Father Matt Pennington
Pastor of the Nativity of Mary Church in San Luis Obispo, CA
We traveled to San Luis Obispo, CA, and the Nativity of Our Lady Church to meet its pastor, Father Matt Pennington, and Deacon Tom O’Brien. They have collaborated in ministry for well over a decade, and their work remains vibrant, creative and the best example of preaching in the media age. Here, Matt tells us about his approach to preaching and homiletics, while Tom provides an insight into how Church music and social media can help forward evangelization in the local community.
Runtime: 27 mins, 33 secs
America Magazine Video
Runtime: 8 mins, 13 secs
Episode transcript and study guide.
Q: Pre-written question
R1: Father Mike Russo
FMP: Father Matt Pennington
DT = Deacon Tom
On a Sunday like this, when you have a very, very complex and very intense subject matter, I think it’s important to be very cautious and careful about the way in which you structure your presentation. Because of this, I actually decided I wanted to get some input from members of my team and I spoke to two people on my staff who actually have gone through a painful divorce. I said to them; “What would you want to hear from me this Sunday at church?” Their response to me actually enabled me to shape and create the very homily that I intend to deliver this weekend.
FM: Our preacher journey has taken us to a small church on California’s central coast to meet Father Matt Pennington. The Nativity of Our Lady Parish is located in a neighborhood of post-World War II homes in San Luis Obispo. This town is nestled between mountains in a landscape dotted with cattle, vineyards, and orchards. And yes, this is a university town, and on SLO’s Higuera Street, there is a farmer’s market on Thursdays where you will find produce from all over the region and can sample the very best California pinot noir. Father Matt says this is an enchanted place where his story with God continues to unfold. He sounds like a gifted preacher. So, let’s meet Father Matt Pennington. I am with Father Matt Pennington. Matt, its great to be with you here at Nativity.
FMP: Thank you Mike, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
FM: One of your mentors said of you; “Matt is a master of divinity. He is musical, and with extroverted dynamics.” Is that you?
FMP: Yes, that’s me. Yes. Yes, it is.
FM: The wonderful American poet, whose name is Wallace Stevens, wrote this: he said; “God and the imagination are one.” He prefaces it by saying; “How high the highest candle lights the dark.” So, God and the imagination are one. What are the sources of your imagination, particularly with preaching?
FMP: Well, first of all, I would say that imagination has really sort of been a foundation for my whole life. I think that when I have lived my life, as my life has unfolded, have absolutely used my imagination in every element of my existence. I think that if you are studying as a student, and you want to succeed, you have to first imagine yourself succeeding. How would it look if I were to succeed on this paper? How would it look if I were to succeed in this class? You imagine it and then it happens. I think that when it comes to the art of preaching, that you have to imagine from the text what it is that is most significant at this moment, for me, and for the people that are going to be listening. So, imagination for me, has really been a constant companion and I think that I draw from all manner of sources. I mean I think that my imagination is stimulated by the news, is stimulated by the arts, its stimulated through music, its stimulated through relationship. I think that it’s constantly being fed, but primarily I would say for me personally, its through the arts.
FM: I would say too, that your imagination also connects you with the people that are in this building, Sunday to Sunday, in your own way of connecting to those different pieces of their lives and yours.
FMP: I would say that the thing that always amazes me is that they are willing to enter into my imagination. You know, I think that so often when we are trained, especially in the art of preaching, that there can be sort of a formal and serious and predictable way in which one communicates in this whole genre. I learned and wanted very early on to begin to express myself in a more individual way. It surprises me sometimes that people are willing to go along with me. If you listen to me, you would know that oftentimes when I begin, there might be a sense on behalf of the listener, of questioning. Like, what does this have to do with what I just heard?
FM: And where are we going?
FMP: And where are we going. But, I always say if you will trust me, if you will trust me, I will get you there.
FM: When did you realize early on that you were pretty good a this; and over the years, have you improved?
FMP: Well, when I was in the seminary, I was very fortunate to have a very strong homiletics professor. We had the opportunity to preach in front of our classmates and we were actually videotaped. So, the way that it was structured was that you actually gave the homily live in front of your classmates and later on in the day you sat with the professor privately and together you looked at the videotape. The feedback that I was getting from the other students was that I was one of the stronger of the group. I don’t know that I necessarily felt that for myself, only in that oftentimes when I would listen to them, my classmates, and this is still true for me today when I listen to other preachers, I would often think to myself that you need to tighten that up. You need to change that. You need to move that story here. This could be connected there. But, I don’t know that I necessarily thought of myself specifically as talented in that way. I am not even completely sure that I would say that about myself now, after all of these years, but I do think that I have come to trust my instincts. I have come to trust my instincts when it comes to homiletics, preaching, and the context through which you try to interpret God’s word.
FM: So, what are the building blocks of your Sunday homily?
FMP: Well, I would say the first step for me is to try to just read the scripture with no agenda early on in the week. Before the pressure and the responsibility is weighing on me too heavily. To just sit down with it, to read it in a very leisurely way, and to see in what way does it speak to me. I don’t expect to get anything from it in that initial reading, but rather just let it sit in me, let it sort of marinate to some extent. What I am trying as the week is unfolding, is to see what idea or theme or component really rises to the surface for me. Where is it that there is something perplexing, something interesting, something motivating, that seems to come from those readings that touches me? Sometimes its something that I am struggling with personally. So, if that’s the case, then that’s the thing that I actually need to address. I absolutely need to—if I am wondering what that means or how do I apply it, or I am finding that I actually am not very comfortable with it, then I think that’s the element. Because what I have learned is that if its puzzling me, if its interesting me, if its something that is exciting to me, then its probably going to be of interest. Its probably puzzling, its probably going to be exciting to the listener as well
FM: Let me give you two examples; I was here on Good Friday and I was touched by two things mostly, the reading of the Passion and then your superb homily. Let’s first talk about how you do the reading on Good Friday.
FMP: So, on Good Friday, we take the gospel and we break it into five components, if I am not mistaken. The Book of the Gospels is processed in very ceremoniously, to a drum beat. Almost a militant constant sort of drum beat. There is sort of an elaborate and long silk red cloth that is lifted and lowered as it is processed in. Then, I greet the book, and I bring it to the ambo, and I begin the Passion. At some point in the story, a significant point in the story, I stop, I come to the center, and I am met there by another lector. We bow, and that lector takes it from there. We try to choose a selection of various different people to actually participate in the proclaiming of that Passion so that the people hear the story, not just from my voice, but from the voice of an older person. A child A teenager. Then, I think the way we design it is that I begin it and I conclude it. Then, once I am finished, I sit for a period of silence. I don’t jump right in to some sort of interpretation, but rather I let the weight of it and the enormity of it settle over the people.
FM: It fulfills what I have always said; reading is more difficult than preaching in the sense that you really have to interpret the text. It was beautifully done. You are a liturgist by training?
FM: So, all of this is part of a whole, correct?
FMP: That is right. I think that one of the things I feel so strongly about is that I want everything in the liturgy to connect. That everything is connecting, so that we are not really thinking of it as here is the gathering song, and here is the greeting and here is the penitential right, and here is the Gloria, and here is the collect, but rather one thing is unfolding into another and that there is meaning and weight to every single element, and how do we try to connect it so that we are not sort of shoving the listener and the participant in the assembly, shoving them into this, shoving them into that, but rather that there is a sense that everything is connected and there is an interconnectedness in everything that we do. I think that’s true for the homily as well. The homily is not an independent entity. It is a part of a much larger puzzle of various different pieces that interlock and connect with one another.
FM: Well, let me connect you to the key image. You mentioned the red cloth that you welcome at the beginning. But, then in your homily, you mention Jacqueline Kennedy coming off the plane in Dallas in 1963 with her husband’s body where her dress is stained with blood. Can you just briefly tell us how you captured that?
FMP: By “that”, you mean how did I come up with the idea?
FMP: You know, I think that is such a powerful image, the story of her being covered in his blood and being in Air Force One and ultimately being encouraged by her staff to change her clothes, and her declaring no, I want them to see what they did. I guess that’s just one of those moments that resonate in my mind and I knowing that moment, having that in my memory banks somewhere, and thinking about the whole image of Christ’s crucifixion and the visibility of it and the way that we put that in the forefront of that particular part of the Triduum, that somehow those two moments interlocked for me. But, I definitely would say that those moments are inspired, very, very much inspired. I don’t ever really feel that I can take credit myself, but rather I feel absolutely that the Holy Spirit is working within me. In fact, I often have these experiences where I am preaching, and even though I have prepared, and I have practiced, in that moment, in that moment where you are in front of the entire assembly and they are looking at you, its almost sometimes if I am hearing it for the first time. There’s an enormous difference between practicing a homily, and actually delivering it in the assembly. To me, it takes on an entirely new energy. I even have had the experience sometimes of preaching and thinking to myself; where did this come from? Where did I get this exactly?
FM: I am here with Deacon Tom O’Brien. You have heard of a man for all seasons, this is a man for all media. This is one of the most media-centric parishes I know. How do you keep it all straight?
DT: Well, its kind of hard. Its hard to keep it all straight, but practice. Really, I think it has improved our approach to media. We are using a lot of different media in the parish. We are using sort of external oriented media, social media, website, podcasts, and then we are using media that is supporting the liturgy itself. So, we are using of course the music and all of what that entails. We can talk about that in a minute, if you would like. But, we are also using projection and really, we are trying to support the full active in-conscious participation of the parish itself during the mass.
FM: So, what’s the long-term advantage of this?
DT: Well, I think the long term is that these homilies and the things that we record and put out there are available to people who may not make it to mass and who can share with their friends and it can be an inspiration to people long after the liturgy is over.
FM: How would you recommend to other parishes how to jumpstart this?
DT: I think start simply, first of all. Start with perhaps an audio podcast and just record the mass and put it out there and have someone who can be in charge of making sure that podcast gets up in a timely manner and see how that goes. See if you attract some following. Then from there, I think try to find somebody who is technically inclined int the parish who can take you to the next levels, maybe with video and various sorts of social media with the website and that sort of thing.
FM: So, in a few minutes we are going to be seeing this church filled. What do we look for in here, from the music and from Father Matt’s homily?
DT: The kind of music we are selecting for the liturgy really varies with season and it varies also during the mass itself. For a gathering song, you will hear during ordinary times something high energy. Something that is welcoming to the parish. Then we will move into something quieter for the penitential rite, and then we will rise again with the Gloria. That’s high energy. Then something meditative for the presentation of the gifts that people can sing while they are taking their money out of their pocket. Then, for the eucharistic celebration and the eucharistic communion time, we are singing something simple that people can sing along as they are in line to receive communion. Then, finally we want to send those people out of the church with a lot of energy and with a feeling that they have been fed. So, we are selecting music that does all of those things. The other thing that we are doing is during certain times of the mass, we are going to be underscoring what Father Matt is saying during the reading of the Gospel with kind of a tone that you can barely hear, but it’s evoking a certain emotional response that is supportive of the message that the pastor is trying to give the congregation.
FMP: The Lord be with you. A reading from the Holy Gospel According to Mark. The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked; “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. Jesus said in reply; “What did Moses command you?” They replied; “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce, and to divorce her.” But, Jesus told them; “Because of the hardness of your hearts, he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So, they no longer are two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In the house, the disciples again questioned Jesus about this. He said to them; “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And, if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” The gospel of the Lord.
When I was in my Scott’s Valley Parish, we had a young family there, and they had two young daughters. At the time of this story, I think one was probably ten and the other was twelve. The mother had purchased a Martha Stewart Living magazine, Christmas edition. Now, you all know who Martha Stewart is, right? I mean how can you possibly live in the United States of America and not know about Martha Stewart and her relentless thirst for world domination? Okay? So, this particular magazine, this catalog, was full of Martha Stewart Christmas projects and how you could make your own Christmas ornaments, how you could trim your tree, how you could illuminate the exterior of your home, how you could wrap your presents, the menus and the parties you should have as you are celebrating the Christmas holidays.
So, this mother, with this magazine, gave the magazine to her two daughters and she said to them, “You may each select two projects and we will do them as we prepare to celebrate our family Christmas.” The two little girls said; “No. No. We want to do the whole book. We want to have an entire Martha Stewart Christmas.” The mother, as she is recounting this story to me, in her response, she said she laughed at them. In my mind, the way I would imagine myself laughing at my two children, if I had them, it would be very dramatic, like ha ha ha ha, something like that. Isn’t that how you would laugh derisively at your children? No? Well, that’s how I would do it. Anyway, so she kind of laughs at the little girls, she says ha, ha. She says, “No, we can’t possibly do that.” And the little girls are like “Why? Why? We want to have a Martha Christmas.” She says to them; “My dears, we cannot do that because Martha Stewart is a fantasy.” Martha Stewart is a fantasy. Isn’t that a great line? I mean have truer words ever been spoken?
Martha Stewart is a billion-dollar brand. She employs literally hundreds of people, but you never see them. You never see the little slaves or serfs or minions chopping those vegetables or hoeing that garden or adjusting that carburetor. No, it’s Martha. Martha who is always singly lifting that perfect soufflé out of the oven. You know, weeding that radish garden. Re-shoeing the horse. Whatever she does—its only her. Its’ this fantasy that one person could actually accomplish all of these things. This whole dynamic between the fantasy and reality is very interesting to me and how easily be seduced into the fantasy versus the reality. Nowhere it seems to me this dynamic more at play than when it comes to getting married. We have completely enmeshed the idea of getting married in the fantasy of it. Its’ all about the dress and the perfect day and the reception and the invitations, and the flowers, and the honeymoon and all of this stuff that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what is required in order to be married to another human being.
As many of you know, I give one weekend a year to the engaged encounter movement. A weekend retreat to Catholic couples who are preparing to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony. I am here to tell you a good number of those couples are totally and completely immersed in the fantasy. I have in my mind that there are many couples that by the end of the weekend, there are probably potential brides saying you know, I suspect I am actually engaged to a serial killer, but I have a smoking hot wedding dress, and I am getting married. I think it’s this issue, fantasy versus reality that Jesus is attempting to discuss in this very stern teaching that he gives us in this Gospel. Let’s begin by understanding that Jesus is probably having a bad day, and he is addressing a group of people who at this particular moment in history enter into marriage—first of all, the marriages were probably arranged, and they were arranged for economic reasons. Furthermore, the wife was more or less considered the property of the husband, and according to the law, the wife could be discarded for very little reason. Jesus is basically saying you can’t do that. You cannot discard this sacred person simply because they have become tedious or inconvenient. The whole connection that happens in the marriage relationship, the covenant, is sacred. It must be honored, it must be treated with respect and we don’t toss someone aside arbitrarily. So, this teaching and others have really formed our theology around matrimony.
So, let me break it down for you. Let’s imagine for just a moment that you are going to get married by the justice of the peace. This is the way the church sees it. Here is you, here is the other person. You go to the justice of the peace and you really are sort of getting stuck together through a legal agreement. If things don’t work out between you, you sort of legally unstick yourself, and you go your separate ways. In the sacrament of matrimony, we say here is you and here is the other, and together through the power of the Holy Spirit and God energy that comes forth from that spirit called grace, you are actually being knitted together into one. So, that’s it’s no longer about my needs, my wants, my desires, it’s about our needs, our wants, and our desires. You are interconnected and interdependent upon one another. Even in a circumstance as this, If you get a legal divorce, in the mind of the church, you are still married to one another. That the sacred covenantal bond is still intact.
Now, the interesting thing is that the church realized from the very beginning that there are some people who should never be married. For whatever reason—the union was toxic or violent or simply unfaithful or inappropriate in whatever way, so the church has devised a methodology through which that union can actually be annulled. For those of you who are out there this morning who don’t go to communion because you have been told that there is this fantasy about the annulment process—that it’s expensive, that it’s lengthy, that it’s labyrinthy, I want you to hear the reality. The reality is its none of those things. It has been streamlined over the years. It is extremely accessible. It’s not expensive and I personally will help you through the process.
Here is what else you need to know. In 30 years of priesthood, I would tell you that 95% of the people who go through the annulment process will tell you that it’s the best thing that they ever did. That in that process they finally came to a place of completion, of conclusion, an ending to what was a very, very painful episode in their lives. It’s easy to get married. It’s the easiest thing in the world. The difficult thing is staying married. If you are willing to persevere in what is probably the most difficult thing that you will ever undertake, then God will give you something very real. A companion. A person who walks beside you, who heals you, consoles you, trusts you. A person who loves you. When you are sick or when you are well, when you are rich or poor. In good times or in bad times. If you can find such a person, you must hold on to them with all of your might. Lest they slip away.
FM: Pope John the 23rd once said the secret of everything is to be carried by the Lord, and to carry the Lord. We carry the Lord when we preach the word of God. I want to thank Father Matt Pennington, and Deacon Tom O’Brien, and the staff here at Nativity for their assistance and for all of their efforts on behalf of the preaching ministry. In San Luis Obispo, and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.
"You may be called to give that encouraging word, to give someone a nudge, to be the right person at the right time to help someone come closer to God's grace. Be ready! "
1. Father Mike quotes Wallace Stevens who wrote, “God and the imagination are one.” He asked Father Matt what are his sources of imagination. As you prepare to preach…
a. What are some of the ways you activate your imagination?
i. Are there new sources you want to try?
b. Thinking about the next homily you need to prepare what do you think will help you stimulate your imagination?
c. What are some different ways you will help people enter your imagination?
2. Father Matt talks about the importance of trusting his instincts.
a. How do your instincts guide you in your homily preparations?
b. Can you recall times when you followed your instincts while preaching? What happened? Are there any ways you might increase the likelihood of this sort of experience occurring more often?
3. In talking about preparing to preach Father Matt said he starts by reading the scripture with no agenda. Then as the week unfolds he sees what ideas and themes surfaces. “What I have learned is that if it’s puzzling me, if it’s interesting me, if it’s something that is exciting to me, then it’s probably going to be of interest for my listeners.”
a. Thinking about a few of your most recent sermons did you incorporate things that were puzzling to you? Are these things you normally bring to your listeners?
b. Consider your next homily: What do you find most perplexing about the readings you will be preaching on? How might you bring forward these “puzzling” themes in your sermon in a way that is both personal and relatable to your listeners?
4. How are your currently using media?
a. Are there media related things you’d like to try in your church? What are the major obstacles?
b. What are three things you might do to get started?
5. Father Matt and Deacon Tom O’Brien are very purposeful with their liturgy team in creating a seamless and well integrated mass. What are the things you do synergize your homily with all dimensions of the liturgy. Are there things you might do differently?
6. Father Matt tells a wonderful story about Martha Steward Living magazine Christmas edition.
a. What makes the story effective?
b. What are some of the techniques he uses to bring the story alive? Are these techniques you use? Can you picture yourself using any of these techniques? What might that look like embracing and honoring your unique style of communicating?
c. How does he tie the story to the gospel? What are the specific words he uses to anchor the story with the homily?
d. How does he end the homily? How does it make you feel? Thinking about your next homily what feeling do you want to impart at the end your homily?
A Few Tips from Father Matt’s Toolbox
Father Matt shared with us a few detailed tips on the process he follows in developing his homilies…
Unstructured look at scripture on my own, sometimes at a meeting I might invite others to share. Mostly what I’m trying to do at this stage is let the scripture land in my head – getting a sense of how it resonates with me – what strikes me right now, What interests me, What speaks to me…Then I ask myself if this interesting and engaging, or perplexing to me will it be for others as well… so this is my initial look (allowing the Spirit to compel me)…
Formal research phase – I look at other sources, try to understand the context, and background of the scriptural story.
Looking for a central idea, one concept and a story, analogy, image or metaphor to anchor the homily that will draw listeners – this also leads me to a structure for the homily.
My homilies have an architecture made from the following building blocks:
Key to this architecture are the bridges between each piece. I concentrate hard on the bridges – how to tie and join things together and lead people – I want to leave people with a question – I want them to look at a piece of the vast mystery of God encountered in the scripture… I seek to connect with the broadest… I want people to ponder.
Timing is key to homily. I don’t think a Sunday homily should be more than 10 minutes and I like to think of the whole Mass and its beautiful Liturgy as a seamless garment – like Christ’s tunic.
The key to mass is making sure it’s not like an automatic car shift gears so quickly and roughly that people are jostled in the process… I like to think of the liturgy as a manual car.
Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus Christ my Rabbi and teacher, and beautiful Spirit of God we praise and thank you for all of the varied gifts and talents of preachers. Please ready my heart and mind to embrace new ways I might break your Word for others. Work with all the raw materials of my experiences, communication style, and imagination to uncover surprising rich, storied ways to bring all my brothers and sisters in Christ closer to you. Grant me every grace I need to rely more and more on you to guide my preaching. I ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. AMEN