Father John Kasper is the pastor of Saint Perpetua Church in Lafayette, California. He is a friend of mine and a most accomplished preacher and pastor.
This “Sunday to Sunday” interview highlights the importance of the “preached word” and how the Sunday homily supports and may even change the lives of parishioners.
On the Saint Perpetua website, you will notice the long list of Father John’s past homilies. Also, take note of how he gives a title to each in order to focus greater attention to the theme for the particular Sunday.
Here’s our first effort at “Sunday to Sunday,” for your insight and comment.
“Sunday to Sunday,” with Father Mike Russo, and his guest Father John Kasper, Pastor, Saint Perpetua Church, Lafayette, California
MR: I am Father Mike Russo, and welcome to Sunday to Sunday. This is a program that explores the art craft and spirituality of preaching. My guest here in Lafayette, California, is Father John Kasper, the pastor and accomplished homilist. We will join Father John and talk about how the preached word can actually change lives. Let us join Father John Kasper.
Father John Kasper, it is good to be with you.
JK: Nice to be with you, Mike
MR: So, what is the greatest challenge for the homilist?
JK: The fact that we don’t live in an oral culture anymore. It’s a world of twitters and tweets—multimedia. So, for a preacher, a public speaker, to try to catch people’s attention and give them something meaningful that they are willing to listen to—even if it’s a seven-minute homily—is one of the biggest challenges.
MR: Is seven minutes about the length you preach?
JK: Seven to ten minutes I have used as a guideline.
MR: To me, the longer you preach, the more you have to have a way of keeping attention.
JK: Exactly. If you are not prepared well, you know, with a beginning, a middle, and an end that makes sense and is a cohesive presentation, you could lose your audience today like that.
MR: I mean there is tremendous diversity in our congregations. You know, children to senior citizens. Does that come to mind when you are preparing a homily that you have to skew it to a particular group?
JK: Everything depends on the setting. If you are obviously a liturgy filled with young families and children, that’s going to be different than an early morning mass that has primarily seniors at it. But, I think that the word of God speaks to people on many different levels, as does the whole liturgy. Bottom line is, I preach to myself because I need it as much or more than anybody else. If I can find something that’s going to speak to me, then I am hoping that it has something to offer too.
MR: Well, you are an experienced liturgist and musician. How does it all kind of hold together? I mean the homily is one piece of a larger whole.
JK: It is. It is one piece, because you have an environment that should be able to proclaim the presence of God. Music, with it’s texts, which are poetic is another avenue. The vesture and the flowers that grace the space—all of those things work together to proclaim the liturgical season, be it Advent or Lent or Christmas or Easter. They have to work together as a whole. Plus, you have each of the ministries and ministers within that. So, the presider is the one that calls people together, but the ministry of the assembly which is primary, the lectors ministry of proclaiming the word, those who distribute the eucharist, the cantor that leads the music, you know all of that is a piece of the whole. The homily is important, but it’s one piece of that whole.
MR: What day in the week do you start thinking about the homily ahead?
JK: Sometimes as I am closing the church down on a Sunday mass I look at the readings that are coming up the next week and start to let that percolate. I think also having an overview of the season. We are fortunate in this area to have some wonderful scripture scholars. The Diocese has sponsored a presentation of the Gospel of Mark as that season, and that liturgical year was coming up. So, to have a whole view of the sweep of the scriptures for a particular season, or even of the gospel for the year, can help keep that uppermost in your mind.
MR: Pope Francis, in his first, you know, Joy of the Gospel, the exhortation, put a heavy emphasis on preaching. I think it’s a concern about evangelization that somehow or another, even though we claim to evangelization, we are maybe not that effective with it. What is your thought?
JK: You know, he has a genius way of taking human life, just ordinary human life and human people and their experience, and speaking to them and their life circumstances with the word of God, in a way that inspires and makes it real.
MR: He is an experienced pastor. It’s kind of remarkable in a way, as a Jesuit, that he would be the most experienced parish priest to have been in the papacy in a long, long time.
JK: It’s true.
MR: Yes. In your experience here as a pastor, and a leader in the community, how many years have you been at St. Perpetua?
JK: July will be twenty years.
MR: Twenty years? Wow. That’s remarkable. What have you learned, adjusted, change—what has happened over the last–?
JK: Over the years, for one thing, I have shortened it. The homily is four pages, double spaced. I know exactly the amount of time and it used to be much longer. Then, I recognized the attention span of people and how you can say more in fewer words. The economy of language and appreciating that and trying to use that as a guideline.
MR: So, it’s actually printed out and typed before you deliver it?
JK: It is. I preach from a text. It’s a text that I have mastered. But, for various reasons—I don’t trust my memory. Certainly, I appreciate language. I guess a background in English and literature—words are so important.
JK: Yes. The homily for me isn’t a time of chit chat. If I am going to present something meaningful to people, then I think it needs to be well thought out.
MR: We live in turbulent and sometimes difficult times, given the political environment. Do you ever find yourself being more guarded or more careful? Or, let it hang out? What is your take on that?
JK: You know, the homily has to address the real needs of people. If you have a major event going on in the country or in the community, maybe a tragedy that’s happened, people come in to worship with that on their hearts and minds. Somehow, that needs to be addressed. Again, it can be addressed in many different ways. The prayers of the faithful are a way to bring you know, particular concerns of a community to prayer before God, but the homily has to address what’s real in people’s lives.
MR: And people are hurt. More often than not, we will do memorials and funerals and really get to know the people in front of us that may not be our parishioners every Sunday, but in fact they are there for a very particular reason, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral mass—what have you. How do you get in touch with that person, those people, that community?
JK: Well, when you have a community and when you have been with a community for some substantial period of time, you get to know the people. So, if there are people that are coming to church as I am out front welcoming people coming in, I can recognize who isn’t a member of the community or who is visiting as a guest. You know, I can encounter them, and ask them where they are from, why they are visiting. You know, bring that into the liturgy itself as well.
MR: In one of the Vatican II documents, I remember this statement that the preached word can change lives. Have you ever experienced a homily that you have given that people, come back to you years later and say you have changed my life because of those words?
JK: Yes. They may not use those words directly, but I have had people that have actually quoted back to me something that I said in a homily or you know, just recently someone said how meaningful this was to them. Or, somebody will come after mass up to me and say you know; “Boy, I needed that.” Or, “You were talking to me.” That’s great. That is what it’s supposed to do. The word has to encounter people where they are at. But, at the same time, as you said, if it isn’t a message that is going to be meaningful for me, then I don’t think somebody would come up and say; “Hey, that touched my life.”
MR: So, tell me. Walk me through the process. You are thinking about it, really days before. Are there any websites, any books, any scripture study, that you have done that is meaningful and helpful actually getting to the actual moment of writing and then executing the homily on Sunday?
JK: I think you have to be like a sponge. Absorbing everything that’s going on around you. Early on, I was told that a good preacher has the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other hand. The homily is the intersection of the word of God speaking to real life, daily life of people. So, just being aware. I mean reading journals and the newspaper and being alert to the world around us is very important. The arts are important. Being aware of what are people reading today.
MR: Or films.
JK: Movies that they are watching and listening to. You know, a TV series that—so, I think especially when you are with a community for a long period of time, there has to be variety in the preaching. I mean personal experience is important to preach out of, but not every week. Not a personal story every week. The next week might be something about a film that you know that many people have seen. An event that’s going on in the world or in the community. There has to be a sense of variety and there are so many things to draw upon to connect the word of God to, and let it shine a light on people’s daily experience.
MR: You actually publish your homilies. They are available to the congregation on your parish website?
JK: Right. I do, because in the last few years people have asked. “Oh, can I have a copy of that?” Or, “Do you have that written down?” So, it’s a regular feature on our parish website. People have told me—I send that to my daughter. She doesn’t go to church, but I want her to hear what I had to say.
MR: Have there been particular moments in this community where you really had to rally yourself to preach on either a controversial subject or even one that actually involves the Lafayette community itself? Where as a leader in this community, your opinion can count in the lives of others?
JK: Yes. I recall when the government decided to invade Afghanistan. That was such a critical moment. All of the major world religious leaders beseeched the government not to take that action, including the Holy Father. That action was taken in spite of, you know, what the religious leaders of the world were encouraging. So, that was a time of great conflict and controversy in the church. I didn’t find it my role, as a preacher, to tell people how they should think about this, but to lay open the gospel. First of all, to acknowledge the struggles that people were having, including myself. Just to put that out there, so that people recognize we are not immune to those things.
MR: In an honest way.
JK: Yes. But, at the same time, bringing the gospel, again, to bear light on a very real situation.
MR: In terms of the practice of preaching, are there things that just don’t work for you? It may work for somebody else, but not—I will give you an example. Humor is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. When you think about it, the best you know, comic geniuses often come from Harvard and they do writing for Conan O’Brien or whoever. But, actually telling the joke, or making the humorous point, is a very difficult thing to do.
JK: It is. I know there are some preachers that start every homily you know, with a joke. That’s not a style that works with me. On the other hand, the humorous moment has worked very effectively, and—but that’s judiciously chosen and selected. That’s part of that variety that I was telling you about. So, there is an occasion, you know, where humor is good. Even finding the humor in the gospel, you know the woman that begs the judge for a hearing—you know, there is humor in that. Being able to point that out to people. On the other hand, some homilies are going to be catechetical or didactic or you know, each homily has it’s own purpose and function. When you are dealing with a community Sunday after Sunday, year after year, that you have to bring some sense of variety so that it’s not oh, it’s the same old stuff each week.
MR: So, tell us a little bit about yourself. You are originally from Detroit?
MR: Toledo, Ohio. Excuse me.
JK: Very close to Detroit.
MR: Very close. Your name is John Kasper OSFS. Could you explain what OSFS is?
JK: Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.
MR: And who was he?
JK: St. Francis de Sales was the missionary to the Chablis. He grew up in France in the 16th century, born in 1567, the area called Savoy. He was bishop of Geneva. He was the author of two of the great Christian classics; the Introduction to the Devout Life, and the two-part book the Treatise on the Love of God. Long before Vatican II talked about the spirituality of the laity, that everyone is called by God to Christian living. He wrote a book, the Introduction to the Devout Life that stated just that. Whether you were the cook in the scullery or the servant or whether you were the prince of the court of the bishop—there is an appropriate spirituality, a way to live out your Christian living.
MR: Where did you attend the seminary?
JK: Niagara University, Niagara Falls, New York, undergraduate. The Toronto School of Theology, St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
MR: Was there any particular priest, preacher that inspired you at that time when you were a younger priest?
JK: I have a list that reads like a litany of mentors that I have had from my earliest seminary days. As I look back on them in preparation for our dialogue today, I recognized each one of them brought a different gift to my understanding of the task of preaching and the ministry of preaching You know, one guy touched the humanity of people and he was able to use humor very, very effectively. Another that I worked with in campus ministry as a seminary and a deacon, he had just a well read knowledge and encyclopedic knowledge, and he challenged the intellect and really made you think. Another that was a supervisor when I was a student teacher in my order, creativity was his gift. Looking for unique ways to make the word come alive. So again, a litany of examples and models and mentors of you know, effective preaching.
MR: We are taping this just after Mother’s Day, and it always strikes me that one of the things we don’t have in the Catholic liturgy are women’s voices, which is unfortunate. I think women preaching would be very effective, given the circumstance. What’s your thought on that?
JK: I just discovered a website—well, it’s FutureChurch is the organization, and they have put on their website videos called Women Preach. It’s different women—lay women—religious women—each Sunday that take the scripture and model preaching for that. You are right, the voice of women—we have got to find ways to bring that in. Sometimes the most effective response I have received has been from women when I have addressed, to the best of my ability, and limited ability as a man, women’s concerns or lifted up for the congregation’s consideration the important contribution and gift that women bring to the church.
MR: You bring a lot to this church environment here, and you have done great work with what was I think a gym at one point, and has now been transmuted into a worship space. You have redone the multimedia here. You have the ability to show on screen the lyrics of the hymns and also do other kind of creative work with music. Developing that richness really means a team of people. You can’t do it yourself. Over twenty years you have been able to do that pretty effectively. Do you have any suggestions to rookie pastors to get that started?
JK: The church is a round table and everybody needs to be at that table. I think as a pastor you need to listen to the voices of the people. If we really believe Paul’s analogy of the body and the eye can’t say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” Then, we need to bring everybody and appreciate the gifts and talents that are already there. Collegiality is a crucial part. Pope Francis has emphasized synodality and listening to the voices, expanding the voices so that many voices can be heard in the church. So yes, that’s your starting point because people bring far greater gifts than I have and it’s the job of a pastor, I think, to kind of be a facilitator and find effective ways to bring that together.
MR: Now, over these many years I am assuming you have a large file of past homilies? Do you keep that stuff?
JK: Oh, I do. Thank goodness. You know, we have the gift of laptops and we can collect that data very easily. So, I do have the homilies that I have done and you are right, you can only repeat so many times, but you can take a theme that you have used and clothe it again in a different way, in a different setting, new time, a new period. So yes, I definitely rely on that
MR: Well, it’s writing and rewriting in so many different ways. You can, in effect, put an example in that may not have happened three years ago, but like this week, but it fits very perfectly within the context of the scripture and what have you.
JK: Exactly. I am not an original thinker or an original writer. I think that’s a rare gift to have. But, I use the term of being a hunter and a gatherer. So, as a priest, a minister, I have both the responsibility as well as the luxury to be able to search resources that parishioners wouldn’t have access to, or wouldn’t know about. So, I can hunt though things and then gather them together in a way that can share that wisdom about scripture, about theology, about catechetics and so on, and put that together in a cohesive way and share that with the community.
MR: You have a gifted community of listeners, people who would probably follow books you recommend and films you have seen and take part of the larger life of the community and of who they are.
JK: You know, incarnational preaching, I think that’s the basis of it. Finding God in daily living or in all the things that affect our lives. I always look to the example of Christ in the gospels. You know, Jesus never used theological language or jargon. He looked around and he saw a farmer sowing seed. That was the content of his preaching. He saw a woman who lost a coin and is searching for it. That’s his content. He saw people that were hungry on the hillside. So, he looked at the world around him, and he found the presence of God in those situations and for me, that ought to be the preacher’s task. To look at the world around and then where do we see the spirit of God at work there, and lift that up for people’s consideration.
MR: I want to thank Father John Kasper here at St. Perpetua’s in Lafayette. I want to thank him for his important words, but also his years of ministry. I am Father Mike Russo for Sunday to Sunday and the Francis Factor.
Cutfocus Production Team:
Producer/Director: Carlos Torres
Videographer/ Editor: Jake Slonecker
Photographer & Creative Design: J. Cole Baird
Transcription: Laura Hatcher
Content Supervisor: Ginny Prior
Executive Producer: Ed Tywoniak
A Production of Francisfactor.com