In using this resource the presumption remains that the individual homilist will spend time with the sacred text each day, personally pondering the words within context, seeking the grace of that inspired divine communication and exploring its implications for the lives of the contemporary congregation.”
Bishop Richard J. Sklba, from the preface of “Fire Starters”
For Bishop Richard J. Sklba, “Fire Starters” is a compilation of the study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity that have been part of his more than 54 years of priesthood. Thus, it is fitting that a volume devoted to the homily at daily Mass includes a declaration that the author preaches and practices.
“I’ve been praying about the readings, as a personal practice, for decades. As the years go by, I continue to see more and more in those readings – the more applications, the more people I deal with, the more pastoral implications I am exposed to, the more I see the Word continues to have an application,” said Milwaukee’s retired auxiliary bishop.
A year before his retirement on Oct. 18, 2010, shortly after his 75th birthday, Bishop Sklba was looking for “a project that would bridge into retirement because I have said to individuals, to priests, for years, ‘You don’t retire from something; you retire to something.’”
He continued, “I wanted a project that might possibly take what I had experienced and prayed over and put it at the service of other people.”
Since moving to Old St. Mary Church, Milwaukee, seven and a half years ago, Bishop Sklba has celebrated the parish’s 7 a.m. Mass on Mondays and Wednesdays when he is in town.
“Consequently, about a year before I retired, I’d come up from the morning Mass and sit down and write into my computer a couple of ideas. As a result of initiating that, I said I might as well enter into the computer the whole framework so that I could insert ideas. So I started putting in, Monday, 31st Week of Year I, Year II, and I started putting in the citations. It gradually took form and shape,” he said of his daily practice.
While Bishop Sklba was officially retired, he wanted to remain of service as Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki continued his transition into the job as head of the archdiocese, and as the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy. Eventually, the bishop established a regimen that included three hours of writing each morning, and nearly another three every afternoon.
“I would sit at the computer and try to find the words to say what I wanted to say, and keep editing and
“Fire Starters,” by Bishop Richard J. Sklba, published by Liturgical Press, is available at www.litpress.org or at local Catholic booksellers. Cost is $39.95.
re-editing,” he said.
Thoughts and more thoughts
“Fire Starters” grew to 605 pages and was published five months later than scheduled because, in the course of compiling it, Bishop Sklba noted, he had “a whole series of ‘On second thought’ and ‘On third thought’ moments.” One thought in that series had to do with the psalm, which he said had “potential for spiritual depth.”
“I began to be conscious as I really prayed intensely over the readings, even when I didn’t have to preach, that the psalm response was not by accident,” the bishop said. “It was chosen with a great deal of care by the people who put the Lectionary together to reflect the sense of the readings.”
He recalled a story Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland told him about preaching in Africa. The translator would ask the homilist ahead of time if he had a basic theme or the translator would listen and develop a refrain that the congregation would sing during the homily.
“Then I realized that the antiphon in the psalm is like one of those refrains. For whatever reason, if you were distracted during the first reading, the psalm calls you back; or to say, ‘Among all the things you heard, this is something we ought to make a refrain, not just in response to the reading, but possibly something that could be carried over into the rest of the day,’” Bishop Sklba said. “And I began to see with more and more appreciation that those were not casual.”
Expansion was also due to the bishop inserting the short introduction that the Lectionary includes before each reading, literary links for the Gospels because “that’s a helpful element that should be put at the service of people who are using the Lectionary,” and, when a new book starts, “a short paragraph that at least reminds people there is a bigger purpose to the book.”
Impact upon spiritual life
The impact of “Fire Starters” on Bishop Sklba’s spiritual life, he said, was in the transition of praying for himself “to praying the Scriptures with an eye on the folks who showed up for Mass at Old St. Mary’s in the morning.”
“I’ve gradually become more conscious of the diversity of that group … it made me increasingly conscious that the Word proclaimed in that weekday group of professional folks needed to be somehow targeted for their life, not just for my personal prayer, and it would have been targeted for them, if I was preparing to preach, as I have always insisted on,” the bishop said. “So gradually my spirituality became increasingly pastoral or priestly or congregationally oriented.”
In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote, “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it.”
Bishop Sklba concurred.
“Preparation is key because one test of the applicability of the Word is how it has touched your own life,” he said. “We have to be careful that we don’t preach ourselves, and yet, to be willing, on occasion, to lift up an example from one’s own life as an illustration, not to call attention to ourselves, but that this is a possibility for your life.”
The bishop, who looks at and prays over the Scriptures the night before the Mass as well as prior to celebrating it in the morning, added, “Preparation enables one to have a richer sense of its possibilities.”
Bishop Sklba has received positive feedback about “Fire Starters,” from priests of the archdiocese. One archbishop purchased a copy for each of his priests for Christmas. While the publisher, Liturgical Press, does not release sales figures, a spokesperson noted in a Jan. 7 email that “it has already exceeded our expectations.”
“That is gratifying, but my concern is that it be helpful, useful,” Bishop Sklba said.
For him, “useful” would be something rooted in the Second Vatican Council.
“At some point, the Fathers of the Council decided that the primary language of the church‘s prayer, preaching and catechetics should be biblical. Not philosophical. Not psychological. Language should be biblical,” Bishop Sklba said. “Maybe this kind of discipline – extended discipline, openness to the Word of God whatever it might create, produce, inspire, elicit – maybe that could help the whole church to speak biblically. Preach, pray, teach biblically.”
He added, “If this work, which came out of a great deal of personal discipline, can encourage folks to be disciplined about their exposure to the Word, that’s good for the whole church.”