Sunday, January 20, 2013

Homilies: What does Joe Six Pew hear?

Several friends have been reflecting about the homilies they heard this weekend.  Some of them heard homilies that challenged them (though one certainly not in a way that was helpful) and others homilies that failed to.

The conversations reminded me of an article in the Irish Times a few years back, sparked by the publication of some guidelines for effective preaching by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, where reporters evaluated homilies at ten parishes: Did the homilies deliver a relevant message, did they connect with congregations, and did they follow recent Vatican guidelines on sermons?

A sample:

"The message : The celebrant spoke in very abstract terms on the topic of forgiveness. To believe in sin, he argued, one must believe in God. A non-believer has a conscience. But while a believer can ask and receive the Lord's forgiveness, a non-believer must live with his guilt for the rest of his life. This, he speculated, must be a great source of pain and unhappiness to the non-believer. 

The timing : At three minutes and thirty seconds, it was actually well within the eight minute time limited suggested by Archbishop Etervoic. 

The delivery : The celebrant spoke without notes and maintained eye contact with the congregation throughout. His delivery was faltering, however. Seated in the middle of the church, I could not decipher all of what was said. 

Did it feel like a weeks work? Frankly, no. The gospel was the parable of the Prodigal Son. If the celebrant had wished to reference contemporary social issues, there was much to work with. Instead, he confined himself to generic observations on a perennial theme. His sermon referenced no contemporary social issue or even that days gospel. "

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece which appeared on the PrayTell blog about what I thought constituted a good homily in which I suggested that it might be useful for homilists to ask their congregations what they heard — and what they didn't — in a homily.

I have never been in a parish where that is a regular practice, and yes, yes, I can imagine all the horrible things that might happen (since my teaching has been regularly evaluated in narrative form — not little check boxes — by my students for the last 25 years).  People might (will!) say all manner of things, from the innocuous (and singularly unhelpful) "good homily" to the "should never be permitted in the pulpit again."  But this is more than an exercise in humility or delight, for along the way, if one has "ears to hear," there is much to be learned not only about your teaching/preaching, but about the community you serve.  What are the words they need to hear?

Since I think it unlikely that many parishes offer the opportunity to give feedback, I'll make the invitation here: what did you hear preached this weekend? What did you wish you heard?  Perhaps if I ask this question every week we can start a groundswell, not of complaint, but of prayerfully reflecting back the Word as it did, or did not, take flesh each week in the homily.

One ground rule:  please don't identify the where or the who; you can comment anonymously on this blog to avoid inadvertently doing so!

Who is Joe Six Pew?  The "man in the pew" at ePriest's homily builder (which will let you click off on a menu and print out a homily — though I would be hard pressed to call it "your homily" as the site does).  Joe has helpful feedback for the homilist constructing a homily such as:  "If you give me too many practical applications, I may end up trying to bite off more than I can chew. Are you sure you want to take the risk?"

Don't need a customized homily?  You can buy full texts "poignantly written to help make a meaningful connection with your congregation" here. $8.95 gets you 618 words for the funeral of a child.

The Irish Times article is alas behind a pay wall.  If you want a copy, send me an email!

Read some of Fr. Jim McDermott SJ's reflections on what it is like to be on the other side of the pulpit:


  1. Anonymous11:42 PM

    I went to a Newman Center Mass. The homilist focused on Jesus saying to Mary that it wasn't his time to start his public ministry. The homilist then segued into talking about how we Catholics need to participate in public life - in various political perspectives talking with one another and in we Catholics dialoguing with Christians of other denominations. He ended with a pitch for the March for Life and for praying the rosary outside abortion clinics. My teen son was angry and said he thought praying the rosary as a form of "passive aggressive protest" was wildly inappropriate. Sigh.

  2. Anonymous3:11 AM

    Our homily linked the last three Sundays together and pointed to Jesus's humanity. The homilist particularly wanted us to recognise how much Jesus enjoyed life and celebrated ordinary human events with ordinary people. It lasted about 5 minutes and was a bit rushed with some tantalising directions alluded to which was frustrating and distracting.

  3. Anonymous4:58 AM

    We heard about the wedding, about how to understand the context of John's Gospel. It is a wedding, which is about the relationship to God and God's people. The wine had run out and wine meant joy, which was no longer present. The containers were meant for ritual washing; was Jesus' instruction that they be filled with water that would be turned into wine a commentary on how dry law and ritual are without relationship, love, and joy?

    Overall it was a great homily about how we are called into relationship with God and one another, to find the balance of obedience not as strict behavior, but in the context of love and joy.

    The word is broken open in a good way most weeks, where I worship. Thanks be to God.

  4. Anonymous11:12 AM

    We didn't hear about the wedding, but about the reading from Corinthians. We are ALL given a gift to build up the body of Christ, can we cherish these gifts in ourselves, in each other, can we set aside divisions based on which gifts are "better"? Some gifts are less visible than others, but would we ever deem a gift from God less valuable? It was pretty challenging, and gently touched on current events without being partisan.

    I'm still thinking about it this morning, so I give it a thumbs up for that as well.

  5. Anonymous5:05 PM

    I never get to hear a homily, on a Sunday as I do Children's liturgy, for which I get plenty of very honest feedback and the occasional random comment that has nothing to do with anything in the story. I'm sure homilies would improve if 5 or 6 year olds were allowed to interrupt and correct the speaker or ask questions about the bits that seem not to make any sense to them!

    However I did get to mass today. As usual this particular priest has the knack of saying something that looks simple on the surface but has much depth to it. Being St Agnes he started talking about true martyrdom being an acceptance of life in all its fullness. From this he talked about the freedom that comes with that. There was much more than this but I am a visual learner and I struggle to take in more that what strikes me as important at the time.

    Much I have read in the last week seemed to be about evil and I was starting to wonder what God was trying to say. So now I am pondering the freedom of accepting life in all its fullness, even in the face of great evil.

  6. Our homily was delivered by a priest who usually relies on a "3-story trick." 1 in the beginning, 1 middle, 1 end. They're clearly canned stories and, I suspect, from a nondenominational source. He links them together with original material. But last Sunday, he went well over his 3-story limit. I admit to tuning out after about the 5th one. If he'd skip the stories and just rely on his other material, the homily would be much better. So many stories...I can't remember the point of the homily at all.

    1. a teacher, I know that it can be humbling to ask your students, so what did we do last time? I wonder what would happen when if the priest handed out 3x5 cards after Mass and asked people to share one thing they remember from (a) this week's homily and (b) LAST week's homily!

  7. It is so interesting to ask my students ~ so, what did we talk about last time?

    1. Oh yes...that's a great question to ask!! And the answers useful on sooooo many levels.

  8. When I was a Protestant, I cared a lot, now, I'm afraid, I have high expectations but don't care as much when they're not met. The homilies here tend to be good, anyway.

    I like: 1) if possible, showing how *all* of the readings tie together(this is a bit too high, I'm sure, but I like it when people do it), 2) an identifiable link between the text and its spiritual application (which is not #3) 3) and most important NO CLICHES. Please.

    1. # 2 generally makes my day...and #3 makes me unhappy, too.