Is there any rule that says a priest or deacon must only give homilies that he has written? I ask this because of how many lackluster homilies I hear and think of the effect it has on the congregation. Let’s face it: not everyone can be a stellar orator. And in a society with a “between commercials” attention span and a need for stimulation, a banal homily is just another reason to stay home on Sunday. After all, most people I’ve talked to who don’t go to Mass anymore say it is because the Mass is boring. And the two reasons most often heard for why Mass is boring are (1) the music and (2) the homily because it doesn’t “speak” to me.

What a tragedy that the most sublime event, the most important action in all of history, the re-presentation of the Last Supper and Sacrifice of Calvary, could be made boring. (I acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement on the part of the individual Catholic and not a general judgement on priests and deacons.)

And let’s not pretend this is only a Novus Ordo thing. It was just as possible for the congregation to be disconnected and bored with the Tridentine Low Mass’s long silences and the priest speaking inaudibly at the altar. It’s not specific to one or the other, in other words. The situation is only exacerbated by our society being a TV culture, where all activities must entertain or be deemed worthless.

So what can be done about homilies? Like I said, not everyone can be a great orator, yet we expect all priests and deacons to either be one naturally or to be trained as such. This is unrealistic. Even for those whose homilies are usually very good, there can be an off week. Maybe they’re intellectually exhausted at the moment or they’ve been kept running so much this week that they have to thrown a Sunday homily together at the last minute. And what about all those other Masses: weekday Masses and funerals and weddings?

“Canned” homilies

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  • There are a number of “canned homily” services out there. I’ve always recommended the series in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, with a different priest contributing each issue. Personally, I believe the quality of homilies would greatly improve if the homilist, 1) began by reading a commentary on the Gospel reading from one of the Fathers/Doctors of the Church, to be found in the Office of Readings, and 2) kept his homily to five to seven minutes, maybe ten or twelve at the Easter Vigil.

    Being a brilliant speaker is not a test of virtue; knowing your limitations… is.

  • Not long ago one of our Sunday assistant priests gave a homily that sounded very familiar and by the time the homily was over I’d figured out that he had been reading many of the same Catholic blogs I had been reading and had cobbled together a pretty good homily from subjects that were raging around the Catholic blogosphere over the previous week.

  • Maybe I’ve just got contests on the brain, but I think EWTN should start a reality show called American Homilist where priests from across the country compete for the top prize. It would help bring attention to the problem of poor homiletics and possibly inspire parish priests to improve their homilies. I think Dom should be one of the judges.

  • Before the council not all priest could preach, only those who were given preaching faculties.  This of course was more tenable when each parish had three priests.  Today with an average of 1 priests per parish it would be less workable because a pastor automatically has faculties to preach to his flock.

    Reading pre-prepared homilies is an option, but more often than not it is a bad fit for two reasons, it is not designed for your parish and the priest often is very attached to the text, which contributes to the homilies boring factor. 

    What is really needed is prayer on the passage and about what God is trying to tell the community through it, study of the homily and how it fits into the liturgy, and a bit of effort.  These things combined with a bit of humility and most priests would do alright.  Sadly many are lazy, or apathetic, or too cowardly to preach good homilies.

  • Liam said: That said, were it to become the usual rather than unusual practice it might be said to run counter to the spirit of the reference to ensure that a homily is tailored to “the particular needs of the listeners”.

    RPF said: Reading pre-prepared homilies is an option, but more often than not it is a bad fit for two reasons, it is not designed for your parish and the priest often is very attached to the text, which contributes to the homilies boring factor.

    I think there is often a misunderstanding of what “particular needs of the listeners” means. Too often it is interpreted to mean making the homily relevant to this particular group of people in this parish in this town at this time. It assumes that the Gospel does not have a universal meaning that appeals to all.

    Perhaps the particular needs of the listeners includes more universal themes. Isn’t it a bit arrogant for us to always conclude that our needs are all that different from everyone else’s? Isn’t part of our current problem the fact that we think we’re so very different and that’s why doctrines and rules and what else doesn’t apply?

    I’ll grant that reading a canned homily could be just as boring in delivery but at least, in most cases, the content would be top notch. One out of two isn’t bad.

    And that concern for the needs of the listeners might weed out homilies that would fly over their heads.

  • Joe,

    You have mistaken what I said. If I didn’t understand that I would gratefully understand if Franciscan University revoked my theology degree.

    The word “re-presentation” means “to present again.” Note that I am not saying that it is happening again or that we’re pretending to re-enact something, but that the one sacrifice for all is presented anew, as in the Hebrew understanding of “memorial”, that is “to make what was in the past present in the now.” The sacrifice of Christ is made present to us. While Christ exists out of time, we exist in time and thus we have the Mass for us at specific times presented for us.

    I also think you are wrong on your last point. The homily is integral to the Mass, because it is meant to unfold the Word of God for the people.

  • Dom said: 

    Perhaps the particular needs of the listeners includes more universal themes. Isn’t it a bit arrogant for us to always conclude that our needs are all that different from everyone else’s?

    In fact I am banking on the fact that the Gospel is relevant universally.  However how we apply the Gospel varies greatly based on who we are.  A simple example, “blessed are the poor in spirit,”  in every parish I would preach against materialism and for simplicity, but this would take on a very different form if I was in a rich parish (Danvers) than if I was in a poor one (Lynn).  In a poor parish one might focus on avoiding greed and jealousy, and striving to be spiritually poor, not just materially poor.  In contrast, in a rich parish one might focus on charity, the tithing, and also on spiritual poverty but from a different perspective.

    As you might immagined a canned homily from Danvers or Lynn might not go over well in the other place.  You could limit your homily to the lowest common denomenator, i.e. the great truth behind “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I think in doing this you would also limit how people see the message as practical and challenging to their own lives.  Since the homily and the whole mass is about Christification, i.e. our participation in the sacrifice of Christ, limiting the practical appicability would seem to be less than desireable.

  • This calls for one of my rare Protestant comments.

    I understand the need for an ordained priest to confect the Eucharist.

    But why on earth use consistently poor preachers to preach? The ability to preach well is a gift. It’s not conferred by ordination, and by excluding the laity from preaching many or most of the gifted Catholic preachers are lost.

    If you are going to have a Word Service as part of Mass, for Heaven’s sake, find your preachers and let them preach! Leave the poor inarticulate priests alone – let them do what only they can do.

    Now, I readily concede that since I don’t participate in the Eucharist, I probably overrate the importance of the Word Service.

    But when you ask parishoners about a homily, and they reply, “Oh, I don’t know. Nobody listens to him, anyway” there is an opportunity being lost.

  • Sorry, Jim, but the Liturgy of the Word is indeed a vital part of the Mass and because Christ is present in the Word as He is in the Eucharist, it is the role of the priest to convey the meaning of that Word to the parish as their spiritual father.