“No More Boring Homilies!” – New Vatican Document on Preaching

The German section of Vatican reports that the Congregation for Divine Worship has issued guidelines for preaching today. Pope Francis, who had strong and colorful language on the importance of preaching in his visionary document Evangelii gaudium, approved the new document.

The German headline is “No more boring homilies.” May it be so! Let’s hope the document isn’t a boring one either.

Pray Tell will report more as it becomes known.

 

 

34 comments

  1. I will await with interest, but for goodness sake, give us a break!

    Priests have to do a homily, week in, week out. Some of us do short homilies on weekdays too. The Congregation must be full of people who don’t have this task, or they would not be presuming to lecture those of us who work hard, often with minimal inspiration, to prepare something every Sunday for our people.

    Every comment about Mass, or the Homily, or anything we are trying so hard to do better, being ‘boring,’ is just one more nail in the coffin.

    I’m surprised that more of my colleagues haven’t just given up the ghost on this.

    Yours, curmudgeonly-ly
    Alan Griffiths.

    1. @Alan Griffiths – comment #1:
      Maybe it’s time for clergy to take a back seat occasionally, and let others preach. If the experience is such a broken one, that is. I think that for every curmudgeon in the pulpit, there are at least a hundred more in the pews.

      Ten hours a week devoted to homiletics is not too much considering that the biggest Catholic crowd, by far, is a captive audience.

    2. @Alan Griffiths – comment #1:
      I am very sympathetic. My Protestant minister friends spend hours on their homilies and, in fact, they are rather engaging. I think if the average Catholic priest were to spend the same amount of time, a lot of other things would not get done. Can you imagine someone calling a parish and actually getting through to a live person who responds, “I’m sorry but Father is working on his homily right now, Can he call you back later?”

      1. @Halbert Weidner – comment #15:

        and Todd at #20 both call to mind the reflection that in a real sense it’s not Father’s homily, it’s the parish’s homily.

        Some of the most grounded homilies I have experienced have been in those parishes where on Monday evening the homilist(s) gather(s) with those readers who are to proclaim the scriptures the following Sunday. (Other readers can attend, too.) They chew over those scriptures together, and their mutual reflection on the scriptures feeds into the homily you hear the following weekend.

        And this is not just about content but about style. This joke reappears as a way of oiling the wheels; that phraseology is reused as a way of communicating with the people in the pews. No more regurgitating paragraphs of churchspeak that the homilist received in the seminary, sailing over the people’s heads. No more inaccessible, irrelevant outpourings or hectorings or ramblings. Instead, nourishment for the listeners, at their level, presented in an engaging way.

        This of course requires homilists who listen to their people as well as teach them. It requires priest-homilists with the humility to recognize that as celibate men of a certain age they may not have all the answers. It requires gifted storytellers and preachers who actually love people.

        As far as preparation time is concerned, if priests were to focus on preaching and pastoral work and leave all, yes all, the administrative work to other trusted collaborators, it wouldn’t be quite such a problem fitting it in.

        Earle Luscombe #22 mentions preaching skills as an innate talent. I tend to agree. I also remember the days when the Archdiocese of Chicago would hold a two-week practicum on presiding and homiletic skills for seminarians in their final year. At the end of that, the students were tested. If they couldn’t preside or preach adequately, they didn’t get ordained. End of story. Any amount of academic learning or spiritual development counted for nothing — the practical necessities were the absolute first priority. (If only it were so today, instead of the other way round.) It was a great stimulus to inculcating a real desire to communicate in those students for the priesthood!

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #23:

        ” I also remember the days when the Archdiocese of Chicago would hold a two-week practicum on presiding and homiletic skills for seminarians in their final year. At the end of that, the students were tested. If they couldn’t preside or preach adequately, they didn’t get ordained. End of story. Any amount of academic learning or spiritual development counted for nothing — the practical necessities were the absolute first priority. (If only it were so today, instead of the other way round.) ”

        Something quite similar to this was a prerequisite for diaconal ordination to the permanent diaconate in that archdiocese in 2004, when I was ordained, and I believe is still a requirement for that program. I am not sure what the presbyteral ordination requirements are these days.

        Your point, though, that there are practical necessities is well-taken. Our homiletic formation leaned much more heavily on preparing and writing the homily than delivering the homily, yet my observation is that persons who have good reputations as preachers, earn that reputation more so by their personal presence and presentation than by the actual content of their homilies. (I find reading the text of homily to be a rather “flat” experience.)

  2. Back in the last century, I served under a pastor who went to a training on how to prepare and present effective homilies. One of the messages he heard was,”if you can’t say it in five minutes, you’re saying to much”. On the first Sunday after that training, he brought his homily written on a 3×5 index card. Best homily ever.

    I think we all know that it takes quality time praying the scriptures to prepare and present effective homilies. The daily demands on a pastor can make that difficult but not impossible. I would think that just about every parish has a core group of lay people, paid and/or volunteer who would be willing to collaborate with the pastor to define what duties absolutely belong to the pastor and what duties could be assumed by a lay person or, if a parish is blessed, duties that can be assumed by a deacon.

    I think that an effective pastor is one who can be a living example of what he preaches. If all parish leadership could be examples of good stewardship in the way they manage their time, prayer life and relationship with Christ and living the Gospel, maybe the pastor wouldn’t have to feel so overburden that he can’t find the time to properly prepare and present effective homilies. Blessings!

    1. @Therese D Butler – comment #2:
      I agree that brevity makes a good homily, but what I find is that most priests have lots of experience and lots of useful thoughts. In fact, they have too many thoughts.

      One of my favorite all time priests (now retired, sort of) used to give a great homily for about 8 minutes and start to come in for a landing, think of something else and take off on another tangent. This could happen 2 or 3 more times. Sometimes the hard part is thinking about what really is worthwhile and being disciplined enough to stick to it.

  3. I think we thirst for brevity because most preachers are so bad at it, we can’t bear any more than the minimum.

    What I really long for is preaching that is so engaging, so apt, so skillfully arranged and insightful, so revealing of and affirming of the truth of the gospel as we want it to be lived as well as believed, that I don’t want it to end at the end of 5 minutes!

    Boredom, frankly, isn’t produced by length. Nathan Mitchell once defined boredom as what happens when one is forced to pay attention to things that don’t matter.

  4. I remember an excellent presentation on preaching given by J. Neil Alexander, who was later appointed (Episcopal) Bishop of Atlanta, and is now Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee. He posited that good preaching has inherently good structure, and detailed how one good model was the Sonata-Allegro form in music – basically: Introduction (always short) – Exposition (no more than two themes) – Development (in which the themes are expanded and transformed) – Recapitulation (themes, returning to the “home key”) – Coda (optional). So maybe as a musician I was pre-disposed to appreciating it, but it makes a lot of sense.

  5. I’m with Rita on this. I have heard three-minute homilies that were too long and 20-minute homilies that left me wanting more. Also, the premium that Catholics put on brevity these days is very much time and culture conditioned. One need only look at Augustine’s homilies from the 4th century or Newman’s homilies in the 19th to see how long preachers could go on in times past. Likewise, pentecostal and evangelical churches even today seem to expect 35-40 minute sermons. So I don’t think I really buy the if-you-can’t-say-it-in-five-minutes-you’re-saying-too-much approach. It really depends on what you have to say and how you say it.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #6:

      +1, Fritz. I’ve noticed a seemingly pervasive resignation among bishop/priest/deacon homilists that serves to exonerate them from any other inspirational responsibility other than a deconstruction, summary or simple regurgitation of the day’s lessons. It baffles me in that virtually every act of worship ought to be purposed as counter-cultural. Church is the last vestige of intentional corporate singing (karaoke doesn’t count.) Church is the one place where the stories told are an integral necessity for anamnesis to occur, and where a “wise man” (pun intended, gender bias not) has occasion to invite rapt attention of a community of people who, in fact, will share the import of his words with others after worship throughout the week.
      It, like music, is not about quantity, but truly about quality. Intellectual anemia in this cyber era is unacceptable, yet no none says a mumblin’ word to these clerics! As Dickens penned “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

  6. I could tell jokes for seven minutes and, if they were good jokes, nobody would be bored, but I won’t have fulfilled the homiletic function.

    As a preacher, all I can do is my best to proclaim my faith. I grant that I have a responsibility to make it as engaging and digestible as I’m able. I’d say that the people also have a responsibility to attend to my words as best they can. If we manage to connect, boredom doesn’t ensue. If we don’t, then each of us needs to ask ourselves why. I say this as someone who sometimes is in the pulpit and sometimes in the pews.

  7. I’m not like reading prayers. Preaching is a gift. Not everyone can be MLK Jr. Unlike our Protestant brethren, we don’t weed out the poor preachers. There’s only so much you can do before facing the reality that some homilies are boring because some homilists are boring.

  8. “I have heard three-minute homilies that were too long and 20-minute homilies that left me wanting more.”

    “I could tell jokes for seven minutes and, if they were good jokes, nobody would be bored, but I won’t have fulfilled the homiletic function.”

    “Preaching is a gift. Not everyone can be MLK Jr.”

    I mean this in the nicest and most Christian spirit, but these are all deflections and excuses. You focus on the word brevity as if it were intended to be the goal; it is not so intended. It is offered as the result of reflection and the winnowing out of thoughts that come to mind during the reflection, but which act more to distract from the main point. It is what happens when thoughts are organized and concepts are related to each other in a way that the average parishioner can embrace them both intellectually and personally. And notice I said ‘average’ person – not academic, not priest, not music minister. Finding that niche – the sweet spot where that can occur is very hard. But it is the goal.

    And it is possible. After all, parishioners are ‘sick people’ coming to the ‘ER’ for some help, and they are willing to listen to a doctor that will talk to them in words they can understand and in ways that have meaning to a wide range of personalities. They wantto listen>; give them an extra reason to do so is all that I am saying.

    Worst case: you might have to tell a parable

    1. @Charles Day – comment #12:

      “It is what happens when thoughts are organized and concepts are related to each other in a way that the average parishioner can embrace them both intellectually and personally.”

      I’d be surprised if any homilist here would disagree with this.

      The headline, though, says, “No More Boring Homilies!” And a well-organized and conceptually coherent homily can still be a boring homily.

      Boredom is what the listener experiences. It is not something that the homilist does. I grant (as I granted in my previous comment) that the homilist has control over the content and the delivery. But the listener also brings herself/himself to the dance that we call communication.

      I suspect that college students worldwide would love someone to issue the edict, “No more boring lectures!”. I attended quite a few in my day that I concede were well-organized and coherent. Face paint and seltzer bottles can’t make Aristotle or Hume interesting to a person who is not already interested. But to the person who is interested, it is gripping stuff.

      Are boring homilies really the problem? I don’t hear many boring homilies. I do hear homilies that address things that don’t really resonate with me. If I’m one of 500 persons in attendance, though, I don’t know what the 499 are experiencing.

      While I’m getting things off my chest: I also question the knowledge base of bishops when it comes to parish preaching. Bishop Untener famously videotaped the homilies of his clergy, and engaged in constructive critiques with them. I don’t think many other bishops have done so. Nor can I think of a time when a bishop visited our parish when he didn’t give the homily himself. I’d suggest that most diocesan bishops don’t really have a first-hand clue of the quality of preaching in their own dioceses; and the guys in Rome issuing this document are another degree (or more than one) removed.

    2. @Charles Day – comment #12:
      Charles, I don’t disagree with you. Many bad homilies are bad because they are too long, not in the sense that they go over some preset “ideal” homily length, but because they are filled with extraneous thoughts and insights that would be better eliminated. Many homilies I hear seem to have needed one or two more rounds of editing before being given. I know that in my own homily preparation I usually eliminate the first quarter or half of what I’ve written in the final editing because it is simply stuff that I needed in order to get my thought process going and to find my direction. It’s sort of like mental throat clearing. It was important for me to write it, but it isn’t important for the assembly to hear it.

      I also think many homilies could be improved if preachers wrote them out in their entirety. They wouldn’t necessarily have to read them (I read mine, but that’s me). But the process of writing out every word can help you to figure out the most economical way of saying what you want to say and to decide what needs to be said and what doesn’t.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #24:

        “I also think many homilies could be improved if preachers wrote them out in their entirety. They wouldn’t necessarily have to read them (I read mine, but that’s me). But the process of writing out every word can help you to figure out the most economical way of saying what you want to say and to decide what needs to be said and what doesn’t.”

        Hi, Fritz, I agree with you. I just want to note that a priest friend who is around the age of 70 mentioned to me that in his own preaching formation in seminary, they were dissuaded from writing out their homilies and giving them word-for-word; it was thought better that priests could “preach on their feet”, because they could expect to frequently find themselves in situations where it was required. I don’t know if that is still taught; it is a good skill to have, and one at which I am not expert, but my view is that most preachers, probably the great majority, would improve by putting in the preparation you’re advocating here.

  9. I hope the guidance will nail the old canard that the homily “has” to be on the Gospel of the day or even on the readings, Sometimes, another text of the Mass – the Introit or the Eucharistic Prayer, for example, and especially the Preface – provides enough material for reflection and catechesis. To expect a full exegesis of all three readings in the space of 900 words or so is to put a pressure on the liturgy which it cannot always bear. We end up with a liturgy of words, rather than a liturgy of the Word, which both homilist and congregation find indigestible.

    It should also be remembered that if the homilist has a serious responsibility to be as well prepared as possible, so does the congregation. In the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium (n 11) “… in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.”

    1. @Fr Richard Duncan CO – comment #13:

      Two things:

      I appreciate this comment. Sometimes, as the late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh OSB nonce wrote, the Gospel etc says it all and anything further in a homily is mere repetition. The General Instruction gives us greater latitude, and I am happy to take advantage of it, too.

      The problem with our liturgical ‘renewal’ is that SC n.11 has not happened in most places I have experienced over 40 years in sacred orders.

      Last week I was faced with people who said they couldn’t be at Mass on Sunday morning because they had decided to come to the Advent 4 carol-singing session in the evening instead. Says it all!

      AG.

      1. @Alan Griffiths – comment #28:
        I think I would agree that SC 11’s renewal is far from complete. I don’t think any experienced pastoral liturgist would say institutional revisions alone are enough to get the bus over the finish line.

        I’m not sure what that last episode reveals. Clearly, the people found one of two things. One, an experience of God in singing that rivaled, matched, or excelled their experience of the Eucharist. Two, their sense of “obligation” was filled by bodily presence once during a church weekend.

        I’d be guessing as to whom is at fault: an excellent music minister, a long line of obligation-oriented clergy, busy parishioners, believers who have yet to take the steps into discipleship, limp celebrations of the Mass … People need to be led. By good leaders.

  10. I would encourage homilists to take inventory, fearlessly, of how they employ the first person singular in their homilies.

    It would also be wonderful if homilists would purge the various devices from their homilies that treat how they came up with their homiletic content.

  11. As a Church, we celebrate with Word and Sacrament. I think the quality of the homily can be amplified by the way the homilist prays the Mass and how the message is lived during the week.
    Extending this beyond just the homilist, how Word and Sacrament are lived out in the pastoral life of the parish influence the reception of the homily on Sunday. Which comes first, vibrant parish life or vibrant homilies, I am not sure, but I have found they often go together. If you will, they feed off one another.
    I see these dynamics being lived out by Pope Francis and hear more often from people, I like how he is living the Gospel message. I think people are apt to listen because of how they see him living.
    In the end, the Catholic position of both/end seems fitting: both Word and Sacrament; both word and deed; both prayer and action; both Sunday liturgy and weekday pastoral life; both priest and people contribute to both boring and vibrant homilies.

  12. I agree with Rita & Fritz that we long for brevity because of the quality of the homilies. One of my favorite passages from Evangelii Gaudium (#135):

    “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it [the homily], and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case.”

    Sad indeed.

  13. We have experienced the exodus of a number of NM Catholics to Evangelical Mega-Churches precisely because of the quality of preaching at some parishes. Preaching has not been given the attention it should have, both in seminaries and deacon formation programs.

    Dr Dolly Sokol
    Archdiocese of Santa Fe

  14. If and when Rome, the bishops, or a parish pastor got serious about homiletics, improvement would not be far away. But it might not be easy.

    Cultivate it like it’s an art form, but please, please, don’t practice it like its catechesis. The homily is not a 900-word exegesis. Homilies and speaking must be practiced. Regularly.

    If I were preaching regularly, I would consult a voice and acting coach to learn how to better use my voice to communicate. I would be praying daily on the Scriptures I was asked to preach. I would be recording myself, and consulting video and audio regularly. Most importantly, I would be gathering small groups of parishioners to reflect on the liturgy, and I would be asking them for feedback after I preached. And I would be asking very pointed questions of trusted voices in the parish, including my ministry colleagues.

    Some of these tasks were outlined by the US bishops in 1981. Maybe we need a new document on preaching, but if American clergy were paying attention a third of a century ago, and their seminary profs knew better, we US Catholics wouldn’t need it.

    I should point out that many of the communal forms of preparation and evaluation are ways for a cleric to make pastoral connections with the flock. I know I find it valuable to rehearse with parishioners for music. And share faith on the periphery of that. I would love to have a regular opportunity to share the liturgy with interested believers, and I can’t imagine why priests and deacons would not. It seems like a matter of reordering priorities. And if this document from Rome inspires some change along these lines, maybe that’s a good thing.

  15. I believe good preaching is an innate talent. My father was a United Methodist pastor, and an excellent preacher. His content was good, and his delivery was outstanding. I play the organ, reasonably well, but no matter how much study, practice, I do, I am not going to be Sebastian Bach, or Gerre Hancock. I don’t have that level of talent. By the way, as an administrator, organizer/fundraiser, he was a disaster.

    p.s. I hope this makes sense.

    Earle

  16. Four years ago, Fr. Ruff kindly posted a piece I wrote about what might make for a good homily at PrayTell. In it I wrote: “We are here because we long to encounter the living God. Help us grow in the ways that lead us to find God in all things and at all times, not just in the hour we are offering now.”

    We don’t come to be amused, to be instructed on exegetical nuances, to be scolded, or to be praised, we come to the liturgy to encounter God incarnate. In the assembly, in the presbyter, on the altar and in the Word – broken open for us at this time in this place.

    Yes, this takes time, prayer, and an ability to ‘hear’ a community’s needs.

  17. I have to admit that the homilies that have been memorized by the homilists do tend to be the best prepared. They might use a card for mental reinforcement from time to time during their preaching, but still, when I’ve seen this done, the content has typically been memorable.

    Just a thought.

  18. I am not sure that great homilies need to be short and well organized, or in sonata form, or even to contain no more than two or three thoughts.

    Many years ago, I heard tapes of an American preacher, Carlyle Marney, recorded at what I think was a Baptist retreat. It was riveting. I remember mostly a resonant bass voice, speaking slowly, with words that I didn’t grasp at the time. The sermons were long, and sometimes they seemed to sprawl. There were many, many ideas in them. But those words went very deep. Listening to those tapes changed by life forever.

    Not much of Carlyle Marney’s preaching seems to have been preserved, but I found a few snippets online that give a flavour of it. Here’s one:

    I shall not lift from this callow symptomatology a diagnosis yet. But where did it go – the Integrity we thought we knew as a given? What happened to that selfhood which both implies and rests on some power of self-actualization? Well, it was not just usurped by cultural diabolism, or the powers that perpetrate mass-hypnotism. Some of our selfhood we have given away; some we have traded away; some we have frittered away; but with respect to most of what is missing – courage, joy, and continuity, we simply never put in our claim. That is to say, we have, by and large, still to achieve a worthy “I.” For no “I” by definition, means that integrity is an impossibility.

    and another

    It is not just a failure of nerve–it is not just a failure of morality, it is a failure in direction. It is not just a failure in goodness–we are as good as the people who are outside the church – it is that the church is inward oriented. It survives to keep itself going. It is no longer sought. It is a subjective, inward, defensive, closed, self-concerned corporation and it is a moral failure on the broad scale. If this continues it would be the death of Christendom as it is already the death of the institutions of Christendom, for the inward-oriented church will not hold the tide back. Our little ghettos will not contain the beast. Our little institutions will neither civilize nor redeem nor save nor make. This is the end of the world the Book of Revelation talks about. The Church Herself becomes a beast or as Revelation puts it “a harlot and the mother of harlots.”

    The editor of a sermon collection describes Marney’s sermons as “visceral, eloquent, often ambiguous and difficult to grasp.” This is the opening paragraph of a sermon that the same editor calls “one of his most coherent and direct.”

    There’s a text for what I am about to try to do to you. And I confess to some pleasure always in setting out to do it for, to, or with you, here. But how did I ever think to do it from here or there, for that matter. Years ago I sat on the last row in my old place to hear my successor and suddenly I realized I had never seen the backs of their necks – in Church. They seemed somehow to stiffen – in Church. How did I think to do anything to them in just ten years? It’s sheer presumption there – or here, for that matter. We all have ways of defending ourselves against the Gospel – preached. But I do bring a text to my presumption.

    Not everyone can preach like Carlyle Marney, of course. Perhaps some would say that’s a good thing! But it is possible.

  19. The homily allows the preacher to fulfill his role as prophet, in that it allows the preacher to take the Word of God, which at times may seem very abstract and vague to us, and show us how to respond to it in our parrticular place and circumstances.
    The homily isn’t an inspirational ‘break’ (or, as a youngster once referred to it: the commercial) in the liturgy; it is one more opportunity for the Word to become flesh.

  20. I have had friends in Europe who used to tell me that they have stopped going to Sunday worship because they could not tolerate the homily. Very often it used to be a type of scolding! I personally have not been given the gift of preaching, I am afraid! But I have generally the gift of brevity. Five minutes for a Sunday sermon that I used to read out in German or in Italian. My kind friends appreciated and said, “I liked your homily – it was short”. The Sunday Mass used to be over in 25 minutes because I did not know too much German or Italian to give commentary on the Mass during the Mass!!!

  21. I hear the readings and the gospel, I’m not stupid. Their meanings are clear, please don’t impose lots of words over what is already understood. It’s a torment! One or two sentences will do!

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