Sunday, August 12, 2012

Complaining about Homilies

Anthony Trollope, in his celebrated book Barchester Towers, clearly expresses what I so often feel when I go to mass:
There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.
So often, far too often, I attend mass and find myself having to endure the homily, instead of appreciating it.  The homily is intended to be the extension of the proclamation of the Word of God, but it so often feels like 10-15 minutes of utter misery as I squirm in my seat trying to pray the "Jesus Prayer," or trying to do anything but concentrate on how bad the homily is in order to preserve the last remnants of charity that still exist within my heart.

I have heard some amazing homilies.  Most of them, however, have not been within Catholic churches.  Because my beloved is not Catholic, I regularly attend an Episcopalian community with her where the homilies are usually theologically rich, pastorally sensitive, and thoroughly interesting.  But the vast majority of Catholic homilies I have heard have not been anywhere near this standard, and I'm left wondering why.  I know there are good homilists out there amongst us Romans, but why are they so few and far between?

I don't know the answer to this question.  I do know, however, that not all those 'licensed' to preach have the gift of being able to do so, and that is aggravating when there are so many men and women in our parishes who, I know, would be able to do a far better job of expounding on the Word if only they were sanctioned to do so.  There are, of course, good reasons for not opening up the pulpit to any and every Tom, Dick, or Sally.  But surely there can be a way to allow the prophetic voice to be able to make itself heard from a pulpit now and then, particularly when so often what we hear as parishioners is inane.

I don't know the solution to this problem.  I don't know whether our seminaries need to do a better job of teaching and assessing theological and homiletical training.

But I do know that I'm tired of hearing poor homilies.


  1. Yeah, you are right, you remind me of a movie in which the church is reignited when gospel music is introduced. Maybe we need something akin to the Blue Brothers there (since they were also catholic) to reignite the flame of the faith. I have heard pretty good homilies, however the Father who used to give them is now a Bishop and not currently with us, and the new ones are rather boring, but what can you do. As Robert Barron says, it is about practicing your faith.

  2. If you ever listen to Mass on EWTN TV I always enjoy Fr. Joseph Mary and four other priests when they lead the community in Mass.I do have to say that I was blessed while in religious life and more so while attending and graduating from St. Bernard's Seminary in Rochester NY. way back in 1978.