Last month, a Northern Irish priest wrote in a local newspaper column that he had made a “deal” with his parishioners: all sermons from now on would be no more than five minutes.
Fr Paddy O’Kane said he was inspired by a trip to various parishes in Texas, and a comment from a caller to a radio show who asked him why he should bring his child to Mass when “all they do is yawn throughout a long sermon in a language they don’t understand”.
When Fr O’Kane announced he was cutting homilies to five minutes, “one wag shouted up: ‘Father, could you not make that four?’”
The ideal length of a sermon has, of course, been a subject for debate throughout the history of the Church. But it has taken on a new prominence in recent years.
In 2010, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, then general secretary of the synod of bishops, said in the book The Word of God that sermons should be no longer than eight minutes as this is “the average amount of time for a listener to concentrate”. Acknowledging that some priests do not have the best communication skills, he suggested that they spend a week perfecting their Sunday homilies.
Around the same time, another Irish priest, Fr Michael Kenny, claimed to have dramatically increased the size of his congregation at weekday Mass by skipping the homily and getting the whole Mass over and done with in just 15 minutes.
Conveying the message of the day’s Gospel in a succinct and informative way, all while keeping the attention of the congregation, can be one of the most challenging parts of a priest’s ministry, even for the most talented and experienced clergy.
Fr Charles Bouchard is senior director of theology and ethics at the Catholic Health Association of the United States, and says preaching is his passion.
“There are two kinds of homilies for Catholics,” he tells me. “One is the weekday Mass homily, which should usually be one thought on the Scriptures of the day, and should only be two or three minutes.”
The other is the Sunday Mass homily, which, although much shorter than some Protestant sermons – which can go on for more than 30 minutes – should still contain a little more content.
“For us, the preaching is in the context of the Eucharist,” Fr Bouchard says. “So a well-crafted and focused homily of 10 to 12 minutes is usually about right.
“On some occasions, it could be somewhat longer, but only if there is a serious reason for it to be so. Again, there should be one point, and everything in the homily should be in service of that one point.”
His words echo those of Archbishop Arthur Roche, who as secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments said that homilies should not be improvised and used as a form of entertainment, but should rather be “intimately connected with the Word of God”.
Perhaps, though, the real reason the ideal homily seems to be getting shorter and shorter is because we live in a culture that encourages ever decreasing attention spans.
Stories now regularly appear in the press about how modern technology, especially the smartphone, reduces people’s ability to concentrate by giving them instant access to all the information and entertainment they could possibly need.
One widely reported Canadian study suggested that the average smartphone user now has an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. Certainly, this idea has become received wisdom, with one Guardian columnist even using it to explain the victory of Donald Trump (Hillary was too complex and intelligent, etc).
Assuming it is true that modern man is less able to concentrate – and some have disputed the data – what is a priest to do?
Perhaps they should listen to the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, who wrote in the book God and the World about a priest who was “bereft of all exterior gifts”, including the ability to preach well, but was nonetheless able to inspire more priestly vocations than either his predecessor or successor.
“We can see here how the humble witness of someone who does not have the gift of persuasive speech can itself become a sermon, and how we should thank God for the variety of gifts,” he said.
Shorter sermons may well aid evangelisation, but priests should never lose sight of the bigger picture: even the best sermon in the world won’t matter if there’s no one there to hear it.