From time to time, the lectionary – the three-yearly cycle of Bible readings laid down by the Church for Sunday Mass – poses a particular challenge for preachers. A few weeks ago, the Gospel reading confronted us with some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. First came that radical passage from Mark 9, including the line, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”
The next Sunday we moved on to Mark 10, which reiterates the divine prohibition against divorce, (it forms the basis for the Church’s strict teaching on the matter). You could forgive a priest for focusing his homily on the Old Testament reading, or the Epistle, rather than potentially making his congregation uncomfortable, angry or upset by expanding on Christ’s “hard sayings”.
As it happens, I heard very good homilies on both. On Mark 9, the priest explained the Church’s teaching on the occasions of sin and the sacraments, and reminded his parishioners of the need to go to Confession. He even reassured them not to be discouraged if they found themselves repeating the same sins regularly.
The length, style and quality of homilies is a subject for debate within the Church. Pope Francis has often reiterated his preference for brevity, most recently in September this year. He told an audience of priests, seminarians and bishops in Slovakia that they should “not go beyond 10 minutes, because after eight minutes you lose people’s attention, unless it is really engaging”. Most clergy seem to agree – it’s very unusual to hear a homily that goes much over 10 minutes.
This preference for briefer preaching took some getting used to when I was first received into the Church. I had come from the world of conservative evangelicalism, where most sermons last 40 minutes. In the church I attended as a student, the “message” was sometimes the best part of an hour.
This makes sense: for Evangelicals, exposition of the Bible is the focal point of the service, whereas in the Mass it is the Eucharist that is “the source and summit”, as John Paul II said. If priests routinely spoke for half an hour between Gospel and Creed, it would throw out the balance of the liturgy.
There are lessons to be learnt from denominations that place a great emphasis on effective preaching. Homilies need not necessarily be longer (although I’m uneasy about the idea of a 10 minute cut-off point). Among Catholic friends, we hear the same complaints: that homilies are platitudinous and uninspired; that they do not teach or explain the faith; that they do not invite the congregation to make use of the sacraments in living out their faith.
Preaching well, consistently, is surely challenging, although the skill can be taught. Weak homilies are the consequence of culture and expectation, also the way we prepare diocesan clergy.
It is noticeable, for example, that priests from religious orders such as the Dominicans or the Oratorians tend to be better homilists. And things may be improving – I have noticed, on the whole, younger priests seem to be inspiring preachers. The homily on Mark 9 mentioned above was given by a priest who was ordained only two years ago.
It should not be difficult to prepare priests for their preaching responsibilities. With six years of full-time residential formation, finding the time is surely not a huge problem. No other Christian denomination spends such a long time on its ministers’ initial training, and, almost by definition, men who have been judged suitable to train for the priesthood have the ability to be good public speakers.
It is enormously important that homilies are carefully prepared and considered and well-delivered. The Catholic Church in England and Wales is struggling to hold on to its existing members and attract new ones, with regular Sunday Mass attendance roughly halving in the past 30 years, from 1.3 million in 1993 to around 600,000 now. Surveys have suggested that there are widespread misunderstandings of central doctrines. For example, a 2019 Pew survey of US Catholics found that more than a third of weekly Mass attenders did not believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and that a quarter did not know even what the Church taught on the issue. I suspect that similar research in the UK would elicit similar results.
The weekly homily provides an unmatched opportunity for the priest to remind or inform his congregation what exactly we believe, and why. It is a chance for him to call us to discipleship, through the sacraments of the Church. He doesn’t need 30 minutes to achieve that, but he does need to make sure that what is said is distinctively and challengingly Catholic.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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