Most of the readers of this Blog are churchgoers and thus are regular recipients of sermons (or homilies, as they seem now to be known). I am fortunate in being in a large parish served by a group of priests, often assisted by visitors, so I probably hear a wider range than most. But I am planning to write a column for the Catholic Herald on the subject, and so I am asking for your help through telling me of your experiences – bad or good.
Typically I attend a Low Mass at 8:15 on a Sunday, so the congregation are relatively mature. But there are also Masses aimed at families or at young people. There is also a more formal Sung Mass. I rarely attend these so I have no basis for a reliable opinion.
A good sermon, to my mind, is one where the preacher is clear what points he wants to make, and has chosen an effective way of bringing these alive to the congregation. I use the plural here but in many instances one good point properly made is better than several. Too many points in an attempt to cover the waterfront are likely to be self defeating. I like to be left feeling: yes that applies to me, or: that’s an interesting approach – I must think further about that.
Are preachers more guided by the discipline of time (my sermon should run for five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter hour) or by the subject being addressed? Of course for practical reasons there must be an upper limit – but there is no lower limit. If the message can be communicated in three minutes, four minutes are too long. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s story about initially intending to give a large donation to the cause being promoted, but reducing his donation the longer and longer the speaker continued. I have heard preachers go round the point they are trying to make again and again and again. By the time they finally finish I will have switched my mind off, and all is forgotten – but not necessarily forgiven.
A good structure is important. The congregation should be clear about what is said and how it leads up to the point which is being made. Once we find ourselves saying: what is he going on about now?, the sermon is lost. Listeners do not easily retain what is being said; it is not like a book where you can flip back a paragraph or two if your attention has wandered. A good beginning which attracts the listener and prepares his mind for what is to come, and a good ending which reinforces the message are always necessary.
I have written here about the basics of presenting the spoken word. But we should also consider the matter. It is usual and correct to start from the Scripture of the day or some aspect of the liturgy. But there are many occasions when a preacher can properly choose his theme on the matters that he thinks are important – perhaps relating to some topical question. Are there subjects on which you would like to hear a sermon – but scarcely ever do? Or are there subjects which come up with boring repetition which you would simply prefer not to hear.
Please give me your reactions to the sermons and homilies you hear so that I have the right ammunition to consider the problem.