Preaching? Sermons? Homilies? Who Needs ‘Em?editor
Over the years, annoyed by the lengthy sermons of seemingly egocentric priests who love the sound of their own voice, some people have expressed the opinion that sermons should be done away with altogether.
I remember, too, reading an article penned by a priest some years ago, arguing that homilies should not be about “faith formation or doctrinal instruction”. Goodness, I thought, what’s left?
Well, like it or lump it, preaching is here to stay. Hopefully the bores who prattle on interminably to show off their academic knowledge (who cares?) will eventually learn the error of their ways but doing away with homilies/sermons altogether is not on the cards.
Church law requires priests to preach at the appointed time during Mass and to apply the readings of the day to the everyday lives of the congregation. It’s not “this is what this text from the readings meant 2,000 years ago” but “this is what this text means to our lives right now…” See the difference? Unfortunately, your priest may not – preferring, instead, to effectively prepare you for a Theology or Scripture exam for which you will never present. 😀
To repeat, though, doing away with homilies is not the way forward. Priests are bound in duty to preach, according to the law of the Church. Here’s the current code of Canon Law making this duty crystal clear (emphasis added)…
Can. 767 §1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.
Can. 767 §2. A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause.
Can. 767 §3. It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during the time of Advent and Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or a sorrowful event.
Can 767 §4. It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.
Personally, I have long held the view that every priest should want to preach and should do so thoughtfully. Every priest, in my view, should recall – when preparing for every Mass – that at this particular Mass there may be someone, perhaps just one person, who is there for the first time, perhaps the only time. One priest preaching some aspect of the Faith carefully can make a huge impact on a soul, make a massive difference to someone’s life, especially if that person is young or hitherto weak or lapsed.
The following video clip of youngsters in Scotland speaking about the importance of their Faith is interesting, more for what is missing, than for what is said. One after another, these lovely young people express their pride in being Catholics. Whether or not they have a clue about the detail of the Faith is anyone’s guess because, for the most part, they speak in purely generic terms. Thomas, however, gives us the clue about their overall ignorance of the state of the Church with his positive words about university and the chaplaincy in building his Catholic Faith. He has no idea, apparently, that the chaplaincy is more likely than the Salvation Amy to lead him away from the Faith.
Preaching? Sermons? Homilies? Who Needs ‘Em?
Answer: We all do at this time of crisis, especially the young – as never before.
That doesn’t mean the preacher has to pope-bash or bishop-bash; it just means teaching the Faith, led by the Gospel/readings of the day as Church Law requires, and allowing the grace of God to work in souls. Your thoughts…
Note: please do not name any priests or parishes in the comments below. Canonised saints are the exception – feel free to name them and to quote from their sermons, many available online. Thank you.
I remember when I used to attend novus ordo masses many years ago. We sometimes had a priest who used to give a ‘sermon’ at each and every Mass – weekday or Sunday. We called him ‘Fr Reallyjust’ because he used to start all his sermons by saying ‘Really just a few words to say . . . ‘ and then 30 minutes or more later we’d all be asleep or suicidal. He once told us that he never prepared his sermons but just asked the Holy Spirit for the right words to say. And his ‘sermons’ were rambling, disjointed and devoid of any spiritual nourishment or food for thought. On the other hand, about the same time, I knew an old school Jesuit who could give a sermon lasting less than five minutes, that would give you enough to meditate on for a week. I put it down to lack of formation in the seminary and this strange idea that some priests have that every time they open their mouths during Mass, the Holy Spirit will speak through them.
I think the mistake many priests make is that they fail to grasp that the congregation is made up of all kinds of people, many of them of average intellect but deprived of their theological and philosophical prowess. Others may be of lesser intellect and therefore completely unable to understand their lofty offerings, which are a result more of pride than piety. That’s why it is imperitive that priests preach in such a way that all can understand and profit.
Our Lord was the example of this, He preached in a way that all understood and benefited from because His sacred words were simple and supernatural – they spoke to the heart rather than the intellect. Priests used to be taught this as part of their pastoral training, but that wisdom largely went out of the window with Vatican II.
The difference between that novus ordo priest you referenced and the old-school Jesuit is that the old-school Jesuit, who was doubtless far more intellectually capable, belonged to that wise school of pastorally-trained priests before Vatican II. He probably prayed for the light of God’s grace before preaching as well, which is something I doubt the novus ordo priests did. I have often found that those who don’t prepare their sermons, claiming to leave all to the Holy Spirit, are simply lazy priests. These types invariably end up rambling and boring their listeners in the way that St. Francis de Sales observed when he said “the tree that puts forth too much wood bears no fruit”.
I think the Church should enjoin every priest to say a Hail Mary together with their congregation before preaching, a practice which would surely bring down grace on the priest and his listeners.
Just as an aside, I remember reading in the life of St. Louis de Montfort (I think!) how he was invited to preach at one of the most prestigious Cathedrals in France, such was his reknown for converting thousands by his homilies. On the appointed day, all of the Church dignitaries and university intellectuals from the region and beyond took up their places in the Cathedral to hear what they thought would be a lengthy and intricate discourse. What happened next humbled them.
St. Louis mounted the steps of the pulpit, which towered above the congregation, and fixed a large crucifix to it, large enough for all to see the sacred corpus in every detail. He then descended and knelt before this image of Christ Crucified for around 15 minutes in silent, contemplative prayer before removing the crucifix and continuing with the Mass. Those present said it was the most eloquent and spiritually stirring homily they had ever witnssed. This is how the grace and wisdom of God works through his saints.
Well, I am personally not impressed with that “sermon” of St Louis de Montfort. Just think if every priest did that, we’d be in the situation where, in fact, no priests were preaching homilies at all!
TBH, I already find it irritating when a priest makes a bit of a to do about praying silently at the altar before his sermon and sometimes for a minute or so after.. That should be done on his own time, prior to Mass. To me, it smacks of theatre. People with small kids, for example, are already hard put to keep them quiet, so 15 minutes when the priest is praying instead of giving the homily as instructed in Canon Law, would test my patience and, for the record, I happen to know that a short temper was something that saint De Montfort suffered from, so you’d think he’d have known better, LOL!
The Church, as it says in the intro, requires a priest to preach on the readings of the day. If they don’t do that, however pious they might seem to be, they are disobeying the Church.
I think you missed the point of that story. St. Louis was giving a lesson in humility and piety to the intellectuals gathered to hear him. He was making a one-off point to those who loved to hear lengthy discourses of intricate creation that stimulate the mind but leave the heart cold. He only did this once and it reaped great fruits in that it opened the eyes and hearts of many intellectually proud men. That was the intention of St. Louis.
I don’t know about priests praying silently before the altar before and after homilies because I’ve never witnessed that. I have witnessed the priest leading the congregation in a Hail Mary before homily, however, and I think it’s a very pious example to give.
I think the saying of a Hail Mary before preaching is something the religious orders used to do. I agree, that is a very nice custom.
I’m glad that was a one-off example from St Louis De Montfort, as I’d be writing to my bishop to complain if he did that every week, LOL!
I take your point. The context changes my opinion – I hadn’t thought of it like that.
Saying that, however, I would have preferred the saint to say a few words at least to drive home his example and point out that the kind of education that is shown in certificates and professorships is of no real importance against the sacrifice of the cross. However, as I say, I take your point.
I think the old adage “evil abounds because good men do nothing” kind of fits with the importance of the homily. I have heard many homilies in my life; some average, some dreadful and some seriously inspiring.
The worst ones have been those of priests who use the homily as an occasion to teach catechetical or apologetics lessons, or who take the opportunity, like the Rev. I M Jolly, to depress everyone with overly negative rants on the state of the world, the Church and just about every soul on the planet. I have found by experience that homilies like this are usually preached by priests who lack personal piety, especially devotion to Our Lady.
I don’t think I have ever heard a poor or misguided homily from a priest devoted to Our Lady, particularly those who say a Hail Mary before preaching. The missionaries used to give it laldy about death, judgment, heaven or hell, but they balanced the terrifying truths they spoke with hope for sinners who repent and turn back to God through devotion to Our Lady. That’s why the missionary priests used to fill the churches to bursting.
Another key to success in preaching is to keep it short and to the point. The human mind can only listen for so long and then it begins to drift, unless the homily is so incredibly inspiring that time just seems to pass unnoticed. I’ve heard a few such homilies in my life, but they’re like hens teeth. The Council of Trent, understanding human frailty, advised around 15 to 20 minutes max for the homily, a time limit backed by both St. Francis de Sales and St. Francis of Assisi. The former put it so well when he observed that “the tree that puts forth too much wood bears no fruit”. Ah, the wisdom of the saints!
The question of priests skipping homilies altogether isn’t something I have personally experienced, thank God. I think every priest knows he’s obligated by Church law to preach to the faithful at least on Sundays and holy days. Our Lord told His Apostles to “go, teach all nations” – I don’t think they would have fulfilled that command had they skipped on homilies.
In my case, I experience the opposite! You’d never think there was anything wrong in the Church and the world, our priests speak as if everything in the garden is rosy! I suppose the answer is a healthy balance between making people aware of the godlessness around us and showing, through the readings of the day, that we are called to holiness and so to help change that godlessness around us.
Yes, I suppose it does depend on the individual priest and his background formation, not to mention his natural temperament. Not too extreme in either direction would seem to be the way to go.
It is extremely important that priests preach at Mass and not just ramble on about stuff they don’t need to know. Young people are not getting the faith at school and they tend to look for confirmation outside the home to be affirmed that their parents are not just spinning a yarn, that the Church is really important etc and when they don’t hear the priest saying anything of significance, that just belittles the faith in their minds.
There’s a place for piety and praying but the homily is to open out the Scriptures to us, so that we understand their meaning for us in our lives. It’s not really happening a lot in my experience.
I agree, but would add that “opening out the Scriptures” is more effective when it is done piously. Piety and the Scriptures are not separate entities, they are inexctricably linked.
I agree, they are not two separate things, everything is really joined up in the Church but I mean for priest to go off at a tangent and preach about, say the miraculous medal, unless it is carefully woven into the scripture readings of that day, that is wrong.
I’ve often sat through pious sermons and been furious because the reading is one of great importance for my family and they are not hearing it explained. My kids already wear miraculous medals, and they know about other sacramentals. What they don’t know is how to apply today’s reading or gospel, what it means for them and that comes out when I ask them questions afterwards.
The Church is clear about the purpose of the homily and it is to help us to apply the faith to our daily lives. Other things might weave in, sacramentals, state of the world and Church etc, but not at the cost of that main purpose. That’s how I’ve always understood it and it’s only when going from one so-called traditional priest to another that I find confusion about this. Either the homily is a long lecture about something I know nothing about and don’t care about, or it’s about sacramentals. Or there’s no homily at all – I’ve experienced that and it makes me very angry.
I do believe you’re right at base, as long as the pious is interwoven with the material from the readings of the day, that’s fine. Otherwise, we’d be as well just bringing a spiritual reading book along, LOL!
I think we’re largely in agreement on this. The only thing I would add is that we also have to be careful that the homily doesn’t turn into a catechism or apologetics lesson. The formation of youngsters in the Scriptures and their meaning doesn’t just depend on the priest, it depends also to a great extent on the parents who presumably take the time to pass on the faith as they learned it to their children.
It’s quite interesting to note how intently homilies are now focussed on the Scriptural passages of the day. This, as far as I know, was not always the priority in relation to homilies before Vatican II. It seems this new emphasis coincided with the changes after Vatican II when piety and pious devotions were more or less discouraged altogether in favour of a more Scripture-based approach they say existed in the early Church and had remained more preeminent in Protestantism, especially Old Testament.
It was a lie, of course, because Catholic children before the Council were regularly taught Bible narrative at school and in catechism so that they were welll rounded in understanding Sacred Scripture. That was complimented by priests who preached on devotion to Our Lady, the saints, the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Sacrament, death, judgment heaven and hell, etc. It’s all necessary and complimentary, so too much in one direction or the other is actually wrong.
I get your point, though.
It seems to me that you are both correct!
After the Council, it used to irritate me when I heard this claim that homilies had to be based on the readings of the day at Mass. But I came to realise that “based on” doesn’t mean “restricted to” the readings of the day. I wasn’t of an age to take too much interest in the rationale behind preaching prior to the Council but I do remember we were taught about the need to love God, and – during the fiasco about Humanae Vitae with all the debates and attacks on the Church on TV – I recall clearly hearing our priests preach very strongly on that subject. One of the curates proclaimed, “Sin if you want to, but don’t try to justify it!” I don’t remember witnessing anyone walking out but I was told that it did happen at some Masses. Contraceptors outing themselves! Trust me to miss it 😀
Too many priests – the majority, perhaps – just do not appear to have the skill to see the links between the Scripture readings and the teaching of the Church. One of the most obvious examples is when the beautiful Gospel “Do not worry about tomorrow, what you are to wear, etc” – the Lilies of the Field Gospel – comes round. It must be many years now since I’ve heard that made the subject of a homily. Opportunities galore missed, I think every time I hear it read and then listen to a totally unrelated homily.
Yet, how helpful would it be to hear the connection made with the natural moral law, about marriage and family life, for example, where the focus on being able to “afford” children (i.e. don’t have children until you can keep them in luxury!) should be replaced with advocacy of a lively faith and trust in Divine Providence. Similarly, do not worry about saving the planet – God is doing that! There are so many missed opportunities to preach the fullness of the Faith in that one Gospel alone, especially at this point in history with mental illness of such concern. A return to a lively confidence in Divine Providence would – and should – replace the need for mental health professionals in Catholic lives.
I could go on and on (and I frequently do 😀 ) but that’s my tuppence worth for now.
Couldn’t agree more. These words put it in a nutshell “…I came to realise that “based on” doesn’t mean “restricted to” the readings of the day…”
I thought I’d post this collection of audio recordings of sermons of St John Vianney. I haven’t listened to them myself, but I’ve often read some of the saint’s sermons and I’ve always been touched by them. I would hope that maybe some priest visitors here would find them helpful.
The young people in the Sancta Familia video are obviously sincere and well meaning. They won’t realise that they don’t know the faith properly – how can any of us know what we don’t know?!
The sad thing is that their parents also won’t know the faith. I remember reading something Archbishop Winning said a few years ago, that (and this was at that time, years ago) three generations had by then not been properly catechised. Therefore, they could not pass on the faith to their children. Someday there will be a serious reckoning when the souls affected by this Church crisis come before God and alongside them will be those responsible for their lives gone awry because they weren’t taught properly. They will have to answer for their neglect.
Never a truer word spoken.
This is from the introduction, and I think it is a very important point:
“Every priest, in my view, should recall – when preparing for every Mass – that at this particular Mass there may be someone, perhaps just one person, who is there for the first time, perhaps the only time. One priest preaching some aspect of the Faith carefully can make a huge impact on a soul, make a massive difference to someone’s life, especially if that person is young or hitherto weak or lapsed.”
If every priest thought like that, the quality of their preaching would shoot up, IMHO.
I actually met a young man I’ve not seen in ages, going into Mass last week, who – shall we say – would certainly find homilies useful, to put it mildly! I’ve known him for a long time, and he is a lovely young man, but – like every other young Catholic in Scotland today – he was let down by his so-called Catholic school, and by the time his parents realised that the Church was/is in crisis, he’d grown up. This is a situation that pertains across the country right now, so priests should be doubly conscious of the need to fulfil that key duty of preaching well, and at the appointed time (after the Gospel reading) during Mass. Note: they all seem to find the time and the motivation to ask for money from the lectern, so c’mon, there’s no excuse whatsoever for not preaching a thoughtful homily, let alone not preaching at all. What?!$£! No excuse. None. Zippo.
A really very good Topic Ed and one which should be close to every Catholics Heart . Also what great comments and especially that the Hail Mary should be said before each Sermon is very apt. As you say Ed many readings come and go and their is nothing said about it in the Sermon. One of my favourite passages is of St Paul ” I have fought the Good Fight ,i have finished the race and i have kept the Faith ”
never have i ever [ at least in my memory ] have i heard a Priest really preach on that reading.
One of the best stories on Sermons i heard was about a Priest who was notorious for long Sermons .
It was in the U.S.A. on a sweltering day and most were dreading another long one . The good Priest looked around His congregation for a moment then said . ” If we think this is Hot then we better be Good”
I read somewhere that the ideal sermon should have a good beginning, a good end and the two should close together.