Thursday, April 10, 2014

Homilies and Sermons

Pope Francis, in Evangelli Gaudium, called for homilies during Mass to be short:

138. The homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It is a distinctive genre, since it is preaching situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration; hence it should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention.

I understand that Protestant sermons tend to be longer, although it's true that I got an exaggerated sense of this from watching them on Youtube (on the channel Sermon Central), where they often seemed to go on for almost an hour. I see from a little bit of research on the internet that few of them exceed twenty minutes in length.

Parochial and Plain Sermons by John Henry Newman has become one of my favourite books to dip into. The sermons in that volume are quite long and I imagine it took at least forty minutes to deliver some of them (though I have a poor sense of time). Obviously they were a hit at the time, since Newman preached to packed houses. Fr. Zuhldorf on his blog points out that the Fathers of the Church often gave sermons lasting hours. (Incidentally, there's no link to the article on purpose. I try to use links as sparingly as I can. I don't like hypertext. If you want to read it, or any other online articles or videos I mention, you can find them pretty easily yourself.)

Homilies are funny things. I like the idea of homilies very much. Back when I was an agnostic, I felt an occasional pang of regret that I never got to listen to homilies. It seemed to me that listening to someone talk about the biggest subjects of all, listening to someone address the deepest part of your humanity, and for this to be in person rather than through a television screen or from a printed page, would be something wonderful.

Of course, in reality, I often find my mind wandering during homilies. Homilies are very often rambling and dull.

A part of me likes the fact that homilies are often rambling and dull. It feels somehow reassuring and right. One feels homilies should be dull in the same way that old men should be cantankerous, school dinners (though I never had such a thing myself) should be lumpy, college professors should be absent-minded, teenagers should be idealistic, Italians should be fiery, and so forth.

Another reason I like dull homilies, or at least the existence of dull homilies, is because it underlines the personal (as opposed to the impersonal) element of the thing. The priest is not giving a homily because he is a great homilist. He's giving a homily because he's your priest. In Catholic and Christian churches all over the land, on any given day, homilies of varying quality are being delivered, and each one is different, and each one is an expression of the personality of the priest or pastor, as well as being (hopefully) an expression of their creed. A priest who gives a bad homily might be giving more out of his poverty than a great homilist gives out of his abundance.

There is also a penitential element in sitting through a dull homily. And it's a rather mild penance, at that.

All the same, I do appreciate a good homily when I get one, and I think the Pope was totally on the ball. Good homilies are nearly always short homilies.

I wonder why that is. As you might tell from a quick glance through a few of my posts, I am by no means an opponent of prolixity. I like long essays and long magazine articles. I like to watch lectures on Youtube and I'm always especially pleased to find one that is an hour or more long. You can really settle into them.

But, as the Pope says, the homily happens in the context of the Mass. And this makes (I think) a long homily inappropriate, for so many different reasons.

My first reason might sound a bit ridiculous but I'll say it anyway. I find Mass can be mentally rather demanding. It's often hard to keep your mind from wandering and to focus on the words and actions which you've heard and performed so often. The very familiarity of the liturgy makes it comforting, but at the same time, it makes it all too easy to tune out. (Incidentally, although the point of the Mass is not our enjoyment, I do find Mass extremely satisfying-- but usually on a deep level, rather than a superficial one. On a superficial one, I am often bored and inattentive.) Given that maintaining your focus throughout Mass can be difficult, a long and rambling homily makes it even more difficult.

Long homilies are more likely to lack a definite subject. They usually go all around the houses, the priest throwing in whatever ideas come to him. I like digressions in general, but I like them to be digressions. When you can't tell the difference between the digression and the main subject, it's a bad sign.

Another reason I think long homilies are bad just occurred to me, as I was pondering on my experience of listening to them. It's the uncertainty of the thing. When a priest passes the ten minute mark and is showing no sign of winding up, you can't help wondering how long he's going to keep going. After all, he has a (more or less) captive audience. And there is something irksome about this.

If I write a long post on this blog (as I frequently do), the reader can look down the daunting column of text and murmur, 'Yeah, I'm not reading that.' Or else he or she-- for the want of anything better to do, and after having constructed an Eiffel Tower out of sugar-cubes already-- may grit his or her teeth and say, 'I'm going in'. But there is some awareness of how long the trial is going to last. There is light at the end of the tunnel. And the same applies to pretty much all written documents, in print and online.

But a priest on an ambo keeps us all guessing to the last moment-- and often through a series of 'false endings'.

Aside from the length, one thing that I like to encounter in a homily is Christianity. Unfortunately, I've listened to many, many homilies where all that is really being dispensed is folksy wisdom.

For instance-- there is a particular priest (a very good priest indeed, and often a fine homilist) whose Easter homily I heard several years in a row. Every year, it was an admonition for his listeners not to let themselves be buried in 'tombs' of depression, resentment, despair etc. Of course it's a valid message, but the whole point of the Resurrection, and of Easter, is that a real man rose from a real tomb. The idea that we shouldn't let ourselves be trapped in a metaphorical tomb is one that could be made independently of whether Christ rose from the dead or not. Of course, this is just one example of this phenomenon.

I like homilies that teach me something about my faith. It can be a little potted biography of the saint of the day, or it can be a historical perspective upon the Scripture readings, or it can be the pointing out of a parallel between the Old Testament and the New Testament. I know a Nigerian priest who is very good at this. Inn a homily on the Prodigal Son, he pointed out that the young man's abasement was increased by the fact that he was looking after pigs, an animal considered ritually impure by the Jews. For all the times I'd read and heard the parable, and commentaries upon it, that had never occurred to me. I took something away from that homily.

A personal anecdote often enlivens a homily, as it enlivens most things. In general, listeners welcome the particular rather than the purely abstract. Personal anecdotes are better than second-hand stories or jokes, which may be tiresomely familiar to one's listeners. If I hear the story about the man who was in a flood and praying for rescue one more time, I think I'll go mad.

I like homilies that reprimand me. We can get 'I'm OK-- You're OK' everywhere else.

But, as I say, I don't mean to criticize priests at all. When I sit through a homily, no matter how good or bad, I do my very best to pay attention, look attentive to encourage the priest, and open my heart to God. It's not really much to ask of yourself.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject of sermons. You make some very interesting points; I like the factoid about the Prodigal Son and the pigs -- that hadn't occurred to me either. I think long sermons can serve a purpose; but it takes an excellent preacher and a very well structured talk for the long sermon to work. Sometimes a few short, occasionally even sharp, words are necessary. I remember hearing someone say sometime ago, that Christ came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The same should apply to sermons. We all need some comforting occasionally. But there is nobody who is not complacent about some aspect of the living out of their religion. So a good sermon should prod a range of areas of potential complacency (including those that priests often seem unwilling to go hear!). Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, Paulusmaximus. I don't think I've ever heard a good long sermon but I'm sure its possible. And I quite agree with you about sharp words, although-- of course-- when they are actually used, and when they hit home, they don't FEEL very welcome!!

  3. Over the past 46 years I know I've preached all kinds of homilies, good, bad and indifferent, too long on occasion. But I've noticed that when people have thanked me for something specific I've said it is usually a matter of faith, eg, the Eucharist, the Resurrection. One of the finest homilies I've read - I wasn't in Ireland at the funeral - was given by a Columban at the funeral of another. And in a real sense the priest in the coffin was the one giving the homily - on the Resurrection. [].

    Your comment on long homilies reminded me of the comment of another Columban, now dead, who had a very sharp wit. He described the priest giving such a long homily as being like a pilot who didn't know where to land the plane.

    The person of Jesus should always be at the centre of a homily. We priests need to keep St John the Baptist in mind.

    The priest too can find it difficult to concentrate at Mass. I'm not at all sure, for example, that the introduction of the Responsorial Psalm was a good idea, especially when it's long.

    You come across in this post as someone who is very patient with priests, giving us the benefit of the doubt even when our homilies aren't what they should be. Thank you for that!

  4. Hi Father

    Yes, your first comment went through. I'm sorry I have a filter for the comments but I get a lot of spam comments.

    I don't really like the Responsorial Psalm, I have to admit. Especially when there is no misalette. It's hard to keep the response in your head while concentrating on the verses. I also wish the integrity of the Psalms were kept rather than mixing different Psalms together.

    I really do try to be patient with priests because it seems to me that enormous demands and expecations are put upon them. I think most priests do a great job.

    I like the 'pilot who doesn't know where to land' joke. I think some homilists end up having to make a crash landing!!

  5. Thank you for this! – I agree!

    On the other hand, the sermons of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet go on for pages and pages, and by all accounts he was one of the greatest homilists the Church has had, and, though we will never hear him speak, evidently a fine orator as well. He had the opposite problem to ours. In those days (17th.C) a sermon was a stand-alone occasion (lasting I think about an hour, as it happens) which the members of the French court would treat as a social gathering. They turned up to mainly for the oratory and to show each other how ever-so-cultured they were, and even had loyalties to favourite preachers. So he spent a lot of his time trying to play down his evident skill, even as he was offering it all up to God – and also in urging the congregation to see that in a certain way Christ spoke to them in the homily and that it was a quasi-sacrament, which they had to take seriously. They are really quite powerful!

  6. Thanks for that! I have a friend, a priest, who is a student of Bossuet's so I've drawn his attention to this comment. I must read some of his homilies some time-- I have been intrigued by him ever since I first heard about him.

  7. It is only undergraduate waffle! I couldn't help mentioning Bossuet because he is rather a hero of mine.

    Francis Phillips also mentioned him in the Catholic Herald last week:

  8. Good point. I'm sure it has been said to death already, but too many priests talk about the usual stuff of "Lets be happy/kind to others/ etc". People zone out after a while anyway. There's really no point in giving a long homily on things people could think about themselves.

    Mind you, that priest I told you about on St Patrick's Day gave a fairly long homily. I'm not sure exactly how long, but longer than usual. It was a pretty good homily though, so I enjoyed it.

  9. I agree with you. I've often heard homilies where I think, "Well, anyone could have told me that." But, as I say, I'm also aware that giving homilies is difficult, not everybody is necessarily good at it, and I do try to cut priests a lot of slack.

    Maybe it's just me-- I get antsy at long homilies.