26 November 2007

The Mother of All Critiques?

A few posts down from this one, I ask regular readers to give me some serious feedback on my homilies. Since I firmly believe that the preacher preaches to himself first and that I've been feeling that my homilies have been somewhat BLAH lately, I thought it would be a good idea to hear from those of you who listen. Below is an exemplary critique from a former student of mine. This is what I'm looking for, folks!

I think you tend to sound more Protestant in your homilies with respect to delivery and style, or at least what my very narrow experience of Protestant preaching has been. Your content is, obviously, Catholic, but the mannerisms of speech can come across to me as a cross between a Baptist minister and a car salesman and like you're trying to be too clever. Now, a decent amount of the Protestant delivery feeling could be my Bostonian upbringing shining through and really more about northern vs. southern speech, but I think that there is a legitimate issue there as well. You sound every bit the academic that you are when you are speaking, and that's fine in general but sometimes it can result in sounding talked AT versus talked TO/WITH, particularly with the over-reliance on rhetorical devices. Answering your own questions to that degree (case in point: The Resurrection! So What?) can feel exclusive and condescending.

I've had you in classes before, and you were probably my favorite professor in college, and I think you should go more that direction in your homilies because in class you tend to draw out of your students more than what they necessarily even know they have to give. I think that in your homilies you sometimes are not as personable as you really are. Of course the point is to communicate Christ, but the packaging matters, and you will reach more people if your manner is more personally engaging. You are really great one on one, but that seems like it's getting lost in the written homilies that I'm reading because you are not meeting people where they are. People who are experiencing suffering as they try to live in faithful accordance with their vocations need to be able to go to Church for comfort as they carry their crosses. You don't know who is having these struggles, and when people in crisis go to Church to be comforted and fed, I'm not sure that your more recent homilies would fill that need. It's not the content that is the problem. Right now I really would like to, and need to hear about the resurrection of the body, but it took me 3 times reading through your homily to really feel like I get most of it, and even then some of it probably did go straight over my head. Most of your recent homilies I have been barely skimming as I have them on my friends list. You could convey the exact same ideas in a far more accessible way and I think it would reach more people, better preparing them to be transformed by the Eucharist.

I think it's almost like you're combining preaching with being an opinion columnist, now that I just glanced at a few more of your posts. You can be hard hitting and brave in speaking the truth while still being accessible and relatable to people. In a certain way, I feel like the priesthood and midwifery are quite similar. You don't control what happens, and neither does the mother/individual Christian who undergoes birth/theosis, but how you exhort, educate, and support does enable a more or less grace filled transformation into bearing fruit. I hope that this helps you and does not offend, and look forward to seeing how your homilies change over the next few weeks.


Reprinted with permission


  1. Anonymous6:26 PM

    Critique of the Mother of All Critiques
    J.H. wants you to dumb down--reminds me of a Jesuit/Dominican joke. When the Jesuit steps up to the ambo to preach, the people worry about what the heck is going to come out of his mouth. But when the Dominican steps down from the ambo, the people wonder what the heck came out of his mouth.
    You of course know to gear your homilies to your audience. So dumb down.
    Do you still read from your prepared sermon? If so, that's what's wrong. Force yourself to walk up to the ambo with just an outline. Try it.
    I know a Dominican friar who consistently uses the following method. He reads the gospel. Then he walks away from the ambo down to the people and asks, "What word popped out at you? What are your thoughts?" (I've been tempted to spread the word for everyone to remain mute.) And of course he expounds on the congregation's responses. That's a good technique--but not all the time!
    Like J. H., I like when the priest is more personable. Everyone enjoys stories from real life. Although I've heard the friars tell the same stories as having personally happened to them.
    Imagine! Friars stealing each other's material!!!!
    In conclusion, relax your delivery. I see nothing wrong with preaching like a Bible thumping Baptist. (It'd wake everybody up.) I love it and I've always lived in Boston. My favorite preachers are the evangelicals.
    Don't read your homilies. (If I were your Lector, I'd steal your papers.) And you know what? I bet you'd be fine. No you won't remember every detail of your homily, but you'd get your message across. Best advice--be brief. If you can't say it in 7-10 minutes, forget about it. Because no one's going to remember anything longer that 10 minutes.
    I have a question. My parish has a religious order of priests help out on Sundays. They have a technique that every single one of them use. After reading the gospel, they explain the first reading, then the second, and finally the gospel. We people love it and tell them that all the time. I told my parish priests to do that, also, and one of them said it was bad form. Why?
    God bless.

  2. The suggestion for a more-or-less extemporaneous homily is one I've heard very often. I don't think, however, that it is always what people are really looking for. Our Deacon reads from his written script, but I had to ask him if he did because he delivers it so well. His trick is that he is a musician so all those years of sight-reading practice have allowed him to also sight-read his homily. Of course, he also has a slight advantage of having more than a week between Sunday homilies to prepare and get comfortable.

    For my part, I've genuinely enjoyed your homilies even though, or perhaps because, they have been so much deeper than what I usually hear. I am, however, a bit of an exception when it comes to enjoying theologically-dense homilies. You know your audience far better than I do, however, so perhaps a large number of them are like me.

  3. Anonymous9:23 PM

    I am a Dominican and I think your homilies are great (athough no nepotism involved:). I've down loaded them to disc and MP3 and listen to them sometimes when I am driving or working out. I don't have too much other than that by way of critique: I like the academic style and the wordsmithing. Maybe a small suggestion on your critiques of other viewpoints: the mixed martial arts/no holds barred is fun to practice and to watch; maybe the gloves could use a wee bit more padding?

    Peace, congrats on the Angelicum news and keep up the great homiles.


  4. Thanks for these comments...I am reading and absorbing everything everyone is saying...please keep them coming...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  5. Father, whatever you do...please do not dumb down the content. You have a wonderful capacity to lead the listener/reader to contemplate and reflect. I think the listener should take more responsibility to put his or herself in God's present and be open to the Homily. Too often, we show up right on time, bring our prejudices and pride in the door, and sit questioning, rather than at the very least open. Having only experienced diocesan priests prior to yours-- some good, some bad, some joke tellers, etc-- your homilies are refreshing and thought-provoking and rank highly up there for me.

    I think that if you picture yourself the head of a household, a father guiding his sons and daughters...you will probably keep a balance that is true to your studies, your spirituality, and be just what is needed...sometimes a strongly-worded wakeup call, sometimes words of comfort, and many times both...just as a family's father would ideally do both. You will continue to be a fine homilist!

    I take issue with the harsher critiques that want to adjust particular traits that are unique to you! It very much sounds like he/she believes if they were in the pulpit they would do it this particular way or that...which is fine. BUT, God called YOU very particularly to the priesthood -- and while you undoubtedly grow and be charitable, is he asking you to not be yourself? Sometimes challenging thoughts are crucial to our development as well...and you have been blessed with a mind that contemplates these things and helps us to share in the contemplation.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Anonymous9:58 AM

    Just a thought. You have gone through a number of changes in your personal life...or at least, some decisions have been made that were looming for a long time. There can be, for most humans, an emotional let down, a "mini-post traumatic stress" reaction that could interfer a bit in reacting as you used to. Even postive changes are changes to adjust to. Give it some time and things will equalize again.