The Virtue of (Homiletic) Brevity

How long should a good homily be? That question is often discussed. A related question--but one that is not often addressed--is how long goes a homily have to be? In other words, how short is too short? I got to thinking about this question this weekend while visiting a parish in Massachusetts. The priest was preaching on the Baptism of Jesus, and he focused on one line from John’s Gospel: "He is the one of whom I said, ’A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’" The priest asked whether--in work situations or in our home life--we are willing to step aside in favor of someone "ranks ahead of us." Then provocatively he asked (and I’m paraphrasing here), "But who possibly could rank ahead of us?" And then he sat down. The homily was no more than three minutes. Someone behind be whispered, incredulously, "That’s all?" Now short homilies are expected during a weekday service, but on a Sunday? Yet I found it refreshing. The preacher had one insightful point to make, about the importance of humility, and he made it clearly, without any unnecessary embellishments. Because his homily was so short, it stuck in our minds. Pretty successful, don’t you think? Now I don’t think you can do this every Sunday. (For one thing, a priest known for three-minute homilies may get an overflow crowd!) But every so often it can serve as an effective preaching tool. Of course, I’m writing as a layman--I’d be interested to hear from people in the business of delivering weekly sermons. Tim Reidy
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10 years 8 months ago
My teacher and mentor, the late William Tome S.J, always insisted that a homily should never exceed more then about five minutes. What I learned from observing Fr. Tome prepare for a Sunday mass was that an effective brief homily takes heavy lifting. He would prepare tirelessly for days in advance to parse, rework and refine his homily so his words would shoot “a laser beam, not buckshot” The weekly overflow crowds at his masses from India to Scranton proved the consistent accuracy of his “aim”.
10 years 8 months ago
Our daughter, who attended a Jesuit college, told us of a favorite (very good) preacher who would annually give a five word sermon -- "Do good and avoid evil." As you may imagine, the students eagerly anticipated the advent of his sermon which was given some Sunday in Lent.
10 years 8 months ago
When I was studying homiletics, we were advised to keep it short. Seven minutes or less. My own homilies rarely go over that. And usually, that's more than enough. People really do seem to appreciate the blessing of brevity, and sermons that have a distinct beginning, middle and end.
10 years 8 months ago
short homilies move hearts. long homilies move chairs. this is what i remember as i read your contribution. bishop untener in his book "preaching better" says that it is enough to give one point in one's homily as long as it is really one valuable pearl. thanks for your contribution.
10 years 7 months ago
My thanks to Tim, and a hearty 2nd to Mr. Cleary. Blaise Pascal said "I would have written a shorter letter, but didn't have the time." For the attention deficit nation, Milo O. Frank wrote "How to Get your Point across in 30 seconds or less."

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