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AMID THE FRAY | Appreciating good homilies

Here’s an answer that should show up on Catholic Jeopardy: “Eight minutes.” The question is: “What does Pope Francis think the ideal length of a homily should be?”

This pope, who has not been afraid to weigh in on controversial issues, recently addressed a topic that every practicing Catholic has probably thought about, usually while listening to a sermon.

Talking to a group of Sicilian clergy June 9, Pope Francis said a homily should be under eight minutes and leave people with “a thought, a feeling and an image” that will stick with them “all week.” “He asked the priests to consider whether ‘they preach in such a way that people go out for a cigarette and then come back’ because the homily talks ‘about everything and nothing.”

This is not the first time the pope has dispensed advice on preaching. Last January he complained that too many homilies “are abstract, and instead of awakening the soul, they put it to sleep.”

“Preaching runs this risk,” Pope Francis said during an Angelus address. “Without the anointing of the Spirit, it impoverishes the word of God and descends to moralism and abstract concepts; it presents the Gospel with detachment, as if it were outside time, far from reality.”

From the pope’s lips to every preacher’s ear. Wherever two or three Catholics are gathered, at some point, there is certain to be grumbling about preaching. It is the most common complaint I hear, even from the most generous and tolerant of Catholics.

Of course good preaching can be found on YouTube, and I know many people who tune in to Bishop Robert E. Barron’s Sunday homilies regularly to fill the gap left in the Mass they attended that morning, but I think we can do better.

I do not know the cause of so much weak preaching. Are basic rhetorical skills not being taught effectively in seminaries? Do some priests feel the homily is the moment when either dense theology or generic bromides should be downloaded to their flock? Or are they simply too busy with the chores of parish administration to spend the time writing a good sermon?

My wife was picking up our child from the Methodist preschool once when she saw the pastor practicing his Sunday sermon, speaking from the pulpit to an empty church days before he would deliver it. His desire to get it right, to hear how it sounded, to practice his delivery, was striking.

Not every priest is a born preacher (hence so many canned homilies). But practice can make better. One young priest I knew who was aware of his deficiencies studied books like Father Alfred McBride’s guide to preaching, “How to Make Homilies Better, Briefer, Bolder.” He diligently worked on his sermons and dramatically improved his ability to hold people’s attention while imparting some substance.

It is hard to speak to a diverse audience ranging from squalling toddlers and distracted parents to senior citizens who have heard it all before. But those eight or 10 or 15 minutes are likely to be the only time in the entire week that most Catholics will get a Catholic exhortation. It is a precious opportunity not to be wasted.

Not every catechetical deficiency can be addressed in a homily, but for those eight minutes, Catholics can see the connection between Scripture and their lives. It is an invitation to grow closer to the Lord and to His Church.

And I think I speak for all of us when I say thank you to those priests and deacons who take the time to preach well and leave us with food for thought in the week that follows.

Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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