Ideas on improving sermons?

As Catholics, we have a beautiful liturgy and a powerful worship. But sometimes, the sermons seem to be lacking. Admittedly, we don’t focus on the sermons - ours are usually 5 to 10 minutes while most Protestant services have sermons at a minimum of 30 minutes.

Still, there are some sermons (and some sermonists) in the Catholic Church that are just awful. At our local parish, the pastor likes to cite from the Early Fathers and progresses logically and thoroughly through his thoughts. His sermons always seem to hit a good chord and be well thought-out. The deacon, who is a convert from the Pentecostal tradition, gives these impassioned sermons that are often clever and show his appreciation for Scripture. Our associate pastor, however, often feels as though he hasn’t put much thought into what he’s going to say before he gets in the pulpit, and he tends to ramble and bounce all over the place. Sometimes he begins the sermon with an unrelated knock-knock joke, and though I feel terrible admitting it, I just want him to be done with it and can’t wait to move on.

While the Eucharist is the center of the Mass, the sermon is a vital part that can help clear up often misunderstood passages (ie “Call no man father” or “Wives, be submissive to your husbands”) in Scripture, and inspire and instruct the faithful. They’re often the only opportunity for the clergy to impart their well-trained theological insight to parishoners.

What can we do to help the clergy reclaim this brief but important part of the Mass?

And, if you have a knock-knock pastor, how do you respectfully help him out?

I think it’s largely a focus of effort in terms of preparation and one’s own gifts from God. Many priests give 6-7 homilies per week, sometimes each one more than once. Many Protestant ministers give on sermon per week and they spend a lot of time preparing. Perhaps not as much as the combined effort of the priest but pretty close.

The best homilists I have heard are newly ordained priests who come out of a certain seminary – a seminary that would likely be unfairly vilified on these forums. Their priests preach exceedingly well, from a technical standpoint (speech professors would be happy with them), from a composition standpoint (English teachers would be happy with them) and from a content standpoint (God is probably happy with their homilies.)

Their “secret?” The get a lot of training on how to develop and present a homily and more important they spend years in seminary giving speeches outside of the Mass to prepare them for when they are ordained.

I think all priests could use a healthy dose of Church Father sermons. I’ve been reading some of St. Augustine’s and Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermons and they are stunning! Their mastery of rhetoric, their ability to explain the Scriptures to the people, their ability to use symbols and images within the common man’s grasp to help him perceive the imperceptible!

I think the first step is to remind our deacons and priests and bishops what the homily is. Then get them to read some of the great sermons of the Church Fathers, especially those sermons which were written on a particular passage of Scripture (rather than on a particular topic), so that they can make use of them when those same Scripure passages come up in the Mass.

The second step is to make sure that seminarians are receiving solid training in the art of the homily/sermon.

The third step is to follow-up on what Pope Benedict wrote about nearly 3 years ago:
Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily is “part of the liturgical action”, and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful. Hence ordained ministers must “prepare the homily carefully, based on an adequate knowledge of Sacred Scripture”. Generic and abstract homilies should be avoided. In particular, I ask these ministers to preach in such a way that the homily closely relates the proclamation of the word of God to the sacramental celebration and the life of the community, so that the word of God truly becomes the Church’s vital nourishment and support. The catechetical and paraenetic aim of the homily should not be forgotten. During the course of the liturgical year it is appropriate to offer the faithful, prudently and on the basis of the three-year lectionary, “thematic” homilies treating the great themes of the Christian faith, on the basis of what has been authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium in the four “pillars” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the recent Compendium, namely: the profession of faith, the celebration of the Christian mystery, life in Christ and Christian prayer. (Sacramentum Caritatis 46)

My parochial vicar and a couple of other priests from the diocese have gone to the annual Scott Hahn conference. Held every June in Pennsylvania, the conference is designed to help priests and deacons improve on their homeltics. Inasmuch as my PV is the best homilist in the diocese, he always comes back in better form. This might be one option for priests to consider.

Another would be to read the homilies of Pope Benedict XVI. When I have had to go to Masses where the homilies tank, I will usually go to Zenit and read what the Holy Father preached on for that Sunday’s Angelus (or, if there was a Papal Mass that Sunday).

Well, part of the “problem” is that you may dislike his homilies but I’m sure there’s a handful of people who on a regular basis tell him that they love his homilies.
If there’s one thing priests can count on is this: no matter how bad the homily is, there’s someone out there who will love it.

One thing to note is this: Bishops, priests and deacons preach homilies, not sermons. I like how my PV defined it: a sermon is what we think Jesus should say; a homily is an explanation of what Jesus said.

The other thing to consider is the fact that the Protestant service involves only the Word (like a Jewish synagogue service), with some readings and music thrown in for good measure. When that is all you have, naturally, the thrust will be on the preaching.

The Church, the New Israel, takes its format from the Temple sacrificial worship of Ancient Israel. We have both the Word and the Sacrifice. While you do make some valid points about the importance of the homily, it is not the end all and the be all of the Mass.

I think that there are two parts to any kind of public speaking - form and content. One needs both for a really excellent homily. Another important aspect is knowing the audience.

Priests that are good at it have either some talent, and/or they have practiced. Some people do have a lot of trouble with public speaking; they get nervous, or they find it difficult to put what they want into words.

But I think one of the greatest horrors is the priest who is convinced he can give a good homily off the cuff. Granted, a very few can, but in most cases it results in disconnected rambling.

There are a few things that can help someone who has trouble - reading some of the great sermons written over the years, such as from the Fathers. But also perhaps some of the most famous Protestant preachers can be instructive, as well as modern homilies. And even other types of public addresses.

Also, having someone to read over and provide a “practice audience” is invaluable. When I was teaching army privates how to give briefings, it was always clear who had practiced on his friend and who hadn’t - things just sound different out loud.

I also think that a ten min. sermon really needs to be tight and polished - there isn’t enough time for meandering, and the texts should be able to fill the time with no difficulty.

But how to bring this up with someone is sometimes the most difficult problem.

It’s just like anything else having to do with liturgy: preparation, preparation, preparation.

Also, associate pastors are still learning what works for them. Don’t expect an old head on young shoulders. Also, it your direct feedback is not positive, you might ask the pastor about how to or whether to deliver it to the younger priest.

I think a good homily:

  1. Actually opens up the Holy Scriptures for that Mass. It shouldn’t be a sermon on a general topic. Like lay refections, those have their place: that is, somewhere other than within the Mass.
  2. Chooses one or maybe two points, and sticks with them. This is very hard for new priests and deacons, because they can think of about a million things to say on any particular set of Scriptures. They need to avoid the tempation to say all of them.
  3. Is structured in a way that is appropriate for reception by people who don’t have a pencil and paper for taking notes. This might include rhetorical devices, it might just mean that the flow is linear and easy to follow, but if people aren’t going to remember what is said, there is no point in saying it. Only a very organized and disciplined mind can do this without a lot of preparation.
  4. Everything that does not make the central point more memorable is left out. That doesn’t mean the homily is short, but it does mean the homilist is self-disciplined.
  5. The message includes a call to change perception, behavior, or both in a tone that is challenging, but not accusatory. The people should not be able to escape the sense that the words are meant to make a change in the way they live and that with the help of God those changes are within their abilities. The Good News is meant to change our lives, after all. One of the best devices I have heard for this is when a priest is willing to admit how he fails or has failed in this area himself, or how people he clearly admires have failed (like the saints). This has the added advantage of making the homilist more approachable as a confessor. If a homilist only mentions the things that the saints do right, and never talks about their struggles, it makes sanctity seem an impossible goal.

I just do not see a good way to do with unless you in a very close relationship with the priest (or deacon) or you are somehow in “charge” (such as a religious superior) of the individual.

I say this because this is a very personal thing and when you tell a priest/deacon (or anyone) that you feel they need to work on something to improve it when your advice has not been solicited by the individual in question. I highly doubt that many of us can broach this subject without feelings being hurt and appearing to think we know better than the individual being confronted.

This is a very touchy subject and unless your advice is sought or you have some kind of leadership role (not the normal parish council or some such thing) over the individual in question it is not a good idea to do this.

[quote="ByzCath, post:9, topic:176621"]
I just do not see a good way to do with unless you in a very close relationship with the priest (or deacon) or you are somehow in "charge" (such as a religious superior) of the individual.

I say this because this is a very personal thing and when you tell a priest/deacon (or anyone) that you feel they need to work on something to improve it when your advice has not been solicited by the individual in question. I highly doubt that many of us can broach this subject without feelings being hurt and appearing to think we know better than the individual being confronted.

This is a very touchy subject and unless your advice is sought or you have some kind of leadership role (not the normal parish council or some such thing) over the individual in question it is not a good idea to do this.

[/quote]

Well, probably direct feedback can be done, as long as the positive part is praised in far more detail than the negative and any negative feedback is done good-naturedly and comes as a very brief comment before the "but" as in:

NOT THIS: "That was a nice sermon, but the joke stunk. What did that have to do with anything? Can't you just skip those?"

MAYBE THIS: "I can do without the knock-knock jokes, but your insight about X was very helpful. In 50 years, I've never thought about that Gospel that way, and it was just what I needed to hear this week. I could have heard an entire homily on nothing but that! Thank you!"

Or, if you praise his homily and he asks how you liked the joke, you can say, "Well, let's just say that the pearl that came in the rest of your homily made it worth sitting through the joke, Father. I'm glad I hung in there with you!"

Remember that people tend to beat themselves up or else feel resentful about negative feedback unless the ratio of positive to negative is about 5:1. Ask the pastor about how the associate pastor is doing, too. He'll be likely to know if the associate pastor is unduly upset by even mild criticism, because he's had so many negative comments heaped on him already. If he's a late bloomer in the homily department, it may well be that encouragement of the positives is all that is called for. If a person is discouraged at his past performances and given reinforcement of that negative feeling, he may just give up. It is better to encourage even the smallest of victories in that case.

The Homilies in my church are always terrific. Msgr Tim has had a unique ability to speak directly to me when I needed it most, honestly it was pretty freaky when I first started going. Perhaps you should “shop” CC’s, maybe you’ll find a priest who delivers a better Homily. No harm with this, all CC’s are the same when it comes to the truely important stuff :smiley:

[quote="crazzeto, post:11, topic:176621"]
The Homilies in my church are always terrific. Msgr Tim has had a unique ability to speak directly to me when I needed it most, honestly it was pretty freaky when I first started going...

[/quote]

We're lucky at our place, too. I have actually caught myself wondering if other people in the parish ever get tired of hearing "my" homily. :D

If you listen with an open heart, though, it is amazing what even a technically poor homily can serve up. If you follow those rambling things around with the thought that there is a tidbit in there just for you, if you just look for it, it almost always turns out to be there, as big as life. I know this because we had a rambler before the present pastor came. Even with the last priest, there was always a truffle in the stew, if you took the trouble to look for it.

That is the only really indispensible thing, then: the homilist has to preach the truth that's in the Holy Scriptures, particularly the stuff that makes you squirm a bit in your pew. If you don't have that, or if you can't take any of the difficult truths as particularly applying to you, nothing will fix it. Look in the mirror, and if you have really been listening and haven't been called out, then move on. If you do regularly manage to find something that calls you out, though, and if he is reverent, the rest is gravy. Stay with that guy.

Oh, when you pray for your priests and deacons, ask that they have the grace of preaching fearlessly and well. It ought to go without saying to do that, but of course we forget. Ask, and you shall receive!

[quote="EasterJoy, post:8, topic:176621"]
It's just like anything else having to do with liturgy: preparation, preparation, preparation.

Also, associate pastors are still learning what works for them. Don't expect an old head on young shoulders. Also, it your direct feedback is not positive, you might ask the pastor about how to or whether to deliver it to the younger priest.

I think a good homily:
1) Actually opens up the Holy Scriptures for that Mass. It shouldn't be a sermon on a general topic. Like lay refections, those have their place: that is, somewhere other than within the Mass.
2) Chooses one or maybe two points, and sticks with them. This is very hard for new priests and deacons, because they can think of about a million things to say on any particular set of Scriptures. They need to avoid the tempation to say all of them.
3) Is structured in a way that is appropriate for reception by people who don't have a pencil and paper for taking notes. This might include rhetorical devices, it might just mean that the flow is linear and easy to follow, but if people aren't going to remember what is said, there is no point in saying it. Only a very organized and disciplined mind can do this without a lot of preparation.
4) Everything that does not make the central point more memorable is left out. That doesn't mean the homily is short, but it does mean the homilist is self-disciplined.
5) The message includes a call to change perception, behavior, or both in a tone that is challenging, but not accusatory. The people should not be able to escape the sense that the words are meant to make a change in the way they live and that with the help of God those changes are within their abilities. The Good News is meant to change our lives, after all. One of the best devices I have heard for this is when a priest is willing to admit how he fails or has failed in this area himself, or how people he clearly admires have failed (like the saints). This has the added advantage of making the homilist more approachable as a confessor. If a homilist only mentions the things that the saints do right, and never talks about their struggles, it makes sanctity seem an impossible goal.

[/quote]

I don't think that we should make the assumption that the parochial vicar (associate pastor) is necessarily still learning what works for him. My parochial vicar, a monsignor, is actually the best homilist in our diocese and he is very effective. A lot of pastors in our city, even our bishop, I dare say, could learn just by observing him.

He served as our cathedral's first rector. The new administrator (the third one after the rector had been reassigned) was rather frustrated because parishioners were comparing him to the rector. He asked me why. He told me that he had a PhD in philosophy and gave me his other credentials. I suggested that maybe when the former rector comes to do a wedding or a funeral, the new administrator might just want to hang out in the sacristy or sit in the pews and hear him preach. I also suggested that next time the Scott Hahn conference rolls around, he might just join the former rector and the two other priests who attend. He seemed receptive to both of the ideas.

A good part of my PV's preaching ability is that he genuinely loves the liturgy. He makes it a point of gently reminding us why we are gathered in church for Mass. He makes it a point of reminding us that we are in the very presence of God and are just as much present at the salvific mysteries as the Blessed Mother and Sts. John and Mary Magdalene. He even went so far as to tell us, one Sunday, that it was more important that we listen to the actual words of Scripture than his preaching. He says that he is just the instrument, but, that God speaks to us through Sacred Scripture and what goes on at the Mass.

Now, there have been times when he has tanked and I have told him. Because we are friends, I can share that with him. But, even when his homily is sinking faster than the Titanic, he still manages to get his point across, though, not in his usual eloquent manner.

[quote="benedictgal, post:13, topic:176621"]
I don't think that we should make the assumption that the parochial vicar (associate pastor) is necessarily still learning what works for him. My parochial vicar, a monsignor, is actually the best homilist in our diocese and he is very effective. A lot of pastors in our city, even our bishop, I dare say, could learn just by observing him.

He served as our cathedral's first rector. The new administrator (the third one after the rector had been reassigned) was rather frustrated because parishioners were comparing him to the rector. He asked me why. He told me that he had a PhD in philosophy and gave me his other credentials. I suggested that maybe when the former rector comes to do a wedding or a funeral, the new administrator might just want to hang out in the sacristy or sit in the pews and hear him preach. I also suggested that next time the Scott Hahn conference rolls around, he might just join the former rector and the two other priests who attend. He seemed receptive to both of the ideas.

A good part of my PV's preaching ability is that he genuinely loves the liturgy. He makes it a point of gently reminding us why we are gathered in church for Mass. He makes it a point of reminding us that we are in the very presence of God and are just as much present at the salvific mysteries as the Blessed Mother and Sts. John and Mary Magdalene. He even went so far as to tell us, one Sunday, that it was more important that we listen to the actual words of Scripture than his preaching. He says that he is just the instrument, but, that God speaks to us through Sacred Scripture and what goes on at the Mass.

Now, there have been times when he has tanked and I have told him. Because we are friends, I can share that with him. But, even when his homily is sinking faster than the Titanic, he still manages to get his point across, though, not in his usual eloquent manner.

[/quote]

Friends know friends, so I won't second-guess you, but I think that a monsignor who still gives poor homilies should be given over to Providence. It hardly seems likely that he still suffers from lack of feedback! It is more likely he needs to hear it from Someone whose feedback makes a bigger impression. ;) :D

OTOH, I've heard there are Baptist preachers who get real-time feedback from the "Amen Pew". When those poor guys start tanking, they get to hear a chorus of "Help him, Jesus! Oh, help him, Lord!" (Haven't we all wished we had some way to do that, just a time or two?)

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