Posted by: L. E. Barnes | September 15, 2011

Healthier Homiletics

The main part of Protestant church services, as a general rule, is the preaching. In the evangelical churches I attended while growing up, sermons could easily go on for 30 minutes to an hour–and sometimes for even longer. Of course, that pales in comparison to the sermons of many Protestant ministers in colonial New England, whose Sunday preaching lasted for three hours! (According to what I’ve read, they kept an hour glass in front of them and would turn it over three times during their sermons.) But in my experience, strong preaching skills are normally expected of Protestant ministers, and those who don’t deliver will probably find themselves being given the pink slip by their congregations.

On the other hand, the chief part of the mass is the Eucharist. Yes, a homily is part of the first portion of the mass–the liturgy of the Word–but it does not occupy center stage. And Catholics know that the homily is ultimately not why they go to mass.

Nonetheless, good homilies are still important, yet they seem to be too often lacking in Catholic parishes. A recent article in Our Sunday Visitor discusses steps being taken by the bishops in the US to deal with this problem:

Preparations are under way for a new statement from the U.S. bishops that will address an often-heard concern among Catholics in the pews — the need for better homilies at Sunday Mass. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun work on a document on preaching, which is expected to come before the full body of bishops for a vote at their November 2012 general assembly. The bishops voted 187-3 to greenlight the project at their spring meeting this June in Seattle…

The document will be drafted by the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations in conjunction with five other offices of the bishops’ conference: Divine Worship, Evangelization and Catechesis, Doctrine, Cultural Diversity in the Church, and Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs. Outside consultants will also provide input in the process, with the revisions being made over the next 12 months to prepare a final draft for the bishops to review…

Many bishops and priests have long been aware that Catholics are not feeling nourished or inspired by the homilies they hear at Mass.

“It is about time that we really do something about preaching,” said Father Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. “I know that people have been complaining for a long time that the quality of preaching is just not up to snuff.” 

What is often missing from homilies, Father Vega told Our Sunday Visitor, is a connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and what happens in the lives of the laity outside the church walls. 

“People want to know how what they just heard [at Mass] gets lived out there, and what are some concrete examples of how you live the Christian identity based on what the Word tells us,” he said. “That’s what the homily is supposed to do, and I don’t know that we’ve been doing that”…

The article further points out one of the reasons this matter is so important:

Homilists may also be encouraged to consider the role of catechesis in their preaching, which plays a key role in the faith formation of adult Catholics, said Deacon Leo McBlain, past president of the National Diaconate Institute for Continuing Education. 

“What we have seen in various surveys is that many people say their education in the Catholic faith comes from the Sunday homily,” Deacon McBlain told OSV. “So it is a unique opportunity — maybe the only opportunity — to supplement people’s learning, to inspire them and to stimulate their curiosity [about Church teaching].”

Read the full article here.

Of course, bad preaching can be found in churches of all stripes. Sometimes it’s simply due to a lack of good public speaking skills. For instance, several years ago, about the time I started seriously checking out the Catholic Church, I visited a Catholic parish one Sunday and heard what had to have been the most poorly delivered homily I’ve ever come across. The priest, though a godly man with a number of fine qualities, was just a terrible speaker. Sometimes, the problem is that the sermons lack depth. I’ve seen plenty of evangelical preachers, both in person or on TV, whose sermons were high on emotion/showmanship, but very low on substance. Though they played on their audience like a master musician could play on a piano, it wasn’t what they were saying but how they said it that kept people engaged. And while effective delivery is an important part of any public speaking, delivery is never a substitute for good content. Preachers, whatever their denomination, have an obligation to provide their listeners with spiritual nourishment, not just strive to pump up their emotions.

Fortunately, both the priests at my parish normally do a fine job with their homilies, delivering heartfelt lessons on the Word and how to live out the Catholic faith. They may not preach for nearly as long as the ministers did at the churches I grew up attending, but I feel we still get nourished quite well.

What has your experience been? Do you feel the homilies delivered by your priest(s) provide you with sufficient spiritual “nutrients” and inspiration? If not, how do you think they could be improved?

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Responses

  1. We are blessed at our parish. My pastor (and only priest) gives wonderful homilies. My husband (our only deacon) also preaches. I guess my analysis of his preaching would be a bit slanted. But I think both of them inspire and educate.
    Also people tell me they like to hear my husband preach because he can relate things to marriage and children and grandchildren. I think having both deacons and priests preaching is good for this reason. There are different life experiences.

    • You raise a good point. Priests and married deacons can each bring unique perspectives, thereby providing balance. Our parish has one fellow training to be a deacon, so maybe we’ll soon get to hear him preach.

  2. Great post, Evan!

    I’m glad to see the Bishops addressing this issue. I’ve heard some marvelous sermons and some pretty awful ones, too. And, as unfortunate as it may be, there are a lot of people who leave the church because of the lack of good preaching – especially among those who don’t have the understanding and believe of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.

    • I’ve heard that parishes where the priests started adding a little extra time to their homilies so they could expound more on Catholic doctrine and its relation to our lives saw a considerable increase in attendance and member retention. As the OSV article notes, the Sunday homily may be the only religious instruction that many adult Catholics receive, so there needs to be an effort to produce homilies that offer not just a brief reflection on the scripture readings but on the Catholic faith in general.

  3. Our current priests are fair to almost good preachers. Our pastor writes a good homily, but reads it to us–which i’ll take over a poor homily any day. Our PV also reads his, but his spoken English is poor–he’s a native Spanish speaker. Again, the homilies are well-written,the delivery is the problem.

    • Yes, both delivery and content are very important, whether when preaching or simply giving a speech. I’m sure you’re hispanic priest is bound to struggle with preaching to an English-speaking congregation, just as I would certainly struggle with having to deliver a talk to Spanish speakers. Simply reading a homily, even one that has great content, detracts from its effectiveness. It would be great if he could learn to rely less on notes. But I’m sure they’re doing the best they can.

  4. I can get something out of just about any homily unless the priest is up there preaching heresy. Then I turn my ears off.

    Preaching from the heart based on time spent in adoration of the Holy Eucharist and sound spiritual reading of the Fathers of the Church and good Scripture scholarship would make a big difference for some priests. I used to subscribe to Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a great magazine for priests, and always got something out of the homilies printed there.

    The homily should be an occasion to teach the Faith. It always was when I was growing up. Teaching the Faith and loving Jesus more, encouraging parishioners to practice their faith daily, and, of course, linking to the meaning of the Eucharistic Sacrifice would, I think, make people love the Faith more.

    I encourage parishioners to give their priests a subscription to Homiletic and Pastoral Review if the priests don’t already get it. The articles in it are great, too.

    • I’m not familiar with the magazines you mention. I’ll need to check them out, and then see if perhaps my parish’s priests would like to have subscriptions to them if they don’t already subscribe.

      You raise a good point about the need for linking their teaching to the Eucharistic sacrifice. For that matter, I probably need to cultivate a deeper love of the Eucharist.

  5. “not just a brief reflection on the scripture readings but on the Catholic faith in general.”

    I’d say more emphasis on showing the connection between the Scripture readings and Catholicism.

    • Good point!


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