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).