Father Michael Monshau is the only priest in the world with a doctorate in homiletics — the study of preaching. The 71-year-old Dominican priest teaches at The St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul and serves as prior of St. Albert the Great Priory in Minneapolis. As he celebrates Christmas, he’s honoring old traditions while offering new insights at the pulpit. “We remember the birth of that baby in order to prepare ourselves and our world for his second coming,” Father Monshau said. “Christmas is hard, hard work for Christians.”
Q) What first drew you to priesthood?
A) I was drawn to Church life, consecrated life. I didn’t define it. When I was in first grade, it was winter and the end of the school day, and Sister had spent quite a bit of time getting us lined up in our coats and galoshes waiting to go home. Our young assistant pastor came in, and from way in the back of the room, I looked at this nun and this priest, dressed as they did in the ’50s, and in that moment, something inside me said: “Those are your own. You’re one of them.” And I said, “OK.” From then on, I knew that I had a vocation to consecrated life.
Q) Was the Dominican passion for teaching central to that call?
A) What I love about being Dominican is this: They’re the most monastic order that I could find that still had no question about the active ministry of teaching and preaching. We’re in the middle, half and half. St. Thomas Aquinas called that the most excellent form of religious life because it’s a blend of the contemplative and the apostolic.
Q) St. Thomas Aquinas is a famous Dominican you’ve written about.
A) Yes, and his teacher was St. Albert the Great. He taught us to think of our students first. Albert was brilliant. He was one of the first to put together Catholic theology and science. But instead of promoting his own work, he pointed to his student, Thomas Aquinas. Albert has always been my model as a professor. For instance, I have an assignment where I try to get my students published.
Q) You live with six other Dominicans ranging from their 30s to their 80s. Do the 30-somethings keep you young at heart?
A) Yes and no. We keep each other ageless. Because these very young brothers live with me and the elders, they live with the tradition. A 30-year-old brother takes much more than his 30 years’ experience to ministry because of his shared life with his elders. And us elders are aware of so much that’s new and developing because we’re living with it.
Q) Your time together must be so rich.
A) As superior, my job is about once a month to plan an evening of recreation for us. I can’t remember any task that was harder than trying to please a group with that age range. The thing that connected us all was ax throwing. It was the most delightful recreation I can remember! It somehow brought us together where we were most alike, at our most common denominator.
The second most successful activity has been watching “The Chosen” as a community. It’s the intergenerational dynamic that I’m finding so interesting.
Q) Is there any Christmas tradition from childhood that you still continue?
A) My grandma was Swedish, and she’s the symbol for all the wonderful things of my childhood Christmas. So I get our Swedish Christmas horse out — a dala — and a candle I’d given her. She died on Dec. 13, which is when Swedes begin their celebration, the feast of St. Lucy.
I hand painted and calligraphed 40 Christmas cards for the other houses in our order. Calligraphy is contemplative. I’m open with each card. I listen. I turn to the Scriptures. I grab it from somewhere — it didn’t come from me, I receive it. To bring beauty into the world is to cooperate with God’s plan.
Q) What’s the key to a great homily?
A) The best homily I’ve ever heard was when I was a novice, and my novice master took us to a migrant camp. It was an emergency — they didn’t have a priest. He apologized for not being able to preach to them. He said, “Espanol es en mi corazon, pero no es en my boca.” Spanish is in my heart but not in my mouth.
That was the whole thing. And it was enough. You could see how they related to him after Mass. They felt so received, so recognized, even in his inability to preach.
Q) That simplifies the equation. It’s about heart, sincerity.
A) And it’s a relationality.
Q) Do you encourage storytelling in homilies?
A) Yes. Some theologians say storytelling — which we call narrative preaching — is the most perfect form for preaching. It’s the native genre for preaching because most of what we know about the Father through Christ came through his storytelling. It roots the Gospel and the Gospel message within our own lives, our own context. You know where I do some of my best learning? A lot of the profound insights I gather come from the practice homilies of my students.
Q) Do you urge the seminarians to be brief?
A) I don’t believe brevity is a virtue but wasting one second is a big deal. The world is falling apart. People’s marriages are falling apart because they don’t have enough time for each other. People produce monsters instead of adjusted adults because they don’t have enough time for their kids. In a world that is falling apart because people don’t have enough time, I better not betray them — I dare not waste one moment of it.
Q) How do you teach the art of the homily?
A) Every homily should have a focus and a function. A focus is one sentence that summarizes a homily. Can you ask people leaving the church to describe what Father just said in one sentence? The function is: What are you supposed to do as a result of hearing this homily? It might be activism, working for the poor. But it might be something internal — deepening your trust in the Blessed Mother. A homily has to lead us to some response.
Q) Listening well is crucial to speaking well.
A) You have to listen. That’s what life is: listening. You learn from people you disagree with. I have always been 100 percent — without any caveats — in support of Church teaching on abortion. But I’ve learned a lot about human nature and the depths of the suffering that life can mean for some people by listening to pro-abortionists. Now, their arguments don’t sway my opinions at all. I’m unmovable. But there’s something to learn about humanity anywhere, even when encountering serious sin.
We’re in the middle of culture wars. We’ve forgotten how to listen to each other and to be respectful to each other. It’s a breakdown in communication, which really makes this an age for the preacher — we have to take the responsibility for healing this, in large part.
The best workplace to develop a homily is on the floor in front of the tabernacle in the church. Listening to the word, contemplating in the presence of the Lord — because he’s counting on us to be speakers of his word.
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