Homilising and moralising

Homilising and moralising

Cathnews alerted me to David Timbs’ recent article on mediocre preaching. I don’t agree with all of it, but I recommend it. I’ve read it several times myself, and it’s good food for thought.

I cringed when I read this:

Some rather disturbing anecdotal evidence  indicates that in the US especially but probably elsewhere, increasing numbers of preachers are becoming extremely lazy, are down-loading homilies and delivering them as if they were their own work. A commenter, for example, in Cathnewsusa has reported just recently that he and his wife heard the exact same ‘homily’ at two Masses on the same day in two different cities, 110 km apart!

That hit close to home! I can’t be sure of course, but my bet is that the replicated homily came from ePriest, which is an excellent resource but also a deadly temptation for the unprepared preacher. Confession time: I have resorted to this twice. The first time was on my third day as a priest! In all the activity surrounding my Friday night ordination and Saturday mass of thanksgiving, I had neglected to prepare a homily for Sunday. Plagiarising on my third day wasn’t a good start to my life as a priest, but at least I learnt an important lesson early: never preach from somebody else’s homily notes.

In fact, I made a resolution about homily preparation many years before I started preaching. One of my seminary classmates quoted his father, a QC, who compared the Sunday homily to closing arguments in court. A priest has 10 minutes on Sunday to reach out to his parishioners. As a barrister, he would start preparing those remarks on the Monday preceding and know exactly what he would say by Friday. That’s not a bad model!

Stephen K, who sometimes comments here, has a typically thoughtful comment below David’s article. Not the comment about pastoral ministry — I’ll give that one a wide berth! The comment about preaching, which relates four (or five) rules:

(1a) most people don’t want to be moralised to, they are not masochistic, and generally resent being told either what they already know or think or what they don’t think;

(1b) reprimanding the congregation is mistargeting the audience, since the very fact people show up shows some spiritual consciousness or religious openness and they should be encouraged not brow-beaten; a negative, carping preacher will turn people away more than any other single factor;

(2) liturgically speaking, homilies should be exclusively related to interpretation of the Scriptural text or prayers of the day, since most people don’t have a clue about why a particular extract might have been selected or what it stands for, or why they should be bothered;

(3) any address will be a turn-off if is too formulaic, not personal: preachers have to have something to say, and generally just repeating what someone can read elsewhere is a waste of time;

(4) preachers should try to limit their address to 10 minutes to encourage conciseness and not abuse the limited attention spans of passive listeners.

This is very sound advice. Perhaps I would do better to more faithfully observe rule (2), since I tend to catechise at the expense of scriptural analysis. Nonetheless, Stephen is a little stricter than Vatican II:

“The sermon should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium, 35. (Emphasis added.)

A ten minute limit is very generous. I limit myself to 7 or 8 minutes, and aspire to finish in 5. Experience from the pews has taught me that less is more.

Perhaps the greatest risk for the preacher — apart from boring his listeners — is to moralise. By that I mean to be “preachy” or moralistic in the worst sense — to reduce the Gospel to something narrow and negative. On the other hand, moral teaching is an integral part of the Gospel, so preaching must sometimes encompass moralising in the best sense of that word.

I sometimes pray with and try to internalise St Vincent Ferrer’s advice on preaching, which is reproduced in the Office of Readings on his feast day:

In sermons and talks, use simple language and a homely conversational style to explain each particular point. As far as you can, give plenty of examples; then, whoever has committed that particular sin will have his conscience pricked, as though you were preaching to him alone. But it must be done in such a way that your words do not appear to come from a soul full of pride or scorn. Speak rather out of the depths of love and fatherly care, like a father suffering for his sinful children, as if they were gravely ill, or trapped in a deep pit, whom he is trying to draw out and set free, and look after like a mother. You must be like one who delights in their progress, and in the glory in heaven that they are hoping for.

Such a style usually has a good effect on a congregation. For, to speak of virtues and vices in general terms evokes little response from listeners.

I think this, too, is sound advice. I hope it’s not representative of the “clerical subculture of the counter-Reformation” which David and his readers criticise. In fact, I think they are talking about something else, which I too reject.

A large gulf can separate intention and perception. I always welcome constructive criticism on my preaching, and only wish more people were willing to bruise my ego. I’m in no doubt it needs it!

  • MuMu

    The best sermon I have ever heard was on the Good Shepherd, delivered by Fr Marshall of St Aloysius . He gave a detailed explanation of the life of a shepherd and his flock in the Holy Land and surrounding areas – it hasn’t changed much over 2,000 years. Fr told us the shepherd lives with his sheep, night and day and names each one. If he takes them up into mountainous areas he tries to keep them away from cliffs as they like to scramble down to the ledges where the juiciest grass grows. Then they can’t get back up. The shepherd waits until the sheep is really weak before He attempts to rescue it; too soon and it will struggle and fall to its death.

    This amazing sermon brought home to me the fact that sheep – and the way they are cared for and their stupidity – was all designed by God for the express purpose of providing us a parable and a subtle and effective way of realising the way we behave and how Christ tries to care for us. That’s all Fr Marshall told us – a detailed story of sheep and their shepherd – and he let us think about it and make the connections.

    You shouldn’t be hard on yourself, Fr John – what a tridium to cope with!
    But the cultural context of a parable is a brilliant way of giving a sermon!

    • Good point MuMu. I am a little inclined to labour a point and spell it out. But the good Lord seldom did that. Another thing to note!

  • PM

    The English and Irish Dominicans love to quote the advice of one of their great C20 characters, Archbishop Finbar Ryan OP: ‘If you haven’t struck oil after ten minutes, stop boring!’

    The Archbishop, by the way, was the uncle of John Ryan, cartoonist and creator of the Captain Pugwash children’s books.

    • Thanks PM. I often quote that line myself. Now I know to credit it to Pugwash’s great uncle!

  • Michael

    Hmm, why give added readership to David Timbs’ article? I think there was significant material in the article which would lead the innocent reader astray, and not much to gain past the general idea that there’s problems with homiletics at the moment.

    • Never mind. “Innocent readers” don’t read my blog — I like to think my readers are all of them critical thinkers! Ha ha.

      I’m all for censorship of violence and pornography, but we should never censor ideas. I’m with John Stuart Mill on that one.

      (A case can be made, I think, for the repudiation of office holders who may propose to speak for the Church when in fact they are undermining or contradicting Catholic teaching. But that’s not pertinent in this case.)

      • MuMu

        Glad you gave the caveat, Fr John.
        I listened to a sermonette in an inner-city church this week in which our father informed us that because of the Lord’s description of his yoke being easy and His burden light, we did not have to pray to be made worthy of Him. That asking to be made worthy, in fact, was heresy (maybe he meant to say hearsay). I spose as a consequence of this, some crazy old sheila in the congregation actually SHOUTED after the elevation, “Lord, I AM NOT WORTHY that You should come under my roof…”

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