Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why I badger you for comments on my homilies

I confess I enjoy preparing and offering homilies.

If I can't prepare one -- if I end up offering extemporaneous thoughts at a daily Mass -- I enjoy it much less. But when I have time and inclination fully to prepare a homily: to pray over the readings, to consult various commentaries and resources, and to be able, in relative quiet and peace, with coffee at hand, to craft the text, drawing on all the blessings of my life that can enrich it -- and then, to be able to edit, edit, edit, making it tight and polished . . .

And then, to be with my parishioners, and to share it . . . and, to have another chance at it, because inevitably, feedback or sudden insights will improve it . . .

Yes, I enjoy that.

There are many other things a priest does that matter more. A man collapsed at Mass today, and someone helpfully waved me down, right during the Lamb of God, to him; and so I went. I brought him holy communion before the paramedics took him to the hospital (I offered to anoint him, but he said no). I would make a big bet that the family will remember my attention to him far more than my homily.

As much as I enjoy homilies, the rest of the Mass matters far more in my estimation; as much as I want folks to get a helpful homily -- I pray that whatever I offer is enriching to their faith -- I also want folks to look past the homily; the better it is, the more I want that. Too often, I fear, we are dazzled by externals and impressive packaging. A good homily can -- in the words of St. Augustine, teach, delight and persuade. But the Mass is an infinite treasure; and it grieves when someone says, "the main thing for me is the homily." Oh God, no!

Yet I read what folks say about the homilies they experience; and I wonder, can it be that bad?

I think folks who tend to complain and overstate things are over-represented on blogs; I think there are folks, young and old, who when they complain, ought to be challenged: "Don't tell me there was nothing for you; it was there. Instead of focusing on the problems of others, focus on the problem of yourself." The "I get nothing out of Mass" attitude, in my judgment, is itself utterly without merit; that it gets any sympathy from me is not because it's valid, but because I think I will do more good in getting the person out of that narcissism with softness than with the eight-letter response it strictly merits: bull----!" Occasionally, the latter, blunt answer is appropriate."

But I can't dismiss the comments folks far and wide offer about their experiences of the Mass, and of homilies, simply as "complaining." And then it hit me, as I thought about this, that it has been some time now since I was in that situation.

After all, for some 4 years now, most of the homilies I've heard at Mass were my own. As I like to say, I haven't gone to Mass in years; I offer it -- and that's a very different experience. I forget what it's like to "go to" Mass.

For six years, I was in the seminary. And yes, I heard some inane homilies in those years; but I had the advantage of being nourished in my faith many other ways. It's been some time since I was just a "regular Joe" Catholic attending Sunday Mass.

So I have to defer to you, dear reader, and to my dear parishioners: it's been too long since I walked in their shoes, and I really no longer have the ability to do so, in this regard.

So: if you tell me you aren't getting nourished in homilies, then that makes me say to myself, it does matter that I get it right. And that is why I solicit your feedback.

When you say you like a homily, thank you; but if you want to help me, tell me why. This may sound very odd, but it's true: just what makes a homily effective is pretty much a mystery! Oh, I don't deny all the insights, all the valid observations about technique (and I know some of them, and when I have time, I try to use them).

I mean, rather, that after all that, one can give a homily that flunks all the tests, and yet it elicits the same, "good homily Father!" Too often, I have prepared a homily I didn't like very much; but many folks at Mass, did. Too many times, folks have said I said such-and-such, and I thought, "when did I say that?" -- that's what they heard. How did that happen? A mystery to me.

I write all my Sunday homilies; I know what I said. But only you can tell me what you heard; and what it meant. Only you can tell me why you liked it; what was good about it (for you).

Also, I figure if you get into the habit of giving me specific feedback on my homilies, it can only help you be able to offer that to your own parish priest. I realize how daunting offering that to him could be; but he needs to know.

You are obliged to be charitable, and constructive, but your feedback is vital, whether he's doing well or -- even more -- badly. If you find your bishop, priest or deacon's homilies wanting, how do you expect him to change, if no one will step up and in true charity, offer some pointed feedback? (I assure you, everyone from mediocrity and up has more than enough "good homilies" bolstering their present habits.)

So, don't hold back, please. I want your feedback, and I need it.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I have any useful feedback for you, but I always enjoy reading your sermons -- especially when I can't understand the sermon at Mass (one of our priests has a very strong accent that's hard to comprehend if you're wrestling with small children) or the sermon was uninspiring. Thank you for posting them each week.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Mrs Darwin:

Well, you're certainly welcome.

Having never sired children, I cannot adequately comprehend what it is like for folks who have children at Mass; I recall, lo these many years ago, being at Mass with my family, and my dim recollection of the unspeakable consequence that awaited him who misbehaved! I cannot recall much else, and I distrust my recollections enough not to draw any conclusions therefrom.

But I will say, keep coming; as much (if I may be very candid) as I desire not to hear coughs, and squeals, and shrieks at any point during the Mass, I believe children should be present; and however much such "special effects" may discomfit me, I can't imagine how they are for the parents! So I will to let it go.

Keep bringing them kids!

Jenny said...

I know what you mean. There are the complainers, who always complain, but most people are afraid to say anything in the least negative. Cantoring, lectoring, or singing in the choir, people would always tell me what a good job I did even on days where I was not happy with how things went. When it was another singer's turn, I would hear everyone compliment her after Mass, then go outside and complain how bad it was. I developed a complex that everyone who said nice things must be lying to be polite. Constructive criticism is certainly a lost art.

Anonymous said...

Father, you seem really sensible and I like your blog. My first comment on your homilies would be that they are very hard for me to read in the "poetry" line-by-line format. In fact I don't read them because of that. Perhaps that helps some people, and mainly I'm just lazy--but there it is.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments.

I'm sorry the line-by-line format is hard for you to read. The reason they appear that way is that is how I write my text for the pulpit. I do end up shortening the lines, when I post it here, but I don't like to take out all that formatting -- that is to say, I don't know how, other than to do it line by line, and that takes quite awhile.

If anyone has a suggestion about how to do it easily, I suppose I could try that . . .

Gregaria said...

It seems that you won't be able to please everyone, but I'll give you my feedback anyways.

Normally I like a homily that doesn't deviate from Church teaching (I've sometimes wondered at some homilies). After that base is covered, I'm pretty happy. I do enjoy homilies more if they have a new insight I've never heard before or a new way to look at the reading. I also enjoy homilies that encourage me in my Faith, since its difficult being Catholic sometimes. I also like it if the homily subjects vary from Sunday to Sunday. I have one priest at my parish who always manages to tie the Gospel back to social justice and unity of some sort no matter what the point of the Gospel really was! I think the subject is good once in a while, but its pretty old now.

All of the above suggestions except the first are simply a matter of taste, though I've found that your homilies fulfill all of my criterion for a good homily.

But thank you for your comments early on in your post. I tend to be extremely critical of the homilies I hear and I forget that priests are human too and don't see their homilies in the way we do. They're really not in our shoes, as you said. So, thanks for the reminder :) I hope you have gotten something from my feedback.

Mike said...

Fr. Fox,

Excellent post! It should be in every church bulletin and posted on every bulletin board.

One thing I've noticed is that if I get into anything really heavy, the number of "nice sermon" comments is smaller, but more sincere. I assume I have made a lot of people uncomfortable.


As a deacon, I only preach one Sunday per month, but it's a good thing because it usually takes me a month to get it right (or at least what I consider to be right.) I don't know how you priests manage to do one a week, plus weekdays.

Also, I couldn't agree more about the kids. Jesus wouldn't have locked them in a closed room while He spoke. He would have gathered them to Him. Cry rooms are just an excuse for the moms to visit during mass. We should turn them all into exercise rooms.

Mark Anthony said...

First, on the kids...Before I had any, I grumped at the noise and distraction. Once I had to handle my own, I learned humility. My vision of Jesus' preaching changed too. Pre-kids, I thought of his sermons like something out of "The Greatest Story Ever Told"; a quiet, polite, attentive group of adults hanging on his every word. Post-kids, I realized that whole families came to hear him, and that there must have been games of tag along the fringes and scores of "He touched me first" comments. More like "Life of Brian"...

As to your homilies, you know I have always been very supportive of your style and content (except the one about human-animal hybrids; you lost me with that one!). From a lay person's point of view, the homily can take on a (perceived) heightened sense of importance for two reasons:

1) It changes from week to week. As important as ritual is, there is something attractive to what differs. The homily, along with the music, is variable and so it stands out to the congregation. As my daughter said about Ash Wednesday Mass, "I like it because we do something different."

2) It is addressed directly to us. Most of the liturgy, appropriately enough, is addressed to God. Here we are being spoken to directly, so I think that tends to draw our attention in a focused manner.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments and encouragement.

About the "animal human hybrids." As I recall, I brought that into a homily looking at the Church's teaching about the generation of life, and the issues of contraception, abortion and stem-cell research that relies on destroying embryonic human beings.
That was my, "what's next?" point, I recall.

I dunno, I thought it was useful to point out that we have to draw the line somewhere, or else it just gets worse, that ultimately, this is ultimately about the preservation of human life itself. I hoped the instinctive repugnance to such an idea would be useful.

Perhaps that wasn't clear, or effective...but apparently, memorable!

Mark Anthony said...

I understand your point, and generally agree with your need to draw the line in the area of life issues. Still, there is the "giggle factor", and when your teenagers start joking about mole men and Planet of the Apes after the homily, the underlying point can get obscured.

Still, you're right that it was memorable...

Anonymous said...


Please do me and some other anonymous visitors a BIG favor.

When you have a capital campaign to raise money for major parish rebuilding, please remember that there may be some occasional visitors, etc. in the congregation. The reason I ask is that last Sunday I was subjected to the ending of such event. (I visit that parish about once a year when in KY visiting family). I had about 3 sermons with only a very brief touching on the scriptures of the week. First, was a video, and then the pastor pushed, and then he allowed the chairman of the campaign to talk. The layman had a 7 point talk.

I don't mind fund raising, but I thought that it was a bit much. BUT, there was nothing Catholic about it. Not even mentioning needing/praying for more vocations so that eventually there will, once more, be more than 1 priest there.

I do like the poetic style of your written sermons, but then I sometimes write poetry.

Anonymous said...

I am giving up visiting blogsites for lent. I will miss your homilies and thought about maybe stopping by just for them but I know I would probably read a few other posts and then link on to others sites. I look forward to checking out your archives during Easter.

I hope you had a good vacation and will have a productive lent.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Fox,

I regret the opportunity lost of being one of the Sir Knights at your Mass of Thanksgiving. We were told about it, planned for it, yet my JOB prevented me from it. I pray that it was a grace-filled celebration. You are in my prayers.


Rachel said...

Speaking of human-animal hybrids:
(I got that from )