12 August 2014

What do you want/need to hear in a homily?

Classes at Notre Dame Seminary start back up on Aug 25th.

I'm teaching three courses by myself and one team taught course with Dr. David Liberto ("Preaching the Dogmatic Feasts").

I need some guidance from HancAquam readers. . .

As a faithful Mass-goer:

-- what do you WANT to hear in a homily?

-- what do you NEED to hear in a homily?

-- what do you GROAN at when you hear it?

These are questions about content not performance. 

So, "speak up," "enunciate," "slow down," "put some energy into it," etc. are not the answers I'm looking for right now.

If I get a good response to these questions, I'll share them with my seminarians in Homiletics Practicum II.


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  1. I want to hear context: history, word meanings/entomology, so I can learn something I didn't know before and thus deepen my understanding of the readings. (Fr. Robert Barron is good at this). I like it when the homilist ties the readings and psalm together, because I often don't see this connection on my own. I need to hear about sin, growing in virtue, and the hope of heaven. I groan at jokes and "funny" anecdotes" in a homily. You can show humor without being jokey.

  2. I think you already know my answers, but I'll provide a quick run down.

    GROAN: jokes esp. when they are only for the laugh, blasphemy, heresy, disagreement with a Church teaching, too much talk of tables and meals, the same homily for 8 weeks in a row (it happened) or the same series of homilies each year

    WANT: explanation of church teachings which go against current societal norms, encouragement toward growth in holiness and practical ways to stay on the path, more mention about Sacraments when the occasion presents itself in the readings, history and etymology, how do we evangelize?, how the readings apply to my life today - something which shows they have some understanding of my life today

    NEED: to be challenged not coddled, to be reminded of God's love and what that truly means, to know that the priest actually cares about and wants what is best for my soul.

  3. Sharon10:28 PM

    I want to hear the scriptures unpacked in an orthodox way. I want to see the link between the readings,psalms and gospel. I need to hear the teaching of the Church explained in a way I can understand. I need to hear the priest speak of the moral issues :sex before marriage, contraception, abortion etc I groan when father embarks on yet another story about his mother.

  4. HV Observer11:05 PM

    We desperately need to hear sermons on moral topics (e.g., the dangers of pornography, the horrors of babykilling, many others that could be listed here) that may have NO RELATIONSHIP to the readings of the day. You've heard the complaints: "why aren't priests preaching about these moral issues?" A big excuse: There's no connection to the readings of the day. And for many, a Sunday sermon may be the only time they will hear the Church's wisdom on these matters.

  5. I want to hear Frs Rich Simon, Bob Baron and Fulton Sheen. I need to hear Frs Pio de Pietrelcina, Paul of Tarsus and Francis of Sales. I groan at Frs Tip Toe, Ronald Macdonald and Kumba Yah.

  6. Great responses! I'm copying/pasting them into a document for the NDS guys.

    Keep 'em coming!

  7. I need practical preaching. Telling me to be nice and love others is a nice platitude, but it doesn’t tell me how I’m failing nor how to improve. Homilies that are vague belong in a Hallmark card. Homilies should always be orthodox and faithful (I once heard a priest preach the exact opposite of the Gospel… it was about money and to a very wealthy parish) and not be afraid to preach the hard truth. While an antecdote can help make a point relatable, there should never be too many in any single homily. I’ve heard 6 in a single homily and it becomes impossible to follow the point trying to keep track of so many tangents. It can also make me wonder just how seriously the priest is about what he is telling me. And any such antecdote should relay well what the point is. Do not reread large portions of the readings - it is boring and a waste of time… a brief reference is fine, but we already heard them once and can reread them ourselves if we feel it is necessary.

    And I must say I love these responses too. I love listening to Archbishop Sheen and Fr. Barron. They not only relay information clearly but in a way that is relatable and easy to understand.

  8. We need to hear the whole teaching of the Church-- you have to preach on all seven deadly sins, not just one. (Thought experiment: when is the last time that you preached on, or heard someone else preach a homily on, the sin of envy? I personally can't come up with one time at all-- but envy will kill you as dead as lust, right?) You have to preach on all of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and why everyone without exception must **actually do** them. You have to preach the basics of the faith, such as the Creed line-by-line, unpacking the meaning of some technical terms and showing how this makes a practical difference in how we understand what human beings are, who God is, how God works in our lives and this world, etc.

    Two comments: first, I realize that you can't get all of that into one sermon! But you're going to have 60 sermons a year, every year, to reach people, and you should be planning to cover some ground systematically. The Catechism has already broken it down for you in short "nuggets"... they don't necessarily have to be presented sequentially (i.e. pick the piece that's tied to the readings or the saint of the day) but don't preach the same thing 60 times, or even 20 times. And especially in weekday masses, there's no reason why you can't just walk down the Catechism one or two paragraphs at a time, unpinned to the underlying readings (as HV Observer mentions). I'd still keep the Sunday/holy day/major saints homilies focused on the topic given, but weekdays... if you can skip the homily entirely, then you are certainly free to preach it on something unrelated to the readings.

    Second: I really want to emphasize that there should be some form of adult education going on in your parishes. I think it's utterly shameful that Episcopalians have a systematic program for theology and philosophy in their parishes-- up to the equivalent of a Master's degree-- and Catholics can't even come up with a respectable high school-level program. And we run high schools, fer crissakes! And colleges! Heck, we INVENTED both high schools and colleges! We should, AT LEAST, have some organized list of materials to self-study and an informal group available to talk about it. It won't reach everybody; it won't reach most people; but if it reaches SOME people, we'd be a million percent better off (since those people will be out in the world, presenting the truth to the people around them as topics come up). And if you offered that to, say, parents who want to have their children baptized, then there would be at least a possibility that you're going to bring them to an adult understanding of their faith.

    Groaners: Any specific mention to political parties. Sorry, guys, but as soon as you do that you'll be labeled as "political ad" and people will stop listening. Really. It's a Pavlovian response to the political ads we've all endured. Instead, focus on the specific issue, and emphasize that the laity must hold ALL leaders to account for the systematic abuse of human rights in our society, and we need to focus on results not pretty slogans.

    "Father One-Note": all sermons somehow come back to one topic (whatever that is). Even if it's something legitimate, like "abortion is always wrong", you will have everyone turn off their ears as soon as you step up. We've heard it before, and it's taking up time that you should be using to discuss something else.

    1. The Creed line by line is one of the classes I try to teach in a parish every year!

  9. Anonymous12:06 PM

    For the majority of homilists: Explain the gospel (text) and show how our lives must change in light of it. Scripture is more interesting than your thoughts on life. Wrestle with the text like Jacob with the angel. It pays off.

    For the firebrands: aim to persuade (and save) those who are on the fence regarding the Church's teaching. A caustic homily will earn you accolades from those who are already convinced, but will not actually help anyone.

    Sincerely, Your Friend in St. Joseph's hall who teaches Scripture

  10. I wrote a response and the phone ate it, so this will be the condensed version :). I am an adult, so don't talk to me like I am between 8 and 12. Don't give me pop culture references to show you are "with it", give me solid theology related to the Psalms/Gospels/Saints of the day. Don't give me the NAB crap footnotes, give me Sts. Aquinas, Newman, Augustine, Thomas More, Benedict or even better - a Church Father. Show me how what we are facing today was faced courageously in the past 1900 years of Catholic history. Drop the touchy feely routines. Give me heroes, my sons cannot relate to St Teresa of Liseaux but they can relate to St George or Pope St Pius V. And lastly don't bother doing this unless you are willing to find a format to sit every week or so and teach the members of your parish some solid theology and history. Your sermon can never be a substitute for solid catholic education from a PRIEST or DEACON. Adult Catholics cannot function as Catholics when their religious educations consisted of one hour 40 times a year for 8 years. You don't expect your mechanic to fix your car or your surgeon to operate on you with that, so how can you expect adult Catholics to make faith-based decisions or develop a Catholic worldview.

  11. I would echo much of the above. What I would add is "tie it to beauty". Even if rhetoric isn't among your skills, quote from better authors and orators. Fulton Sheen often did this, referring to a poem or a piece of music that help to convey concretely the sometimes abstract point he was making. Fr. Allan Hawkins at St. Mary the Virgin in Arlington, TX used to do this very well, too. Both emulated John Henry Newman and many of the Church Fathers.

    The Incarnation is beautiful. The Passion is beautiful. The Resurrection is beautiful. Theosis is beautiful. But I rarely hear, in the context of Latin Rite homilies or sermons, any real reference to beauty. Poetry, art, music, architecture: all of these can be referenced.

    I understand the demand to meet your audience where they are, but the priest should not be afraid to lead his sheep to good pasture. We generally can't find it on our own, especially in this world.

    I would disagree that we need sermons on moral issues. That's not appropriate to the homily. I've heard plenty in a TLM community. They never actually addressed the primary sins of the flock. They did create a sense in the parish that "Thank God we are not as other men."

    Do adult catechesis and spiritual direction if people need moral instruction and guidance. Don't hector them from the ambo.

    Explicate the Scriptures, the texts of the Liturgy, the lives of the saints, and invite everyone to draw close to the Lord through beauty.

    Don't be afraid to reference the early Church Fathers. It is a consolation of the Faith to know that there is nothing new under the sun. Holy Mother Church, and all her faithful, have "been there, done that" over the last 2,000-odd years. Gentle reminders can help pull us out of the chronological snobbery that so mars our age.

  12. I need and want to hear how to apply the readings, esp the gospel to my own life - in other words, answer the "So what?" I need and want to hear how to know and love God more than I did when I walked in the door (how's that for a tall order, but seriously, I do). I groan at jargon - plain talk please. I really don't want to hear about fundraisers during the homily time - save it for the end of Mass. It is really helpful to hear about the priest himself, not because I'm nosy - I'm not, but we had one priest who used illustrations from his own life (many of which were naturally really humorous) to illustrate his points. By the way, I still remember many of his sermons for this reason. Not everyone can do this but it made his homilies that much more engaging so give it some thought.

  13. A lot of homilies feature historical-critical exegesis of a reading that falls into the "that's nice, but so what?" category. As an example: Jesus said "Blessed are the poor". I'll bet money that the next time that comes around, the priest will comment on how the poor were outcasts in Jesus' day because people assumed God was punishing them for some sin, or possibly the sins of their parents. I remember hearing that one time and, found it interesting, but as I got into my car, turned on the AC and drove away I realized... I don't live in 1st century Palestine. I don't view the poor as punished by God, so what do I make of this story?

    Assuming that's true, there are a lot of people in today's world, probably sitting in Church listening, who we might think are punished by God. What about people with heart disease brought on my years obesity? What about people with cancer brought on by years of smoking? What about people with AIDS or other VD brought about by casual sex? What about men who are lonely because they had affairs and their wives left them and took the kids and now even their friends won't speak to them. Is God punishing them? What would Jesus say? "Blessed are the single dads?"

    A simple parable like that can be used to explain the Church's position on any of that: what does the church teach about suffering? Does God punish people in this life? What are the wages of sin? What is the Church's teaching on divorce?

    This is not just an academic exercise. Everyone and his pastor is selling books now on the New Evangelization. Yet evangelization happens when someone asks a Catholic Friend "How come the Church hates gays?" or "My friend left the church because she didn't want to get an annulment. What's up with that?" They parishioners NEED to know how to answer that. Maybe not every homily needs to be focused like that, but at least once a month or so there needs to be something that people can use when they bump up against the culture at large.

    You may argue that a 7 minute homily is not enough time. Your parishioners probably have less than 1 minute to make a connection. I don't mean giving sound bites. They don't have to give a witty one-liner in that one minute. They need to convince their interlocur that the Church's position is reasonable. Later on, they can convince their friends that the Church is right.

  14. MatheusFT5:50 PM


  15. I think these are all good. I would emphasize no jokes. Ever. Also, be as deep as you can get. I am fed up with simplistic homilies that are for 5th graders. Adults can get that kind of stuff from any one of numerous books. We need depth. Relate the readings, psalm, and Gospel readings. Give true historical background (not ridiculous made up stuff like shepherds breaking the legs of runaway lambs). We want to know "there's terrible stuff going on. What did the saints do about this? What did Saint Somebody of Somewhere say about it when it happened to him?"

    Personal anecdotes are good for remembering points, just not too many at once. And they can be funny and violate the Joke Rule (I remember one about how our parochial vicar accidentally started a brush fire when he was a kid).

  16. Before you even worry about the homily you should make sure your environment is one that is conducive to prayer and reflection. When I go into a church that is noisy, ushers bellowing in the back,organist fiddling with a tune, and people running all over the altar I have already checked out and it won't mater what you say. Make sure you provide a way for the people to prepare the ssoil of the soul for the seed of your word.
    If you're going to" talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk." I just left my parish of 21 years because of a Pastor who acts like a complete Jack Ass. Please don't tell me to accept change. We have had 4 previous to him. He actually gives outstanding sermons but is a Jerk. I have seen him berate people in public, I saw a person ask him about a homily and he told her to Google it, and when I asKed to speak with him privately he made that public to some people(which is when I left) One previous Pastor often said that many of his homilies were the resullt of pondering his own weaknesses and as a result you could tell in his delivery that he was speaking in very genuine terms, not pontificating to the masses.

    1. I am very sorry to hear of this. i too am struggling with some bummer priests and we have lost 11% of our parish in the last 4 years. It is a great test of my faith. I am a convert. I am staying for now because that is where my friends are but only time will tell how much worse it will get. This is the dark side of clericalism, priests can do whatever they want with absolute impunity until they do something illegal. God bless you wherever you end up.

      Your story isn't about change as you know. It is about trying to accept something that should not be.

  17. Anonymous4:25 PM

    I'm a cradle Catholic. I talk to Catholics. I'm constantly shocked at how little Catholics know about the teachings of The Catholic Church.

    Sermons desperately need to be about catechesis.

    1. I agree with this very much. I happen to be at a parish where catechesis is paramount, sometimes to the detriment of other things like pastoral care. But knowing your faith is the most important thing. Everything else springs from that.

  18. WANT: More about the implications of a truly Christian worldview for sexual morality - and I don't mean regarding abortion/homosexual ideology, but contraception/fornication, which are more strategic issues than the former.

    NEED: To be shamed into remembering that between trusting God/believing in His Providence and the anxiety/insecurity to which I'm naturally inclined there's no middle ground. (Now apparently soon to be abandoned "Vintage Fr. PNP" homilies did wonders in that regard...)

    GROAN: At self-satisfied references that betray a (sadly common) middle-class teenager lifestyle/mindset on the part of the priest - Facebook, video games, soccer, TV soap operas, etc.

    1. Oh, and I not abandoning "Vintage Fr Philip" homilies. . .I'm just trying to find a way to tone down the flowery language. Just a little.

    2. Tell us how to live in a modern world according to Christ's teachings. Give modern day examples of His parables. The best preacher I knew was a Pentacostal who did that. Putting things into a modern context REALLY helps understand the Word of God! A little bit of pulpit pounding for emphasis would help too, IMO most Catholic homilies and Scripture readings are delivered in a bland monotone. It's difficult to get excited when "My Father's house should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves." is delivered in the same tone as the financial news on the radio. C'mon, its a safe bet that line was initially spoken at the top of our Lord's lungs! I know cheap theatrics shouldn't be the norm but more than once I've had to nudge my wife awake after the homily because the dry monotonous tone used by the priest put her (and a few others) to sleep..

  19. I want to learn a little bit, without being too challenged, and with one nugget I can remember half an hour later.

    I need to be challenged.

    I groan at 12 minute homilies that are four unrelated 3 minute homilies strung together, and at homilies with the take-away, "Be a little kinder this week." By all means, tell me to be a little kinder this week, but don't squander three readings and a homily to tell me that.