Pope Francis has a knack for metaphorical speech. So far his best may be noting that shepherds should get so close to the ewes and rams that they "smell like the sheep." One archbishop told me he was trying to work that into advice for new priests in his homily at their ordinations but hadn't figured out how. Maybe he worried that the pungent image wouldn't fit at an illustrious ritual or might draw laughs, but it certainly was worth consideration.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York at World Youth Day used metaphor as he spoke about how God moves people. He told the crowd, "We want a microwave, but God works like a crock pot." That message sticks with you, like dog hair on a couch in the den.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley used metaphor and simile. In a Q&A session at World Youth Day he quipped that witnessing to your faith in a secular society isn't easy. "Being Catholic in Boston is a contact sport," he said. That's not only memorable; its incongruity makes it funny. On the Eucharist, he said, not going to Mass is like being a branch cut off from the vine. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see what that branch eventually becomes.
Scripture relies on such literary devices: God's love is like a mother's love from Isaiah 49:15, and our relationship with Jesus is like the branches to the vine, John 15. One image gives us comfort; the other says gently hold on.
Word pictures that make for memorable homilies do not come easy. Reflection on God present in today's world might help us develop some modern ones.
When I am in pain can I ask God to be like the computer escape key: take it all away?
Should I consider God to be like the Wi-Fi that I search for: unseen but there?
Is God like my mobile device, always with me?
Is a favorite prayer is like a favorite cookie, a source of comfort.
One goal of the U.S. bishops this year is to improve homilies at Mass. Homilies and music are integral to helping people experience God's presence. A priest once told me that if I want to introduce someone to the Catholic Church I should look for a parish with good preaching, good music and well-read Scripture, in that order. Reaching people through their senses comes first. There is much to be said for ambiance, why Catholicism uses smells and bells to lift us to God.
Some years ago a young priest asked me to critique his weekend homilies. With opinions about much, I agreed quickly. I couldn't do it however. I didn't know what to say because I couldn't figure out how I'd do better. I gained a new appreciation of the preacher's challenge. Since then I've heard some really good homilies and recognize that solid metaphors enhance them. But I'd sure hate to be a homilist coming up with one every day or even every week. It would be like finding a literary image in a haystack of words or an oasis in a desert mind. It might have to come from the sounds of silence.