Nathan SchneiderJanuary 17, 2017

We all go through different seasons in our faith, and in each we see that faith, and its practice, differently. There have been times when I went to Mass looking for insight, looking for an idea or a clarification that might help my faith survive the assaults of doubt and difficulty for another week. There have been times when I would go for an hour of peace, or for the people I knew would be there, or even simply to be seen.

Now, I go to Mass with my wife and our 1-year-old. It is a huge hassle to squeeze it in between naps, but we go, not always knowing why. I am grateful that we do, mostly, and the kid sometimes seems to love at least parts of it. But a few minutes into the homily, the squirming can become especially intense. Among the various churches we have visited in his early and so far well-traveled life, I have frequently wondered whether maybe priests should talk less.

On Christmas Eve, at the church we attended in Columbus, Ohio, we experienced this kind of mercy. The priest, an elderly man I have come to know, a man of many ideas, got up after the Gospel reading and offered only one lovely idea—a couple of minutes, max, an observation that even though we celebrate Jesus’ birthday each year the Christ child remains eternally young. Then he stepped back and got right on with the Creed.

That reminded me of the weekday Mass homilies, and often the Sunday ones, too, given by the priest who baptized me in college. They were of the same character: Just a seed. He left it to us and God and time to do the tending. These men are good priests. They have a lot to say; have a meal with them, and you hear it. But at Mass they’re different.

Normally, at the various parishes I stumble through these days, I am used to a different formula. The homily begins with some story from the priest’s life, usually one you have already heard if you’ve been going a few months or years, and probably one based on circumstances pretty unlike the lives of most people in the pews—because priests choose to lead unusual kinds of lives. Yet the story is somehow supposed to make the whole thing more relatable. Then, more or less successfully, he finds a way to connect his story with the Gospel reading, or one of the other readings at least. Finally, there comes some kind of practical encouragement or instruction, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s life or needs at that given point.

I get it. The idea is to make the homily more down-to-earth, more human, more in the trenches of the everyday. I appreciate that. But I suspect this familiar formula is at least in part an inappropriate imitation of Protestant preaching, in which the sermon is a service’s main content and event, in which the Word is only a text, not flesh. I do not think that is true for Catholics. For us, the Eucharist is the main event, and the Mass is a journey by which the community makes its way there. In that context—especially at a beautiful evening candlelight Mass—the homily risks charging in as an interruption. It risks getting in the way of Christ.

I like priests. Several of them have guided me to drastically change my life. I like learning from them, and I appreciate the treasure in their training and their ways of life. But I worry priests sometimes take on too much—as C.E.O.’s, as officiants, as psychologists, as poets, as memoirists. They simply do not need to be all those things, especially when there are people in the community who can do those things better. Priests have a glorious ministry, in offering the sacrifice and shepherding the flock, but good shepherds tend to guide gently. The sheep (as this particular metaphor regards the rest of us) mostly know where they need to go.

This is especially the case in the middle of an ancient, familiar, theatrical, sacramental journey like the Mass. What we do teaches us at least as much as anything that is said. By that logic, of course, sometimes a long and dense homily makes sense—such as in Masses orchestrated to hit more verbal or intellectual registers. Maybe, in the midst of some particular crisis or challenge confronting the community, it is worth the risk of offering more because people need more. Like any performance and gift, it is all about context. But on the whole, I suspect many priests might benefit from taking on less. Keep it short, enough to offer just a single, simple insight. Retain the rhythm of the rest of the Mass—don’t interrupt. When more needs to be said, invite other voices to participate, emphasizing that we share the Mass as a community.

Some communities send children away for part or all of Mass. That’s tempting. But another part of me trusts my kid’s squirms. There is something not right when a baby is not following the action in awe. And it’s rough on the parents. Help us out.

More: Scripture
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Richard Booth
4 years 4 months ago
I completely agree that priests should stay away from the psychology business, since psychology is a science and priests are professional belief-people; they should stick with faith issues. I have often wondered if seminaries teach Speech classes or Homiletics any more. So many priests do not preach in even a remotely interesting way. This doesn't explain why babies squirm, but it may explain why the laity may be bored.
Bruce Snowden
4 years 4 months ago
I'm not sure if its a matter of priests talking less, or a matter of us pew-sitters listening more, being fully attentive and less squirmy, pushing aside perhaps, the gravel of inconsequential rhetoric, in search of that "pearl of great price" mixed in the rubble and meant just for the individual listener, Spirit placed, mindful that we do have God's Word for it, that, no Word of His returns unproductive. In other words, at least latch onto a single "word" finding fruition there. It works for me, guaranteeing a productive homily every time.
Richard Booth
4 years 3 months ago
I haven't heard a "pearl of great price" from a priest, either in or out of the pulpit, for years, Bruce.
Bruce Snowden
4 years 3 months ago
Hi Richard, Thanks for the comment. I suggest to look beyond that "irritant" of inconsequential rhetoric by using it, that "grain of sand" within the "shell of the Church, the living Oyster,around which the "Pearl of Great Price" forms, finding all that is needed, that ONE word, that "substance" within the shell formative to the "pearl" and wade through its pooling, refreshed by what is found, Jesus, who is "the Word." Didn't he say, "Seek and you shall find?" Just don't complicate the movements of Grace by predetermined notions of "this is what I expect" blocking the process, but instead be open to the Spirit, Who as you know "moves as He Wills." Richard, this is a very simple, non-erudite expectant act of Faith, generating Hope, with flowers into a Charity (love) thing, a between you and Jesus thing.
Vince Killoran
4 years 3 months ago
Who wrote that a story should have a strong start, a strong finish, and not too much in-between? Sounds like good advice for the Sunday homily. Our parish priest is great for the first 5-10 minutes and then he wanders.
Lisa Weber
4 years 3 months ago
I go to Mass primarily for the homily, so a two-minute homily does not interest me much because it cannot provide much depth of thought. Poor homilies last far too long, no matter what length of time they are by the clock; a good homily always ends too soon. There are deadly sins in homilies and too many bad homilies prompt departure for a different parish. Use of the word "I", especially in the first sentence, signals a humdrum homily. Lack of preparation and focus are obvious in poor homilies. Meandering through personal stories without a clear point or a connection to the readings are the worst homilies of all. If I had a restless child in such a situation, I would take advantage of the excuse to go to the vestibule and check out other available parishes.
Roberto Blum
4 years 3 months ago
I completely agree with the author. Homilies should be very short as not to interrupt the main event which is the Eucharist. The liturgy of the word really does not add anything to the mystery that is the reliving of Christ's life and sacrifice of the cross. As Catholics, we should focus entirely on the Eucharist of the community.
Michael Barberi
4 years 3 months ago

I wish I had the answer to homilies or how best to communicate the Gospel and its meaning to people in everyday life. I tend to think that homilies that focus on encouraging actions such as joining local Church ministries is an excellent way to experience the Gospel message instead of just listening to it. I went to a local parish in New Jersey for 20 years and they had no Knights of Columbus and no explicit ministries to the homeless or the poor. There was the music group, lectors and Eucharistic ministers, and social events....but if you were not musically inclined or wanted to be a lector, etc, you did nothing but go to Mass. However, when I moved to California, there were many ways to get involved; many ministries to join to love and serve your neighbor. I joined two of them and this significantly enhanced my spiritual life and brought me closer to Christ. I wonder how many parishes are like the one I attended in N.J. for 20 years?

It is true that many Catholics think the Mass is boring and homilies are not very relevant to their everyday lives. There are a significant percent of Catholics that do not attend Mass and are Catholic in name only. Think about the significant percent of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, are born with a homosexual orientation, had an abortion and are practicing cohabitation. Yet, the language of the Church has not been a welcoming message for them but a language that condemns them. Pope Francis is trying to change things and we are witnessing such a change as many divorced and remarried Catholics can receive the Eucharist without an annulment. However, only about 22% of Catholics go to weekly Mass and most of the young don't believe in many of the Church's moral teachings. These problems are more significant than not-so-good homilies.

In conclusion, bad homilies are small potatoes when you consider the many problems facing our Church today. Nevertheless, a good homily is relevant and important.

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