How Long Should the Homily Be?

by Liborius Olaf Lumma

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis gave surprisingly detailed hints for preparation and rhetoric techniques for the liturgical sermon in the Mass, the homily (Art. 135–159).

Francis even discussed a homily’s appropriate duration:

“The homily […] 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.” (Art. 138)

Although I cannot exactly define what “balance” and “rhythm” mean in context of Mass, I am convinced that the pope mentions a very important aspect here: as the homily is an integral part of an aesthetic and artistic phenomenon (the liturgy), it has to be measured by aesthetic and artistic categories.

But what is the “briefness” that Francis mentions? He only gives a hint (“the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the center of attention,” Art. 138), but he does not suggest an exact duration. So it might be interesting to find out how long Francis’ homilies themselves are.

Well, I did not perform a precise research project, but I had a look at the list of the published papal homilies on the Vatican website (most of them in Masses, few on other occasions, such as solemn Vespers). I took every fourth one of them (always the Italian version), copied them into my word processor, and counted the words (including abbreviated biblical books etc.). So here is the list of numbers of words in papal homilies in increasing order:

  • 363, 499, 563 (3 times below 600 words);
  • 612, 627, 663, 673, 679, 691, 708, 730, 750, 753, 772, 773, 774 (13 times between 601 and 800);
  • 802, 805, 815, 829, 836, 836, 837, 855, 871, 871, 912, 922, 941 (13 times between 801 and 1000);
  • 1015, 1033, 1048, 1094, 1097, 1104, 1121, 1140 (8 times between 1001 and 1200);
  • 1203, 1213, 1214, 1242, 1249, 1255, 1319, 1319, 1331, 1380, 1399 (11 times between 1201 and 1400).
  • 1401, 1545, 1588, 1727 (4 times above 1400).

The average is about 961 words.

By the way, the two shortest on this list were the homilies within the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in 2015 and 2016, and the longest was just a few days ago in Poland on the occasion of the World Youth Day.

So the average papal homily has less than 1000 words, but with a large scope from about 600 to 1400, everything else being an exception. Such a homily takes between (approximately) 8 and 18 minutes, meaning that it covers (about) from one-eighth to one-fourth of the duration of an entire Mass.

Of course I know that there are vast cultural differences around the Catholic world concerning the congregation’s expectations of a good homily. But according to my experience mainly in the German-speaking areas, I would say that Francis gives a very good measure for liturgical “balance” and “rhythm,” although I am still meditating on a good justification why this is my opinion.

Liborius Olaf Lumma studied theology and philosophy in Munster, Munich, and Innsbruck. He holds the degrees of Doctor theologiae and Privatdozent (habilitation) and is assistant professor in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at Innsbruck University. His major research fields are Gregorian Chant, Liturgy of the Hours, and Ecumenical Theology. He is a member of the Ecumenical Commission of the Austrian Bishops’ conference and board member of the German section of the International Association for Studies of Gregorian Chant (AISCGre).

38 comments

  1. I have read that some African priests who come to the US are surprised – and dismayed – that 30+ minute homilies are not the norm here. It seems that different cultures have different expectations.

    For some reason, around here 5-7 minutes is kicked around as the ideal length. Mine tend to be 9-10 minutes. I’m growing to accept that I’m verbose :-).

  2. There is no uniformity in how long the Mass is either – from 40 minutes in Ireland, to 2-3 hours in Africa are some norms I’m aware of. For an African priest used to a 3 hour Mass, a 30 minute homily is not out of proportion to the rest.

  3. I have read quotes from Pope Francis that any homily longer than 10 minutes is a lecture. So far, I have seen him only give a few “lectures” and it just may have been coincidence but they were usually Masses where few laity were present. Hmmm…

  4. About 20 years ago a Jesuit liturgy professor, John Baldovin, suggested 7 minutes as the ideal length of a homily. Why? He said that was the normal time between commercials on TV. People begin to get restless after that time.

  5. In days gone by, our Lutheran friends would have felt short-changed by anything less than a full hour….

  6. I write out my homilies and deliver them more or less as written, so I went back and checked the word count on the one’s I’ve given since Easter Sunday. The count was:
    1236
    1044
    925
    949
    1262
    1200

    So it looks like the Pope and I are pretty much on the same page (whew!).

    As has been said many times before, a poor homily of 200 words is too long and a good homily of 2000 words is just right. That said, I think that, after a certain point, the longer a homily is the harder it is to make it good. If you’re going to preach for half an hour, you better make damn sure that you’re not wasting the assembly’s time with long, throat-clearing introductory anecdotes or digressions that force them to struggle to keep the main point in mind or multiple unconnected thoughts about the readings.

    I’d be interested in knowing how long it takes folks to prepare a Sunday homily. I would guess I spend about 8-10 hours on a homily that will take 10-12 minutes. Some of that time is spent reading and praying over the readings (including reading patristic, medieval, and modern commentaries), some of it drafting, but a lot of it editing. I find that I can usually cut off the first quarter of my initial draft, since I tend to spin my wheels a lot before I get to the point. That is one advantage of writing out the homily, even if you later reduce it to bullet points or even simply memorize an outline.

  7. When homilies regularly are twice to three times as long as the liturgy of the Eucharist, one gets that sense that the more important action is the the homily, which is not the case.

  8. The memoir of Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy Department in the Wilson Administration, notes the following:

    A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

    Because his speeches predate the broadcast era, it’s not widely known today that Wilson was highly regarded as an orator in his time.

    * * *

    One way (among many) to focus homilies is to scrub first-person references from them (not just first person singular, but first person plural that functions as an indirect way to include the first person singular).

    And please prepare them.

    And, whatever you do, please refrain from telling us: (i) how awkward or uninspiring or [insert other negative term here] the readings are to homilize upon, or (ii) how you got your idea for your homily.

  9. Just recently a family friend was telling us why she left the Catholic church to join an evangelical megachurch. The main reason was the quality of the preaching, their ability to take the Word and connect it to her lived experience. Even after 40 years as an active Catholic, she has never been so engaged and alive in her faith. Now she’s studying scripture, going to a weekly faith-sharing group, and her kids are very involved in youth ministry. She supposes she had heard the preaching of perhaps a few dozen priests and deacons over the years, and she says none of them are even in the ballpark of the pastor and other preachers at her new church. I’ve heard similar stories many times, but I don’t hear of any widespread or organized effort to improve the quality of preaching in Catholic parishes. The most common positive comment I hear about Catholic preaching: homily was short and he got us out of there in 45 minutes.

      1. @Vic Romero:
        The problem is the PIPs can voice approval of what they approve, and silence is the more typical approach for dealing with what is lacking, as it were. (Whereas musicians often have the other problem.) In either case, there’s asymmetry. The most common method of dealing with a chronic problem – if you have choice and means – is to go somewhere else less annoying or, sometimes, even better. When PIPs go missing, it’s not like most American Catholic parishes really notice… Unlike Benedictines, PIPs don’t take vows of stability. (Nor do pastors – so they can depart messes they make without having to mop up afterward.)

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        I asked a priest-friend once how a bishop knows how well his priests preach. [My underlying assumption was that a bishop can help improve his priests’ preaching with additional training and coaching]. The priest said the bishop does not really know. He never comes to observe, as a principal or vice principal would observe a teacher teach a class. If a priest is a good preacher, you will hear people say, “He is a good preacher.” If a priest is not a good preacher, chances are you will hear nothing.

  10. Karl Liam Saur :And, whatever you do, please refrain from telling us: (i) how awkward or uninspiring or [insert other negative term here] the readings are to homilize upon, or (ii) how you got your idea for your homily.

    In general I agree with this, but this past Sunday I just had to comment on how much beating was going on at the end of the Gospel reading.

  11. Chip Stalter :When homilies regularly are twice to three times as long as the liturgy of the Eucharist, one gets that sense that the more important action is the the homily, which is not the case.

    I see this sort of comment a lot, but remain unconvinced that time=importance. John’s account pf the Last Supper spends a lot of time on Jesus’ “homily” and doesn’t even mention the institution of the Eucharist.

  12. I agree about the quality of most mega-church preaching being better than most Catholic preaching. That said, their concept of a sermon isn’t the same as our concept of a homily. They include much more exegesis and out and out teaching. Perhaps our concept needs to change?

  13. I recall from a Sunday 7:00 a.m. Mass maybe twenty years ago…. I had mentally noted with appreciation that our somewhat older and home from the missions Asst. Pastor had spoken about Topic #1, Topic #2 and Topic #3 in quite a short time.

    After the Mass, a woman in the congregation complained to me that Father’s homily couldn’t have been more than five minutes long. “All he had said was Topic #1, Topic #2 and Topic #3.” I smiled and agreed that he had spoken well of those topics.

    I assert that if you want your words to be remembered, keep them short and preferably memorable perhaps as to a mnemonic or as a number in a list.

  14. Abraham Lincoln was once asked, “How long should a man’s legs be?” His reply: “Long enough to reach the ground.”

  15. I’m less concerned about length than I am about content and quality. Of course, having some background in rhetoric and public speaking, I’m a bit spoiled for sermons and homilies. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s difficult to put it back. I can’t /not/ analyze a sermon to death. I suspect most folks in the congregation don’t do that, but I’ve forgotten how to sit and just receive one as it comes along.

    I’ve endured 25 minute sermons that repeated the same basic theme over and over the entire duration — “Be nice,” “Stay vigilant,” “Jesus Loves You,” etc. If a sermon can be summarized in the sermon title, I rather doubt it needs to go on for 25 minutes.

    Short homilies can get a predictable feel, too: Joke, summarize the OT lesson, anecdote, summarize the Epistle, personal story, summarize the Gospel, remind everyone to be nice to one another. Amen.

    A good homily, in my mind, presents an argument and defends it, using illustrations from the text and analogies from outside the text, and ideally, it preaches the Gospel, brings understanding about some church teaching or the liturgy itself, and gives the congregation an immediate application to their daily lives. Both extremes I’ve described fail to do so because they either a) pick an extremely banal point and beat it to death for half an hour, or b) don’t offer a coherent argument to be presented and defended. It requires more skill to advance an argument in nine minutes than it does in twenty-five; there’s not a word to waste. But it can be done, elegantly, beautifully, succinctly. The best of both leave you hungry for more and wondering where the time went.

  16. Just long enough for the musicians to read the parish newsletter and get the next piece of music ready on the stand.

  17. If you are a football, baseball, basketball, soccer, or hockey fan there is no such question as “how long should the ideal game last”. But when it comes to how long a good Mass or a good homily should last, we have all kinds of opinions. For various reasons, cultural Catholics tend to believe the shorter the better. On the other hand, charismatic Catholics so enjoy praising and worshiping God that they aren’t checking their watches to see how soon they might be finished. If someone is into “low Masses” with little to no praising God in song, forty-five minutes is a long time. But if you are a Catholic who loves to sing the Mass, an hour may be cutting it a little short. A lot of this conversation about lengths of homilies seems to presume that they are always given by people with the gift of preaching. Would that this were so. Since so many priests and deacons lack the gift, we turn to talk of measuring the length of their remarks. And, as we know, too many priests fail to celebrate Mass with a sense of fervor and devotion. If the leader of the assembly fails to inspire or edify us let’s hope it doesn’t go on too long.
    My weekday Mass typically takes about 30 minutes which includes little singing, but I may give a homily which lasts as much as ten minutes. Sunday Mass which is entirely sung takes about 70-75 minutes of which the homily is about 15 minutes. For 90% of the worshipers, this will be the only occasion during the week in which they will give some serious thought to what life is like and can be in the kingdom of God. Less time might be considered shortchanging to say the least. One of the problems with this whole duration theme is how we schedule Masses. Our Sunday Masses are two hours and forty five minutes apart. Plenty of time for fellowship, worship, and formation classes for people of all ages. But lots of parish schedules appear to be based on the principal of “move them in and move them out”. We need more Mass “fans”.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      ” But lots of parish schedules appear to be based on the principal of “move them in and move them out”.”

      In the USA, at least, that appears to be legacy of two progenitors: (i) the Tridentine-era corralling of Sunday Masses to start between 6AM and noon; and (ii) the Baby Boom’s coinciding with a shift of Catholic attendance from being feet-based to automobile-based. There are still a fair number of PIPs whose attendance at Mass was formed in that era.

  18. If I’m listening to a long lecture, I prefer to take notes so I can remember what the thing is about afterwards. Anything much longer than 7 minutes means that I have no memory of the early points and, even if the homily is wonderfully structured and perfectly delivered, all the work will be lost.

    That said, a friend who recently discovered Christianity accompanied me to Mass a little while ago and was very surprised by the brevity of the homily: he is much more used to 30 minutes or more of speaking on a topic.

    I agree with the Holy Father here: lectures are fine, but the emphasis during Mass should be on the Eucharist, and anything longer than 10 minutes can start to pull that emphasis back onto the rhetorical skill of the orator.

  19. I am convinced that the primary purpose of the liturgy of the word, including the homily, is to summon from the assembly the kind of faith that will increase their likelihood of recognizing Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread. The homily should inspire more than instruct. Trying to arrive at some kind of liturgical algorithm to determine the time parameters of the homily makes little sense to me.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      In Fulfilled In Your Hearing the US bishops wrote that “the liturgical homily draws on the Scriptures to interpret peoples’ lives in such a way that they can recognize the saving presence of God and turn to him with praise and thanksgiving” in the Eucharistic Prayer. Homilies explain how God is actually fulfilling the Word in peoples’ real lives. They are primarily revelatory, not didactic. How long does this take? Only as long as it takes to tell a few good stories that elucidate and identify the good news of God’s saving love in the
      lives of real people, so we are duly motivated to say Praise God!

  20. Fr. Lucien Deiss used to say (with a touch of his gentlemanly Old Word sexism) that a homily is like a skirt: it should be short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the topic.

  21. Not that I sit around watching CSPAN, yet have you ever seen when Congress members give one minute speeches? It’s amazing. You have only 60 seconds to get your point across. That makes you be to the point.

    I’ve also taken to tweeting my main thought. That has REALLY sharpened me.

    I’m all for well organized, succinct preaching!

  22. It depends on the priest’s ability and the subject. A lot of priests are not good at preaching, so shorter is better. In contrast, I once attended a Mass in the south where the priest was a former Protestant minister, and he gave a very long, but very good, homily. I can see why a lot of Catholics might drift to mega churches because of the quality of preaching – but I’ve also noticed that some non-denominational preaching tends to be more like a pep talk or motivational speech rather than a sermon or homily.

    I enjoy hearing different priests preach, since they have different styles and tend to like to focus on different things. One of my favorites is an older priest who tends to emphasize the importance of Christian joy in many of his homilies – a theme that is sadly ignored by many. The strangest homily I ever heard came from another old visiting priest, who must have been at the “too old to give a darn” stage in his life, and he pretty much went on a half hour passionate rant about how the Church has utterly failed at teaching and retaining young people (I should note that this was at my old run-of-the-mill OF parish when I was a teenager, so it wasn’t a traditionalist rant). I’ll always remember him saying “no wonder we’re a church full of dummies.”

  23. A speaker (not homilist) at a national Jewish-Catholic Dialogue in, I think, Pittsburgh, warned us at the beginning of his presentation that his would not be a “Hoop Skirt” talk; that is, long enough to cover everything but touching nothing.

    I rarely preach longer than 12 minutes. Longer homilies can be very good if 1) the homilist is particularly gifted and 2) the homilist is very well prepared. Like many of you, I have heard the same homily preached three times in one sitting AND three different homilies preached in one sitting. These faults come, I think, from lack of preparation.

    The mechanics can be very important. Does a homilist know how to use (and control) his voice? Does the homilist have a difficult to understand accent? Does the homilist have habitual, um, behaviors, that, um, take everyone’s attention away from, um, the topic…? Does he speak way too fast? These practical problems can overwhelm even the most inspirational, well-prepared sermon.

    1. @Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh:
      “Does a homilist know how to use (and control) his voice? Does the homilist have a difficult to understand accent? Does the homilist have habitual, um, behaviors, that, um, take everyone’s attention away from, um, the topic…? Does he speak way too fast? ”

      Beneath this may lurk an assumption that it’s better to be more “authentic” as a preacher – and fearing that learning what amounts to good elocution means you jeopardize that authenticity. (At least in the USA, that would be a common assumption.)

  24. “I asked a priest-friend once how a bishop knows how well his priests preach. [My underlying assumption was that a bishop can help improve his priests’ preaching with additional training and coaching]. The priest said the bishop does not really know. He never comes to observe, a a principal or vice principal would observe a teacher teach a class.”

    On the principle that leaders attend to what is important, this is a telling comment. By the same principle, I’ve heard more than one priest say that he wished he had more time to spend on homily preparation. Presumably priests spend their days focused on their bishops’ higher priorities.

    I’m frustrated at the moment because I attended a wedding this past Saturday that illustrated all of the complaints being rehearsed here: the homily was too long, uninspired, boring. When the attendees came into the church, they were happy, upbeat, energized for the day’s celebrations – lots of hugs and handshakes in the narthex, lots of compliments for each others’ clothes, lots of smiles and laughing.

    Then the preacher beat them into submission. After a few minutes, the body language of the people in the pews screamed, “just sit tight – it will have to be over soon – won’t it?” And this was not a situation in which a harried pastor had to search for words that would touch a couple and families he barely knew; on the contrary, the couple imported had him for the service because he is a longtime friend of one of the families.

    What a missed opportunity. There were over 100 people at the wedding mass, a good percentage of whom pretty clearly were unchurched. Just imagine if he could have found something to say that would make people say “wow”, or even “huh – never thought of it that way before”. Instead, they were given fodder for yet another round of mass-is-boring and Catholics-can’t-preach.

  25. The priest as preacher needs to pray and study. He also has to take time to understand the audience.

    But the audience cannot be passive. At least a few of them have to say something to the preacher on the way out ( if they meet later in the week) about the sermon.

    I sometimes find the silence too loud.

    Rev. Richard L. Allen
    Retired: Appleton, WI

    1. @Rev. Richard L Allen:
      It is wonderful to have a priest who invites, encourages or welcomes feedback. It is easier to compliment a priest on his homily and/or preaching. It is harder to give uncomplimentary feedback.

      Useful, constructive feedback is typically immediate and specific.

      LESS USEFUL (not specific enough)
      1. That was a great sermon [what did you like about it?]
      2. That was not such a great sermon [what was not so great about it?]
      3. The sermon was too long.

      MORE USEFUL
      4. The priest kept repeating himself.
      5. Too many tangents.
      6. Too many unnecessary details that took away from the focus and did not add value.
      7. The order in which the ideas were presented muddied the message.
      8. Unhelpful sound system or acoustics.

  26. Context matters. Long homilies with complicated arguments may be right for certain settings, but if we’re talking about Sunday Mass at a typical parish, one that has (or aspires to have) young families in its pews, I am increasingly convinced that 5 minutes is plenty and more than 8 is too long. If you can’t say what you want to say in that time, you’re probably trying to say too much – or preparing too little.

    This is particularly true when young kids are present: I have 3, and the homily is the hardest part of the Mass for them (and consequently for me). After 5 minutes of sitting still and being quiet with nothing to occupy their minds, they’re antsy and annoyed – and if the homily goes past 10 minutes they have nothing left for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And so, after 7 minutes of preaching, I’m not listening (if I ever was), I’m sending desperate “WRAP IT UP” signals to the ambo. Not that it ever works.

    Last week our pastor put a note on the bulletin reminding us how important it is to take kids to Mass every Sunday. I do, but I know I’d do so much more cheerfully, and they’d drag their feet a little bit less, if we could count on 7 minutes max of homily every Sunday.

  27. As a life-long Protestant, this is interesting reading. I conduct a Bible study every week that can be as long as 45 minutes and the people keep coming back. I exegete my way systematically through various books of the Bible, explaining word and contexts and asking questions and applying those scriptures to life. My purpose is not only to teach them the text, it is also to teach them to study the text for themselves. It seems to me some of you are more interested in getting people there and getting them out so they can feel like they have done their duty to the church than to edify them and build them up in the faith. Understanding the scriptures should be the primary reason to meet, not something incidental to it.

    1. There were temple gatherings, synagogue gatherings, and domestic gatherings, all of which offered worship and praise to God, but with different primary purposes. Catholics main purpose in gathereing is to support the priest who is offering sacrifice on our behalf, temple worship.
      I would agree we don’t have enough of the other. We did better at that up to 65 years ago.

  28. Short and meaningful homilies require long preparation, intense prayer an even an act of fasting and silence before the actual delivery.

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