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?