Have more sermons become selfies? Are you hearing more homilies composed of anecdotes about the preacher himself and an increasingly familiar cast of his friends and family?
This is unfortunate. Predictable vignettes from the preacher’s childhood or extraneous accounts of his vacations reveal unnecessary details about the speaker rather than clues concerning Scripture.
This method of preaching seems so habitual that many homilists appear to be on autopilot. Perhaps the presumption is that chronicling his life is the only way to relate personally to the congregation. However, personal stories are not always necessary, and when they are presented as mere reflex, they can be quite uninteresting.
Personal stories in homilies are not always necessary, and they can be quite uninteresting.
The alternative to a selfie sermon is not a dry or impersonal address. The liturgy itself requires self-disclosure. The weight given to the saint of the day, references to the sacramentary and the metaphorical use of liturgical symbols all offer options that reveal the personality, theology and pastoral priorities of the preacher, who chooses among them with balance and proportion.
A conscious and consistent style reveals a great deal about the homilist without the need to refer to personal details. Jesus used examples familiar to his listeners, such as lost sheep and seed sown, though he was neither shepherd nor farmer. Like parables, this approach may demand more thoughtfulness from the preacher, and more attentiveness from the assembly, than the linear approach of automatically preaching every homily through a three-step default—homilist’s story, then God’s story, then assembly’s story.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Preaching the Mystery of the Faith” reminds us that “Jesus was not an abstract preacher.” However, Jesus was concrete and personal without becoming obvious, overstated or self-absorbed. When Jesus did speak of himself, it was usually in reference to the Father. Hence, the bishops twice warn against “useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.”
Avoid “useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.”
A homilist reveals himself to the assembly through the Scripture, as well by combining the right word with the best gesture, apt tone and careful cadence. Thus a homilist develops a distinctive, personal style rather than any unnecessary slavishness to personal anecdote.
Autobiographical preaching applied predictably is uninteresting. Personal testimony and self-disclosure become unhelpful when exercised artlessly by default rather than carefully by design. No homilist’s life is interesting enough to provide a centerpiece for the Eucharistic banquet every day.
Overreliance on autobiography can also appear narcissistic—more full of self than of Spirit. It can also connote laziness, which is not a personal attribute that endears a preacher to his assembly.
A distinguishing characteristic between Catholic and Protestant preachers in the United States is that many of the former speak in a language other than their native tongue or to cultures distinct from their own. In those cases, autobiographical references by the preacher can be especially problematic. A sermon in perfect Spanish with autobiographical references to the preacher’s experiences in Mayberry still won’t be understood if most of his assembly is from Mexico.
With so many other problems in the world, perhaps only a grump laments the autobiographical sermon. But even a selfie photo requires an extended arm or stick—that is, some means of acquiring the distance required for perspective. While a homilist must always remain connected to contemporary culture, without the perspective of distance he remains captured and controlled by that culture. Just as a homilist can be self-aware but not self-absorbed, so too a homily can be self-revelatory without always being self-referential.