When I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.

  1. The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a  slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching. The old “say it in seven” rule needs to be re-evaluated
  2. I think many confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences:  “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better” (Now please stand for the creed).”  This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.
  3. Teaching is often lacking- When I ask Catholics who have gone on to the “Word churches” why they like the preaching there more they usually say it is because the minister teaches the Word of God. Perhaps he shows the stages of the faith journey of  a biblical character, or Five aspects of a healthy marriage from Ephesians 5. Maybe he expounds on the Four Disciplines of Devoted Discipleship in Matthew and so forth. But the Word of God is both taught, and applied to life in memorable ways.
  4. The Three Essential questions often go unaddressed – It  would seem that every sermon should ask and answer three  questions: What? So What? and Now What? I think we Catholic Priests do alright with the “what” but not so well with the other two questions. Homilies are not just about information (the What) they also aim at transformation. Addressing the “What” can help to inform but the “So what” and “Now What” aim more for transformation.
  5. Good preaching is edgy. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. But too many priests are afraid of offending or upsetting. Despite the fact that we serve a Lord who got killed  for what he said, too many of us are not willing to suffer even the raised eyebrows of our congregation. We have to be willing  to talk forthrightly about serious issues today, about sin, about injustice, about promiscuity and so forth. We have to speak the truth in love but the “Jesus loves you sermons”  are not enough. Jesus loved us enough to speak the truth to us even when we killed him for it.  We priests have to get a spine, and a heart and be willing to preach  even the difficult stuff. It has been my experience that Catholics respond well to tough sermons. They don’t want angry priests but they do want priests who are zealous for the truth. 
  6. How about a little enthusiasm? If you really care about what you are saying shouldn’t it be reflected in your mannerisms and tone of voice? Too many priests have a kind of lecture like discursive approach instead of a fiery Charismatic approach. True enough there are different personalities but a fiery enthusiasm is hard to hide. But being on fire can’t be faked. It comes only from prayer and a deep love for God and His people.

I know you can add to the list  above. Perhaps your feed back will help some of us priests improve. So have at it. Be kind and constructive but speak the truth. We priests can use it. And pray, pray, pray. You get the priests and the sermons you pray for.  Also encourage us when we do well and gently admonish when we need improvement.

Perhaps we do well to end with the Words of St. Gregory the Great who exhorts the faithful to pray for the Priests in their preaching role:

Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.  For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly.  With reference to the former situation, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (PS 50:16) And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove the, for they are a rebellious house.  (Ez 3:26) He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth.  It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock. (As quoted in the Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 3)

This video is an excerpt of a sermon by Fr. Bill Casey, it’s powerful.

132 Responses

  1. Peter Wolfe says:

    Personally coming from a former protestant culture of baptist, I like the conservative catholic church myself. They appear to tak their job and duties much more serious even out of gest they do their jobs with functional operations. If anything we need to go back toa time before Vatican II forever to have latn, etc. My issue with catholics is polar opposites lik arrogance withpride is a huge problem with orthadox and former converts from other fiths especially with missionaries on campus save for one. I mean to say that things are taken as a given even though people are like where did you get that information? I also see cowardess in the priest’s homile on serious issues and a lot of rope walking to preserve it. Also there islots of arbitrary power like my priest doesn’t appear to have much sympathy for a plan to have tranortation to and from church cause apparenlty I’m the only diabled person? Rather pathetic thathis doesn’t have a manditory in all parishes if you ask me. The RCIA also has funamental flaws involved like the catechumen and candidates fuse together like me being a catechumen is a huge problem dealing with the baptized arrogang Bible thumpers. I don’t like it and don’t think it shold be taught exactly he same either. This is all I have to say at this point on things except it would help if the church was more inclusive as well on other things other than race in diversity.
    note: opinion coming from a soon to be convert to the catholic christian faith on the short comings of local parishes and the label of “Social Justice” is considered communist or anti-christian is ilinformed bs if you ask me.

  2. marilyn says:

    I AM NOW NOTICING SOME CHANGES….but what pulls the catholic out of the church is the zest and enthusiasm for the scriotures that the protestants have…the catholic churches do the preaching is like they are just reading the scriptures, no emotion, no connection, no joy…..can’t wait for the young zelous ones, i hope they come to my church!!!

  3. Johann says:

    When someone really believes in something, they have no problem expressing it, sharing it or showing enthusiasm for it. I suspect that a good deal of priests have no interest in the Gospel or Christ or religion, and are simply enjoying a comfortable sinecure as the church crumbles around their ears. THeir only concern is to be as inoffensive as possible. Their true god is public opinion. No true minister of Christ could get up at a pulpit and deliver the dreck I hear week after week at Mass.

  4. Michael says:

    Some of my friends said so. They said it was because their lack of our Holy Bible reading and understanding, but on the other area, they admitted that Catholic Church has their own strengths, such as strong and good structure, and broad connection for the community support i.e schools, poverty, hospitals or medical n health care, etc.

    Yeah I believe it will go better later gradually.

    God Bless

  5. Robert says:

    Strongly disagree regards the need for longer sermons and so does every expert in public speaking. THE reasons why some RC Priests, can sometimes (and far too often) delivery a poor sermon are:

    To long – period – doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, human beings start switching off and going on mental “personal adventures” after about 5mins tops. Remember the old saying, Less is More! (always leave people wanting more, never muttering to themselves, “when’s this fella gonna stop”.

    “Own” your topic – you’re the Priest, you’re the one who’s had years upon years of theological training – so, what really inspires you about this particular aspect of the faith that you’d like to now share with others?

    Because you do “own” the topic, you will NOT, “uhmm”, you will not “ahhh”, nothing kills quality public speaking like endless uhhms and ahhhs.

    Because you “own” the topic you will not – EVER – use notes, NO NOTES (except for a specific persons name or placename/hard to remember word etc) – NO NOTES!

    Do NOT keep repeating yourself, repeat ONE key point, ONCE, and that’s it – Less is MORE!

    Remember – the people you are speaking to, are IN CHURCH, you DON’T have to convert them – you have to INSPIRE them to “stay on target”. Really, any Priest can (should) be able to speak to brothers and sisters in the Faith IN Church – the real challenge surely, would be to go out into the wider community and win back those who have voted with their feet?

    Summary
    Less is MORE
    Own your topic
    No notes, no “uhhm’s” and “ahhh’s”
    No endless repeating what you’ve already said
    Inspiration is required, not conversion – you’re IN church already!

    Bold Suggestion
    If anyone doubts anything I’ve said, check out the Gospels, Our Lord kept his stories simple and short, little if any repeating and never failed to “own” his topic – there was NO doubt, no uhhm’s, no ahh’s – and the people wanted more!

    Best Wishes to All!

    • This was a pretty long comment. It took me a long time to read it. Almost 5 minutes , Maybe more

      • Jim says:

        Maybe for you “inspiration is required…” & “not conversion”. But there are many in the pews that are dire need of conversion because they have the going mentality of “being good is good enough”. The idea that being good is enough is the most pernicious heresy in the Church today. It’s not about just being good or better but BEST. The standard is holiness–not the average amount of sinfulness. All of us are called 1st to be holy by keeping the commandments, prayer, sacrifice & devotion as we draw nearer to God becoming more like the One we worship. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. Because “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.” Pardon won’t come to the son or daughter who doesn’t want pardon. Despite God’s infinite love for all of us, he can’t welcome home the prodigals who won’t return home.

  6. Robert says:

    Firstly, thank you for reading it.

    I too have spent many hours listening to sermons that less than 24hrs later, I could not recall to save my life. Partly my fault, YES, but I’ve also come to realise the story teller has a critical role to play. A poor movie bombs at the box office, a dud book gathers dust on a shelf – why should a poor sermon be excused?

    In any case, a tree is judged by its fruit – we’ll see if over the next say 40yrs, the Church can “pack ‘em back in again” – up to now, it’s sadly been a rush for the door. Regards the “1st world” the sheperds have lost most of their sheep!

    Best Wishes.

  7. John says:

    One of the priests at my parish is being criticized because he “talks too long” but our patron is St. John Vianney, and my understanding of SJV’s life includes the fact that when he first got to Ars, the people in the seats didn’t like his tone, and they wanted to get rid of him.

    Turns out, a little later, they built a railroad spur into Ars to accommodate all the people coming to have confession heard by SJV. I pray that my priest who is being criticized sticks to doing what he is doing, moving to the back and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through him.

    One man’s “boring homily” is bringing another man to tears.

    Too many people want to “check the box” — went to mass. Check. Some people actually want to go to mass and hear what the priest says because it is in HIS words that we hear GOD talking.

    Thanks for your blog … I sent it to some people who are criticizing my priest.

  8. ANDREW SSEMUGENYI says:

    People we are leaving in modern world where people are looking for their God so badly. i dont think its better for a person to give God little time. people need to understand the ways of God and what God wants. if you really need God to work for you more an d more then better give him enough time.
    i personally the only thing that hurts in the catholic church is one priests tend to pretend as if they dont know the bible they dont give what is supposed to be given to people of God because of time. there very many things priests should teach children of God but when they fear to tell people and they start to talk on those who have tried to come up to teach. SO PLEASE PRIESTS CHANGE. THANKS
    AM ANDREW SSEMUGENYI UGANDA KAMPALA

  9. angel says:

    i belive as a catholic any belife is real its just worded difrent we are all gods children and at the end of every worship it ends the same worship god and do wats right

  10. Mahndisa says:

    Wow this was a very good article. I’ve been going to Mass at a local parish for over a year because the church is open 24 hours a day and I can always go there and pray. I am not Catholic. I was raised Baptist but am nondenominational to the extent that God doesn’t care about denominations! There is richness to the faith like all of the sacraments and Eucharistic Adoration, culivation of the interior silence to meet God with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost and he intensity of the prayer life. BUT…coming from a Baptist background the homilies are more often than not WEAK! Not only do they not take enough time to develop the text contextually, linguistically, historically etc but usually its like listening to a one sided conversation. Where is the charisma? Up to this point I’ve heard two good homilists, one from childhood Father Goode of St John of the Shipwreck in San Francisco, and Father Illo who recently left St. Joseph’s Catholic church in Modesto, CA. Both of them are gifted homilists and while they preached everyone listened. Some complained that Father Illo was so passionate and opinionated, but I saw a very holy man who exhorted us to walk in Christian perfection and he wasn’t afraid to rile feathers if the issue was a hot button social cause.

    I’m autistic so content is always more important than delivery but some of these priests seem dead to me and it takes away from the fullness of the Mass. Indeed I go to mass and Adoration chapel during the week but worship with a Pentecostal church on the weekends. There, Pastor Steenburgh has a strong anointing to PREACH and TEACH the Word of God. It seems like many Catholics know the catechism better than the Bible (except the charismatics I’ve met) and I think it should be the reverse; the Bible should be the primary book that we get to know and appreciate and the catechism, while important, should be second fiddle to the Bible with no exceptions!

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