Saturday, June 22, 2024

What to do with terrible sermons

Here are some thoughts that came to me today as I considered the various observations about homilies (or sermons, the terminology isn't all that important):

1. Most bishops, deacons and priests seriously try to offer homilies that are for your benefit.

2. Preparing a homily message, and delivering it, are two distinct challenges that come easier to some; and it isn't merely a matter of training.

3. Many priests and perhaps bishops, face a particular challenge in finding time to do even minimal work in that preparation. Some priests who give homilies without much preparation may be lazy, but I suspect many more find all their time taken up with other things.

4. Preparing a homily that addresses delicate or controversial topics is especially challenging, because it involves, metaphorically, navigating a minefield. Many or most weeks, time or other circumstances may lead a homilist to say, I just can't manage that this week. Rinse and repeat, week after week.

5. Many priests have been encouraged by feedback to be funny, to be entertaining, to be light, as opposed to be substantive and controversial. This comes both from positive and negative feedback.

6. Recognize these last two aspects, combined with the force of habit, for the peril they create: we preachers can get comfortable with, and rationalize, not giving you all that much in our homilies.

7. It may be desirable that the homilist be funny or lively or eloquent or dramatic or animated and profound, and to manage to avoid giving offense, and to avoid any rhetorical sharp elbows or awkward expression; and to do all that in 3 minutes or 90 seconds or with a single sentence. 

But sometimes the job that needs to be done, and the worker doing the job, can't work out that way. Indeed, what you get may, in your judgment, be too...whatever. It might even be what some treat as the worst possible thing: "boring."

8. Before you complain (and I'm not saying you can never complain, but I will ask how you justify complaining to everyone else, but never bothering to address your comments to the one who offered the homily), maybe consider the prior points and perhaps ask: what do I think the homilist hoped to do for any of us, for me in particular, with his message? 

In short, apply charity. Do you actually think the homilist's purpose was to harm you? Even in offending, perhaps deliberately, was it to *harm* -- or to save? 

9. Somewhere along the way, before you say or do anything at all, you might ask: "How can I help?"

10. And along the way, ask: how much merit does my grievance really have? 

Actually misrepresenting the Faith, or the facts, in a serious way, is seriously bad, as is a serious and deliberate lack of charity toward anyone. My guess is, most of the complaints people offer don't rise to this level. No, the usual complaints are, "too long," "too boring" or "not that again!" 

If you really cannot find anything else of merit in the homily (and I've listened to homilies that were a struggle for me to find much treasure!) there remains this: your suffering, such as it is, can be purgatory for you and how precious is that!

What do you think of these quick observations?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Covid taught us that we didn't have to stay where the sermons were bad. Our family set up "church" in the living room, chairs and all, and found parishes (nationwide) that really touched our hearts, which in turn enkindled in us a desire to find better than we'd been putting up with, once the churches reopened.

We moved to a different part of the country--a more conservative one, as it turns out--a couple years later, and found all of the churches here were much more to our liking than almost anything we'd experienced up north.

About 6 months ago, the pastor of our new parish crossed a pretty solid line, though. He liked to tell a joke as a setup for his homily; this makes my eyes roll, but fine. When he ventured into inappropriate, sexually-tinged jokes (possibly innocently told, or at least told without a full appreciation for how off-color they really were), that was it. Worse was the response of the congregation: loud, long raucous laughter and clapping. It was just too egregious to tolerate.

I didn't say anything to the priest, though if we had decided to stay at the parish (or if we had no other options), I would have. I have many excuses why I opted not to speak up (not least the crowd reaction: Should I have said something to them, too?). I'm not sure it was right to leave without saying why.

But honestly, some things ought to be obvious without being told; that they weren't, I think, was certainly reason enough to go elsewhere.