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On the Length of the Homily

September 17, 2018 26 Comments

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!

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Comments (26)

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  1. Donna Young says:

    In Medjugorje, pilgrims attend church for 3 hours every evening – rosary, followed by Mass, followed by Adoration or some other devotion.

  2. Stephen says:

    Father, you may need a holiday!

  3. Frank says:

    A priest used to tell us that in preaching, one should be good, be brief and be gone. Even if a homily is out of the mouth of St. John Chrystostom, our attention spans are limited and we tend to drift in attention after about 10-15 minutes. The Protestants give long homilies because they don’t have the Apex of the Mass, the Canon. The Canon should be longer than the homily because it is the summit of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

  4. Howard says:

    It’s good to see he’s choosing to speak out about the really important issue facing the Church today while ignoring lesser matters. Perhaps in the near future he will enlighten us regarding the key and meter in which hymns should be sung.

    • Stephen says:

      Howard, the Pope was actually denouncing the Mafia in Sicily and the kowtowing of the Church during his homily. He was at the Mass in Sicily to honour a priest martyred by the Mafia. His comment about the length of homilies and the Mass was not the central theme and I doubt very much that it was meant to be a universal statement. It may well have been said lightheartedly to put people at ease given the seriousness of the situation. Anyone looking for something negative in what the Pope said is simply looking for trouble out of pride. I suggest humble consideration through prayer is the way ahead.

    • Terry! says:

      Good one!

  5. Kevin says:

    I would like seminaries to get seminarians to drink a gallon of water before their professor gives them a homily, to be transcribed, full of nonsense and repetition and extraneous asides. Maybe a baby doll programmed to burst into a cacophany randomly three times within a 45 mintute window would do as well. Or maybe a container of liquid with a drip and only one paper towel. After the talk, but before they get the copy of the talk and a red pen to cross off the nonsense and can’t leave the room until everybody has turned in their copy.

    I don’t want bullet point sermons, but I am tired of jokes, examples that reiterate rather than illustrate a point that was pretty clear to begin with, and references to musicals or professional sports, especially when I have a cold or allergies and used up my tissues, or have a child with a limited attention span who thinks Mass is boring and hates going. I won’t even get into Father quizzing the congregation. I want to shout from the pews “Father, He must increase and you must diminish!”

  6. Peter Beck says:

    In God’s house, time should stand still. When we are riveted on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, nothing else should matter. In my younger days I appreciated a shorter homily, but then I wasn’t really paying attention. Our Father Baer at St. Mary’s Piscataway is an excellent homilist, because like you Monsignor, he makes every word count.

  7. Giovanni Serafino says:

    I always found it odd, that a homily can sometimes last longer than 20 minutes ,while the Eucharistic Prayer ,which really is the center of the Mass, is often rushed through in less than 4 or 5 minutes. A 40 minute Sunday Mass is absurd, except for people who are looking for a quick way to take care of the obligation.

    The local protestant non denominational church has 3 Sunday services each one lasting for one hour and a half! Unfortunately, many of its members are former Catholics!

    What we need is a well prayed and beautiful Liturgy, and thoughtful orthodox catholic homily to assist us in living the faith.

  8. William says:

    You’re spot on! Why don’t our priests get it? Between 8 and ten minutes is just right amount of time to say something that is edifying and memorable. This jumping from one topic to another and putting us all to sleep is a colossal waste of Catholic time.

  9. Patty Morris says:

    Time? Content is what matters! Look at the numbers of birth control uses, abortions, living together and not married, people’s multiple marriages/divorces, etc. D[d these people every learn that adultery, fornication, and other sexual sins are sins?

    Who do you love more … this cute person or God? Both God and Jesus use the word test (John 6:6) for example. Some do not know they are being tested. See all of Tobit esp. 6:13-14. “the girl has been given to seven husbands and each has died in the bridal chamber. … for a demon is in love with her, and he harms no one except those who approach her.” The girl, Sarah, Tobit and everyone around them are being tested. If one knew and understood these and other sins they might have passed the test and sooner. Maybe not have even entered into the beginnings of sin itself.

    Not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, chances to inform the young are missed. unknown sins becomes a hard habit to break.

    • Bernadette says:

      True. I’d rather hear 5 minutes of authentic theology and exhortation over 20 minutes of heterodoxy and I’d rather hear 20 minutes of authentic theology over 5 minutes of heterodoxy!

  10. Jim says:

    It is very sad that I don’t believe I can receive sound teaching or spiritual direction from Pope Francis. I find it troubling!

    I find myself disagreeing with him on most things. Eight minute homilies. C’mon!!

  11. Jill M Clark says:

    As a parent who has been raising children for over 30 years, I would say, let us have both!

    Let us have a vigil or Sunday “short mass” with the homily and liturgy of the eucharist as abbreviated as humanly possible for the exasperated parents of fidgety children. We have one in our diocese that averages 30 minutes and I treasure it as gold (It may have saved my son from a life of agnosticism).

    For those who have survived the raising of children and have the time to enjoy “basking in the light of His face”, let them have as leisurely a mass as they want. I hope to count among them someday.

  12. Ed Siering says:

    I would like to see the Holy Father address the problems that are on every Catholics mind, i.e. clergy abuse especially the inordinate numbers committed by homosexual priests and episcopacy and then covered up.

  13. C Beltz says:

    Here is a novel idea, instead of everyone worrying over the length of the homily, perhaps we might ask our homilists to meditate more on the audience’s ability to accept the homily. Time is not and should not be the first concern here. I have heard amazing homilies that lasted 20+ minutes, as well as terrible 3 minute (daily) homilies.

    I would hope the priest, as he is composing what will become his homily, prayerfully remembers that within his audience is the Lord. The Lord often looks like a sick child, or a frustrated parent, a tired nurse, or even an attentive and spiritually hungry banker.

    As a congregation, however, it is our job to see the Lord in the priest and in the homily; we cannot project all the blame at the pulpit. The Lord calls us to His Supper, and He is speaking to us at each point in the Mass. Even if the homily is long, boring and uninspired, the Lord still speaks. If we are complaining, we are rejecting the Grace that the Lord is trying to give us because it doesn’t look like the grace we want to receive. If the homily is really all about us, then we should be going to the protestant pep-rally down the street.

    If, however, we are at Mass to worship the Lord, then allowing the cross of a long, confusing or boring homily is part of our worship and we should accept it with gratitude (because let’s face it, the Lord and all of Heaven are right there with us for the same homily and they don’t seem to mind).

  14. Todd says:

    Thankfully, the Gospel message is simple – yet “hard,” to say. Why? It might offend our effeminate generation.

    This message was anything but simple in my youth, due to many and various mortal sins I was committing. I left. God in His mercy brought me back and gave me “preachers after his Own Heart,” as scripture says. Still, considering even today, how wide the gap is between the many awesome graces He’s given me, and my miserable lack of response to those graces, I just hope I can narrow that gap before my end.

    Seems to me – we need to drill fundamentals. “Gentlemen, this is a football,” Vince Lombardi. A for instance: A) Sin leads to slavery, and spiritual death. B)God’s “Way” leads to authentic freedom in this life, and the next -Heaven C) God loves us even when we’re wretched sinners, and desires for us to keep striving for perfection. He desires that we get up out of the muck and the mud of sin, go to confession, and reengage in this battle where the spoils, are the souls of the dearly beloved children of God.

    If you only have 8 minutes – make ’em count.

  15. Fruborgdy says:

    Amen Father. Pope Francis is a gifted expounded of the Word, I enjoy his homilies and they are rarely 8 minutes long. Totally agree about the times we are living in and the absolute need for good biblical, Catholic teaching take place from the shepherd. If you can’t sit still and listen then you need self-control. My pastor promises during football season to keep it shorter – live in Cowboys country. Only way to attract reverts home are Holy Spirit filled preaching.

  16. Catinon says:

    After going to a Divine Liturgy in an Eastern Church I wonder what’s up with this Latin Church.The people at mass in the Eastern church know how to worship and enter into the beauty of mass. They know mass will go beyond forty minutes. The priest really works at mass. Father chants, he stands, he bows, and there is a sacredness to everything. The homily, I don’t bother to count the minutes. We waste so much time on internet, on phone call, on T.V. but complain about a mass that goes over 40 minutes. Homilies are about helping us grow in Christ. A homily is meant to bring us into the word of God and live it for the coming week. How many of us even remember what the gospel was by the time we head out of mass? or even remember what the homily was about? Well, maybe many people do, only God knows what is really in our hearts when we go to mass.

    • Trinman42 says:

      Well said !
      There is such a LACK of reverence at Mass – including by most priest – that The Holy Spirit is never invoked or present. There is no meaningful homily without Him !!

  17. laura moreno says:

    45 minutes or less is about right for any community. The homily is not so important and certainly not the focus! It is not necessary at all. The reason we celebrate the mass is to receive the Eucharist. The mass is a preparation to receive the Eucharist followed by Thanksgiving. From the beginning of mass until reception of the Eucharist we are preparing to receive Our Lord. The homily should only be a reflection on the reading for the day, not much more. Also, the lengthy, secular, pop music played by amateurs does nothing to elevate the soul. Rather it distracts and takes away from the beauty and sacredness of the mass. They think that the youth masses (and most other masses) need this type of music to keep young people interested. No so. It takes away from the sacredness and awe-inspiring event of the sacrifice of the mass and therefore the meaning becomes lost.

    Cut out the lengthy pop music (we have been hearing 20 minutes worth of this music in masses), with multiple verses and make sure that homilies only last 10 minutes. This is how it is done in most of Europe.

  18. Jimmy Chonga says:

    “will you not spend one hour with me?”

  19. Susan Dee says:

    You are a lucky parish. Good homilists are hard to find.

  20. Elizabeth says:

    I am always grateful when priests give meaningful homilies that truly help us grow in our love of the Lord and the Faith. When a homily is filed with grace and truth I lose all concept of time. More than time factors, it grieves me when priests feel the need to entertain with jokes or share stories of unrelated events in their lives which really do not apply to the readings at all. Both seem to indicate lack of proper training or lack of preparation. In writing this I am also convicted of my own need to better prepare for Holy Mass, especially by studying the readings beforehand, as well as the need to pray for priests and to be more understanding of the sacrifices they make for our sake, rather than being critical or impatient.

  21. Frank says:

    Amen, Msgr. Better and more thoughtful homilies (which usually entails being longer) are just what the church needs right now. Think about it: The only catechesis the average Catholic gets nowadays is through the Sunday homily. Unlike Protestants, most Catholics don’t participate in Sunday School or weekly bible study. The Sunday homily is the only opportunity they have to hear scripture and the church’s tradition exposited. How can they possibly become better formed in their faith by hearing the word of God only eight minutes a week?

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