enough that I can see the sun on the horizon.
I think we need to be able to realize and go forward and find encouragement from one another by supporting each other in love and resistance. Standing up whether we are on the left or the right for the values of the gospel in each of our lives, but not just alone. Together. Then perhaps, we can proclaim with St. Paul—love does no evil to the neighbor. Hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.