During a recent day trip to Sicily, Pope Francis said that homilies should not last more than 8 minutes and that the entire Mass should be completed within 40 (although he may have been exaggerating on this second point). He has said similar things before.
He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I disagree. No sweeping generalization about sermon length is necessary. There are cultural and even local differences that come into play. In my own parish I offer two rather brief masses, on Saturday and Sunday evenings, that are about 45 minutes long; our Sunday morning liturgies are a good bit longer. Our choir Mass lasts 90 minutes and those that come seem to enjoy it immensely. They say they are enriched in the extended worship of God and appreciate a longer sermon that explores the proclaimed word more thoroughly. It is a tradition here. In many parts of Africa liturgies can last upwards of three hours!
I will grant that no one wants to hear a long homily that contains only 5 minutes of content, but there are forms of preaching that teach out of the sacred text and delve deeply into its meaning and application to our lives—and this takes more than 8 minutes! There are some Catholics in this country who admire Protestant preaching because it typically features a rich message and makes it relevant to everyday life. For the record, though, most Protestant sermons are about 30 minutes long.
At some point, Catholics need to decide what they want in a homily: a short “thought for the day” reflection or something more substantial, which takes more time. Maybe we should offer them such options.
My deeper concern in the demand for briefer sermons and shorter Masses is that today we are in desperate need of liturgies that are more than perfunctory. In a world as secular and hostile as ours we need more prayer and instruction than ever! There are 168 hours in a week; removing time for sleep, that leaves more than 100 waking hours. How does 8 minutes of instruction and less than an hour of worship in total stack up against all those other hours, many of them filled with things that are downright poisonous to the faith?
Rather than simply focusing on length, perhaps it would be better to speak to effective and compelling liturgy and preaching. There are many fine preachers, Catholic and Protestant. It is well within the realm of human ability to preach powerfully, and it is my experience that God’s people will gladly listen to a good sermon even if it is considerably longer than 8 minutes.
In my mind, an 8 minutes ceiling is just too limiting. (There are times when brevity is required for good reason; for example, I have given 3-minute sermons as part of 30-minute televised Masses for shut-ins.) One might hope that the Pope, who sits atop a worldwide Church, would recognize the diverse situations and preferences that exist rather than suggest such a general, restrictive notion.
For the record, the homily Pope Francis gave following his remarks about brief sermons was 17 minutes long—not a bad length for a Sunday homily!