Words, words, words

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.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Quentin queries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to Words, words, words

  1. tim says:

    Count on enthusiastic participation in this topic!

  2. Barrie Machin says:

    You won’t be surprised if I recount a couple of well known comments about sermons.
    A preacher also had the idea once of asking for suggestions for sermons and asked his congregation to leave him their suggestions at the back of the church each week. His first suggestion resulted in a sermon of fifteen minutes, the second thirty five minutes and the third weeks suggestion a sermon of 45 minutes. There was no suggestion for week four but his sermon lasted over an hour!!
    A more succesful preacher – though not a highly educated scholar – was once asked why he thought his sermons were so sucessful that he was able to draw large numbers to hear him speak from far and wide.
    He said ‘Its quite simple. First I tells ’em what I am going to tell ’em.
    Then I tells ’em. Then I tells ’em what I told ’em!
    Perhaps brevity and clarity would be a couple of suggestions!

  3. tim says:

    My wife says:

    She hates “non-sexist” language in sermons, and even more in the words of the Mass and the Readings.
    “It is condescending to imply that women are so stupid they do not know when ‘men’ means ‘humans’, and that if Our Lord says ‘a man must…’ the teaching applies to both sexes.
    It is distracting,since it is usually ungrammatical or contrary to ordinary usage, e.g. ‘women and men’.
    It makes nonsense of some stories, like the centurion who has ‘persons’ under him, or ‘the sacrifice of our parents Sarah and Abraham’.
    It downplays the importance of the striking cases where parables are genuinely about women’s lives, the lost coin of the headdress, the yeast in the flour etc.
    It detracts from the way in which Our Lord actually calls women his disciples and treats them as such. His allowing Mary to sit at his feet listening to his teaching is on a par with women being allowed into Universities in nineteenth century England”

  4. Brendan says:

    I find it useful to consider just what sort of discourse/ sermon we Catholics are subjected to/ expect every Sunday , as captive congregations. With the help of my trusty two volume ‘ Funk & Wignall ‘ ( which I’ve used since pre-‘O’ Level days ) I’ve re-discovered ( confirmed ) what had largely disappeared from the pulpit in my Catholic sphere of influence post- Vatican ii , and has re-emerged to my delight and thanksgiving through our parish priest ( and his assistant priest ) …. the real meaning of ‘sermon ‘ and ‘ homily ‘ .
    Putting the two together then – as Quentin sensibly places then in modern perception – I would expect the weekly discourse to be a mixture of ‘ teaching ‘ and ‘ instruction ‘ based on the themes of the readings of the day – highlighting a particular passage or text – perhaps reflecting on common errors ( heretical opinions ) and acting as a gentle reproof on such notions held in modern society.
    How this is delivered and is made meaningful in the present lives of a parish congregation , is down to the unique gifts of the homilist and his understanding of his own and others human weakness ( sin ) . After all he is in a unique position of being confessor and confessed himself .In this way the sermon should reflect the Mercy of God in all aspects of our lives.
    The element of personal sacrifice and repentance which a good sermon can instill, should be felt as an inner reflection on partly preparing the way during The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
    In my book for this duty and privilege , sociologists ‘ need not apply .’

  5. galerimo says:

    Thanks Quentin – I love a good sermon.

    Gay priests are the best preachers these days and I have listened regularly to one man over a few years now and there is a lot of sensitivity and enlightenment in the material.

    I get lost too often with the distraction of heavily accented voices and find myself giving up early on. I feel a lot of sympathy for all those missionary countries who had to struggle with Irish accents for decades.

    I only want a thought on two on the scripture – that will do me thank you and do me a power of good.

    I can spot humbug a mile away, and depression and neurosis almost as soon as the man opens his mouth. Some good sermons there too.

    God how it would be good to hear women.

    For many years now I have adopted the practice of visiting the web site of the English Dominicans (Torch) to read the readings for mass and the homily each sunday. It is absolutely top class, clear, to the scriptural point and devoid of any accent. It can often be the only homily I hear for months on end while attending Sunday mass regularly.

    I can’t resist my own quip too regarding the Sunday sermon – this old chestnut – the same advice as for confession – “be brief, be blunt and be gone!”.

  6. Nektarios says:

    I wonder what was peter’s thinking about a sermon or homily when he stood up to preach on the day of Pentecost?
    Peter it is clear would not allow an idle curiosity, a mere intellectual approach to the Gospel or the the whole problem of Christianity.
    He brought his hearers to an immediately to a consideration of themselves and their condition. The popular and technical for all this is that the problem is an existential one.
    This means you do not sit in the pew or armchair and theoretically consider the problem of God and Jesus of Nazareth; you are not a spectator,not a theoretician.
    No; you consider it as if under judgement, with a sense of personal relationship, realising that it personally and vitally affects your soul and your eternal destiny.

    Any thing less than this, is what passes for the most part as preaching today. I have set you a benchmark.

  7. Brendan says:

    Pope Francis in a talk recently to seminarians on ‘ what makes a good sermon ‘ gave some thoughts around the position of the priest – ‘ in persona christi ‘ – giving a homily . After all ‘ preaching ‘ now for generations of Catholics is regarded as an integral part of ‘ The Mass ‘ .
    In a nutshell what he is saying is that the homilist , if he is to come over as honest and authentic; should give the impression that he is undergoing or prepared to undergo exactly what he is asking/ imparting to his listeners. In effect before he gives the sermon he should be seen to walk with his flock so much so , that he is able to…. ” smell the sheep .” In that way the simplicity and authentic ‘ voice ‘ of the Church will come through . He says that the smiles and delight after Mass in part tells its own story.
    The Holy Father declared to the seminarians that he does not see himself as a particularly good speaker and naturally shies away from public speaking…. yet the ‘ proof of the whole pudding ‘ is that the world ( at least at present ) seemingly hangs on his every utterance !

    ” ..You willed that your ministers would also be
    clothed in weakness in order that they may
    feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
    let everyone who approaches them feel sought after,
    loved , and forgiven by God. ”
    ( Prayer ( part of ) given by Pope Francis in this Year of Mercy )

    Our own pastor has an obvious devotion to Our Lady , influenced as he is by the life and works of Pope St. John Paul. His own charism ( gifts ) have been recognised and vauled by a long-standing invitation to speak at an international Marian conference in France just this week.
    Our parish currently has put a lot of demands on the time of our two priests over a very short period of time ; and so unknown to his flock he has cancelled this engagement . When I asked him about this last Sunday he aid simply …. ” the parishioners need me more “………simple.

  8. Geordie says:

    We had a parish priest some years ago who gave excellent sermons (homilies) at daily Mass. They were short and too the point. However on a Sunday, he thought he had to give us a longer sermon to the detriment of the quality. I often used to think, ‘if you stop now you’ve got us’. Unfortunately he went on and ruined his message.
    I also believe sincerity is a key to a good sermon. The priest should really believe what he is saying. We had one priest who used to read his sermon in a monotone voice. It was said he didn’t prepare it; he just took it from the internet. His lack of sincerity showed.
    The spirituality of the preacher shines through. The holier the priest the better the sermon, irrespective of how long it is. Holy priests seem to know when to stop.

  9. St.Joseph says:

    New ‘Credo for Catholic Families’ affirming key teaching. http://wwwlifesitenews.com today.
    7 interesting (commandments),President of the Family of the Americans (USA)
    Will we hear this from our Altars/Pulpits?

    • Brendan says:

      St.Joseph – Thank you for drawing that site to our attention. Seven basic truths of Catholic Teaching…. I sign up to with no hesitation.
      Quentin wrote an interesting piece on ‘ The peril of having too much fear ‘ in this weeks Catholic Herald. When by the grace of God we break through that barrier ( daily conversion by faith in Christ Jesus ) then we will start hearing again , homilies that pierce the heart and soul – and in thanksgiving with words that fail us – return them to its true home .
      In the meantime support with prayers and action ( what we are able to do ) are needed for ‘ standard bearers of the Truth ‘ such as Cardinal Leo Burke , et alia.

      • Martha says:

        Fr. Ronald Rolheiser also writes in the same issue about the fear of Hell. I don’t recall specifically hearing any of the famous Hellfire and Brimstone sermons often quoted, but somehow teaching about Hell registered rather strongly in my mind from quite an early age, and caused a lot of anxiety, more than is helpful for a good spiritual life. We were taught about despair and presumption too, but it can be difficult to keep the balance right. In some ways I think it is hardly possible to stay sane if one thinks there is any possibility of being in torment in Hell for all eternity, and at the least it makes one very selfish, concentrating on the fear of saving one’s own skin, rather than on positively loving God and wanting to live one’s life in thanks and praise. St. Joan’s reply about being in a state of grace, “If I am not, may God bring me to it: if I am, may God keep me in it” is a wonderful illustration of trust in God’s mercy. I suppose it is presumptous to wish for more certainty than that.

      • Quentin says:

        Martha, you are quite correct in relating your comment to the latest CH issue, but some will not have seen it. I will be posting the column itself on 11 August. It looks from what you have said that there may be strong feelings. Excellent!

  10. Brendan says:

    Martha – I wonder how priests continuously give sermons at present to their flocks in countries like Syria and Iraq ? ……….I don’t see anyway of ‘ faking it ‘ ( not speaking from the heart ) , in the hope that the congregation will remain indifferent. It must take great faith in the face of senseless evil and palpable loss of hope.

    • Martha says:

      Brendan, I think the priests who remain in Syria and other war torn countries where they are likely to be persecuted and killed must be very full of faith and love for God and for their flocks, and the challenge of such immediate and direct evil probably stimulates them to encourage and support their congregations as they all try to face it and overcome it together through the words of their sermons and the example of their lives.

  11. Vincent says:

    I cannot recall hearing a homily on the important subject of marriage. Given the apparent decay of marriage in our modern society, I would have thought we needed the Church to guide us positively.

    • St.Joseph says:

      You are so right.
      If Holy Mother Church does not teach it to couples in marriage preparation(perhaps they do) they can not wonder why there are so many breakdowns, The Church has to take some of the blame and be more lenient to those divorced Catholics.
      I rest my case!

    • tyke says:

      Maybe because priests and deacons have the impression that a large percentage of their homilies are already on the subjects of marriage or baptisms, just not at Sunday mass.

  12. Nektarios says:

    Priests feel trapped in an institution. Church leaders are no more exempt from this than others are.
    Yet it is possible to move forward towards the Kingdom of God by God’s grace.

    Archdeacon Michael Handley says clergy in the 1960s and 1970s were motivated by social care, and now that role has been taken away, nothing has taken its place – except greater ecclesiastical busyness.

    Our journey and the telling of it is as important as much as religious ceremonies.
    But most are not making that journey in Christ, but we are all, (often without much understanding or leadership), making our own journey, or our journey along with others of like-mind.

    St Cuthbert, tells us we all have a journey to make, so here is a very short homily from St. Cuthbert
    to save us getting bogged down with issues that do not help us on our journey in Christ, or heaven and does not benefit our souls.

    St Cuthbert gave this short homily: “Lead us not into temptation (Luke 11:14). What are the places we should steer clear of? Places were the spirt of fear or lust rules, or that of artificiality, unbelief, or the power of one ego over another, or the shoddy.”
    To know where we should not be led is an exploration in itself. “Yet far bigger is to tread the way of the true journey; to pray, ‘ lead us in your way, lead us into the Kingdom of God, lead us into the place of resurrection.”

  13. St.Joseph says:

    I have been going to Holy Mass every day for nearly 54 years except when circumstances arose that I could not due to important reasons.
    There are 7 Churches within easy reach in my area .
    It is not only sermons, whilst teaching Fertility Awareness for over 30 years, I can assure you I can vouch for what I say, Even to writing to all the Bishops in the UK.
    I have numerous letters still full in my filing cabinet.
    Marriage preparation was in a local parish Hall one Saturday, I went and asked the parish priest if I could leave some information for them to read. He took the leaflets-looked at me and said you must be joking!!
    I was the representative at a Diocesan Parish Council, and I joined the Marriage and Family group as I did in many, I have been shot down in flames.
    One priest who took over from a parish my family were parishioners for years, when he came I was still the Rep, so I took him back the report on marriage and the family from the notes and comments at a Diocesan Council Meeting.
    He would not print it out for the parish, and automatically gave me the sack he no longer wished me to be involved any more.. I still have the report,
    I was not surprised as he visited the Gay Club every Monday evening .
    We moved to another parish.!! That was in around the middle 80’s.
    I do not like giving this kind of info, but your comment made it necessary!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Why am I still a Catholic. ? Because of Jesus’ in the Blessed Tabernacle.

      • tyke says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to be accusing.

        I preach on marriage several times a year … at marriages. In fact my problem is to adapt the homilies to be something useful for the assembly and the couple, rather than reciting the same old palaver all the time. Because when I start reciting without thinking, no matter how profound the subject, all that comes out is … merely palaver.

        The subject of marriage is very delicate (especially at the moment) and I find Pope Francis’ thought on the subject worth meditating. All the doctrines that we have traditionally accepted continue to stand. But they stand not to condemn those that lose the path, rather as signposts so that they can find it again.

        Now there’s a subject for half a dozen homilies!

      • St.Joseph says:

        I did not think you were accusing.
        I was trying to point out that marriage is best before the marriage takes place. In the appropriate place
        Perhaps sermons would be better spoken on the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Drawing attention to why we keep the obligation to attend, why Jesus came and suffered for our salvation, why we receive His Body and Blood, how we show our love for Him in the Eucharist, how we show our love for Him through our family life, how we forgive our neighbours,
        I don’t believe that people are that illiterate that they can not understand the readings and the Gospel and the Psalms, if they don’t understand that they will not understand whether a homily is good or not interesting.
        I don’t go to Mass for the Homily although where I worship I enjoy it, it is very enlightening, and when I can not go now as often as I did the priest e.mails it to me and I watch it on EWTN. As I can say the prayer ‘ Jesus if I can not now receive you Sacramentally-come at least Spiritually into my heart and dwell there forever!

  14. ignatius says:

    One of the reasons you might see little on marriage is due to the lectionary. No one so far seems to have realised that we do not simply throw together a few scriptures in the hope of keeping you all amused but are bound to some degree by what is placed before us. Certainly there are opportunities for speaking on the subject but, faced with the differential of need in any parish gathering few will preach on that subject alone. Given that, on any given Sunday, 50% at least will be living alone, through age or youth that is and probably a good 25% in some form of irregular union, then you can maybe get a sense of why ‘marriage’ as a subject is rarely majored on to the exclusion of other things.
    This is possibly why the Sunday homily is not always considered the most appropriate place to discuss marriage.

    As to timekeeping, both in my parish and in the prison we work on a 5-8 minute time frame and as far as I know this is pretty standard at least in my diocese. Regarding Brendan’s point about walking ones talk, I haven’t met anyone yet who stands up at the Ambo with any other intention, nor do I expect to do so on account of the exacting nature of the preachers discipline. By and large, anyone up at the Ambo before you is aware of their responsibility and doing their best albeit an inadequate best in your eyes.
    The truth is that preaching simply isn’t that easy, not everyone can hold a central point for long enough to elaborate it well yet not too long to become tedious. Not everyone, come to that, can articulate their faith clearly even to themselves. I would recommend to you all a simple exercise, take next weeks readings, prepare a homily of around 6 minutes and find someone to deliver it to.
    Also, it goes without saying that if you want to hear the word of God more clearly then pray like crazy for your Priest/Deacon, not to mention the readers whose job is far more important than they generally realise.

    • Quentin says:

      I find this a very useful contribution. But don’t let that stop anyone from disagreeing with it!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Words from the sermon today, I found it very appropriate.’ Jesus did not come to be served but to serve’ We come to serve others too.
      I take that to mean that we all have the duty to serve others by expressing our faith by our actions and good works, and teaching the ignorant.
      Perhaps there would be more converts now than lapsed Catholics.
      Less divorces, less abortions, less blasphemy (although now that a forgotten sin) less drunkenness, less adultery, less immoral TV programmes, less child abuse, less teenage pregnancies. etc !

      • ignatius says:

        St Joseph,
        No, I fear the numbers would be exactly the same. That is because most of us are probably already doing what you recommend to the best of our ability, poor weak things that we are.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I get your point, however since I have been ill my neighbours -non Catholics 4 of them have taken me to Mass and it has been an enlightenment experience for them, on a week day- even to Mid-Day Office.

    • John Nolan says:

      Yes, the (1970) Lectionary. Not the least of the disasters that have been inflicted on us in the last half-century.

  15. Horace says:

    At Mass today I was reminded of Quentin’s blog.
    Our parish (together with an adjacent one) has a parish priest who is a Nigerian, an intelligent active young man, but unfortunately – although his English is improving – difficult to understand!
    The result is that the Sermon (Homily) is not even vaguely understood by the majority of the congregation – including myself.
    Nevertheless we are lucky to have a parish priest at all.

    • ignatius says:

      Yes its a problem, we have visitors like that. I have suggested that they write out their sermons in English, then have someone else deliver them. Goes down like a lead balloon as you can imagine..

  16. John Nolan says:

    A homily of eight to ten minutes, properly prepared, is as much as one wants at Mass. After all, it interrupts the liturgy. Oratorians rarely disappoint. If (in the Novus Ordo) the preacher can put the OT lesson into context, this is probably more useful than hearing yet another superficial take on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

    Today’s Gospel (EF) included the parable of the Good Samaritan. My missal gave a commentary which quoted extensively from a sermon given by St Bede the Venerable on this passage. Do we ever hear anything like this nowadays?

    ‘The man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam representing the human race. Jerusalem is the city of heavenly peace … from which he had been separated by sin. The robbers are the devil and his angels … They stripped him and robbed him of the glory of immortality and the robe of innocence … The injuries they inflicted upon him are sins which, violating the integrity of human nature, let death in through half-open wounds … The priest and the Levite … denote the ministers of the Old Testament who could only show up the wounds of the sick world by the decrees of the law but could not cure them … The Good Samaritan is Our Lord himself. Having become man he is brought close to us by the great compassion he has shown to us. The inn is the Church into which Our Lord himself brings man …’

    And a lot more in this vein. It’s not ‘Jesus is saying we should be nice to each other’.

    Regarding length, I have attended hour-long lectures which seemed all too short and five-minute sermons which seemed interminable. And I could certainly hold an audience on any topic for 15 minutes if not longer. Scientia ballistae non est.

    • ignatius says:

      Personally I wouldn’t use those Bedian analogies because I think they are to a degree quite personalised. In other words, to me the robbers were robbers, they were not angels of the devil. Likewise the inn, it was an inn. I like to read this stuff up in the Office of Readings or in books, for example Augustine on the Psalms, but I cannot see the world through the eyes of those writers.

    • tim says:

      Actually, John, that is more or less exactly the sermon we had this morning from a young priest (ordained just over a year) – old rite, of course. And the two pence left by the Samaritan represent the Old and New Testaments respectively. Not a lot of people know that.

      We go to the Novus Ordo on Saturday evenings in our own parish, and to the Latin Mass on Sunday. Our own priest (who like St Paul has a sting which he bears with great patience) is a good preacher, (if not always audible from everywhere in the church) but what he has to say is generally less useful than what we are told on Sunday. Sermons there have covered the full range of Church teaching.

  17. tyke says:

    Reading the comments, I’m tempted to turn the question round? How would the commenters go about preparing a homily?

    The basis of the homily must be the bible texts (whereas, I am told, a sermon can be on any subject). That means that the preacher must have a familiarity with the texts: contextual, historical, theological, and all the other exegetic methods. But then, more important, how do we make those texts live and breathe for us, how do we show that they apply to us here and today?

    And then you need to strike the right balance to suit those that are listening. Not too simplistic, avoiding the common platitudes, not too intellectual or overblown. Something unexpected to interest, and make people reflect during the week. Something to nourish.

    In the end I find myself writing homilies for myself. When I can find something in the texts to surprise and inspire me, perhaps it will do as much for those around me. Of course, the fact that I can try them out on my wife beforehand helps too!

  18. ignatius says:

    Sounds like you have some experience in the field. For me the key approach goes like this: Always encourage and always challenge, always build up, rarely, tear down.. Go through the readings until something causes your heart to burn, then preach on that which has caused the conflagration.

    • tyke says:

      Ignatius: “Go through the readings until something causes your heart to burn…”

      Yes! That’s exactly it. Even though sometimes it takes time for the message to get through… Perhaps because I still need to learn to listen?

      An exercise we once did on a retreat was to meditate on the same text every day for a week. And every time something different ’caused our hearts to burn’.

  19. John Nolan says:


    The trouble is, a too literal reading of the parables makes a good number of them meaningless. The earnest critical-historical exegete will tell us that no-one in the first century would ever have taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (perhaps there were too many speed cameras on it, who knows).

    • tim says:

      What! Why not? We went down from Jerusalem to Jericho in the tour bus last year (long steep precipitous road) and it seemed to be the natural direct route – if desolate, through the desert. What other parables are meaningless if taken literally? The salt losing its savour is perhaps puzzling, but may be taken as ironic?

      • St.Joseph says:

        When we read this story we automatically turn it into a moralistic tale- we must do as the Samaritan did-and that is fair enough, but it is interesting that the earliest commentators interpreted it in a different way.
        Clement of Alexandria(born about the year 150) and Origen, also of Alexandria and born about 35 years later both saw the Samaritan as Christ. Clement said ‘Who can this neighbour be but Our Saviour Himself? Jesus alone can heal these wounds.-they see the human race as the wounded one needing help, ‘the Good Samaritan ‘came near’ the sick man reminding us that the Word is very near to us.
        ‘Who but He has pity on us, so many wounds, so many fears and passions, so much anger, so much sorrow, so much deception. Jesus alone can heal us this is what He did when He lay down His life for us on the Cross,

  20. ignatius says:

    John Nolan,

    “..The earnest critical-historical exegete will tell us that no-one in the first century would ever have taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (perhaps there were too many speed cameras on it, who knows)..”

    Ha ha ha!! Yes, I know just what you mean. I like the St Bede stuff you were talking about but just can’t bring myself to expound scripture in that way. But I am also aware that preachers who try to function as archeologists can be mindbogglingly dull!!

    • St.Joseph says:

      There is an old saying I think it goes like this. ‘You can please all the people half the time’ ‘half the people all the time’. But you wont please ‘all the people all the time’.!

      • ignatius says:

        St Joseph,
        Yes thats right. Not only that but the half you please won’t tell you and the other half will smile anyway…its a hall of mirrors at times! Everybody, if you hear a homily that appeals to you then,on your way out, make sure you tell the preacher!

  21. ignatius says:


    “…And the two pence left by the Samaritan represent the Old and New Testaments respectively. Not a lot of people know that…”

    Just out of interest, would you take that interpretation of the two pence as containing significance?If so why and how could that interpretation be given any weight? If you get hold of a copy of the Ignatian Catholic Study Bible you will see a lot of emphasis placed on that kind of thing in the explanatory notes. Its a great bible and one I use a lot but I cannot convince myself that when Jesus told the story he meant anything other, mainly, than a teaching parable about the Kingdom of God. Certainly one could see into the two pence the meaning you ascribe and Augustine probably would have. But I can’t see the meaning you propose as being central to the parable at all, can you? Thats the chief reason I don’t apply such a kind of analogy, because it seems to me to belong to a somewhat rarified viewpoint at a degree or two of abstraction.

    • tim says:

      Ignatius – I have to admit, shame-facedly, that my comment (‘not a lot of people know that’) was intended at least partly as irony. I don’t really see the idea of the two pence as representing the two Testaments as useful or plausible – but it is nevertheless interesting that St Bede thought it was. As to what Jesus meant when He told the story – how can we know that? He was God and Man.
      It is a wonderful story. I empathise strongly with the lawyer (legisperitus l in the Latin). How clever he feels! I can hear him: “Ah yes, indeed, Rabbi – but what exactly are we to understand by the term ‘Neighbour’ in this context?” [have I posted that before?]
      St Joseph, thank you for your comment about St Clement of Alexandria and Origen – I didn’t know…

  22. Geordie says:

    John Nolan, I find St Bede’s sermon very inspiring. It is a wonderful explanation of the parable and tell us to be more Christlike in our own lives.

    Ignatius, I am sure it is difficult to pitch a sermon at the right level for everyone. However, in the seventies we had curate called Fr Austin McElhatton who, unfortunately, died in his thirties. He used to give short sermons and they were often very learned. What amazed many parishioners, was the fact that many of us thought he was talking to each of us as individuals. One lady said to him, “Father, I told you that in confidence and now you’ve preached a sermon about me.” Poor Fr A. was mortified to think she thought he had broken a confidence. Actually I thought the sermon was meant for me; I thought most of his sermons were for me. He had a rare gift but he was and is a saint. I often wonder why God took him so young when we needed him so much.

  23. Martha says:

    I think these analogies are very helpful, and that Our Lord intended His stories to be understood at different levels, applying both meanings to our own lives. Sermons and readings which show how certain events in the Old Testament prefigured their fulfilment in the New are also valuable, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale, the manna in the desert, and the many others which theologians can show us. They brings cohesion and integration into the history and meaning of our salvation, as well as guiding our personal behaviour.

    I welcome mention of feast days in sermons, as they are a very important part of Catholic life, uniting us to Christ, and to Our Lady and the angels and saints in a very human way, praying, celebrating and thinking about the special message each one can bring to us. Liturgical seasons and the very big feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost provide the large framework which is rightly emphasised and celebrated, and within it, the yearly calendar of other feasts can add to our devotion and prayer and be very special and reassuring as the years go by.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Yes, I like especially sermons on the Good Shepherd, from the OT to the NT.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Martha if you have EWTN, the priest today giving a homily on preaching by priests at Mass. He explains it very well. It can be seen again at 11pm. very appropriate for the this weeks subject Words, words, words,
        He also mentions how it burns in our hearts!

  24. John Nolan says:

    I recall, not long ago, a homilist (it might have been the estimable Fr Hunwicke) making sense of the parable of the unjust steward by explaining the economic practices of the first century. So some contextualized knowledge is useful.

    If we look at another parable, that of the king making a marriage feast for his son, we read the following: ‘But they neglected, and went their ways … and the rest laid hands on his servants, and having treated of them contumeliously, put them to death. But when the king had heard of it, he was angry; and sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city.’

    None of the Church Fathers would have been in any doubt that this refers to the Jews; ‘in propria venit, et sui enim non receperunt’. Or that what is here presaged is the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

    Would a modern homilist draw attention to this? Of course not – the idea that the destruction of Jerusalem was somehow divine retribution would be anathema to them. It was surely an accident of history.

    Yet as a Church we are grounded in Patristics and cannot simply set them aside because they fit ill with our modern notions.

    • tyke says:

      John, perhaps the task of the ‘modern homilist’ is to explain how the text has been interpreted in the past, but more importantly what it says to us today.
      The destruction of Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago is important in our understanding of our history, but the doesn’t the destruction of our society because of our failures concern us more directly?
      The church fathers preached by making sense of the the bible texts in their time. They showed us how to do so. Should we not be following their example by making sense of them in our time?

  25. ignatius says:

    Yes, that kind of thing. In like manner one might quite legitimately spend two or three minutes unpacking the local background to the Good Samaritan to give relevance and then suggest that today the parable, if told in America, might have a shot white police officer being tended on the street by a young black man, or, in Britain, by a romanian immigrant. One might thus broaden the analogy before adding the point that in theological terms we are the ones wounded by robbers and Christ is our Samaritan. This kind of storying is I think legitimate. We are fortunate in our Diocese as the Bishop, who is a bible scholar sends out his teaching notes weekly as a kind of ‘benchmark’. I tend to think, pray and about write whatever it is I intend to deliver before checking one or two ‘authoritative sources’ just to make sure I’m in the general ball park; rally the preacher has a great deal of leeway, but his imagination is nonetheless tethered by Tradition.

  26. ignatius says:

    Oops, Sorry, ‘Rally’ should read ‘really’!

  27. Brendan says:

    ” Words ,Words, Words..”…….indeed! Like most of Great Britain and Ireland , the Catholic Church honours its priest/martyrs. It is enough to say ‘ the Titus Oates Plot ‘ to send shivers down the spine of any ‘ Catholic ‘ locality even today.
    During that time of ‘ persecution ‘ sermons were vital to keep alive the Faith in the minds of the faithful . When priest-hunters, informers, apostates , made good use of any ‘ paper-trail ‘ or rumour to bring the papist / ‘ massing priest ‘ to ” justice”.
    Such a person was St.David Lewis, S.J. ( reputedly the last of the Welsh Martyrs ), called by all locally in Usk (Mon.) …” Tad y Tlodion ” – Father of the poor ; his sermons were described as ” eloquent “.
    It was never more important to keep and dispense to the heart the spoken word of the Faith of our Fathers than in times of such trial.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Many years ago my parish priest arranged a visit to St David Lewis SJ in Wales it was a lovely day out, we visited the Church and the place where he was martyred if I remember rightly. In the early 80s.
      I have some literature somewhere that we brought back
      Thank you for reminding me.

      • St.Joseph says:

        The thought has just come into my head, whilst reading on St David Lewis SJ. that is ‘would we now as Catholics die for our faith if need be?

  28. Brendan says:

    St.Joseph – Luke 18:8 has something of Our Lords anxiety about that very thought that echoes down the centuries of history having particular prominence in our times.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Thank you.
      I have been thinking about ‘faith’ and how it would apply to the way Jesus would think about it!
      What we are supposed to believe, in relation with other Christian faiths. plus non Christian faiths that believe in God!.
      With reference to Martha’s comment below at 2.04pm Just a thought.

  29. St.Joseph says:

    Yes quite so.
    However Words are words, I wonder what would the most important word one would say if dying for our faith. Would it be as Jesus said ,Father forgive them for they know not what they do!,
    I wonder what excuse we would make for them not knowing.? Words are cheap, unless they are heard and listened to and understood as Jesus told his DIciples when preaching the parables..

    • Martha says:

      I have often wondered what St. Paul meant when he said I can give my body to be burned but if I have not charity it will profit me nothing.

      • Brendan says:

        Martha – We are told that throughout history many people have been ‘ converted ‘ by Christian fortitude and eloquence , conveyed to them by the accused ‘ saints ‘ s they await their fate on the ‘ gallows ‘ , the ‘ block ‘ or the fire.
        Saint Paul and countless other holy men and woman in accounting their lives prior to execution have gladly given up their lives through ‘ love of Christ .’ The body can be completely annihilated through burning and is ‘ lost ‘; but it is the love that has driven that body when ‘ alive in Christ ‘ that lives on in other people and is itself immortal. …..” It is not I that live , but Christ that lives in me .”…. Ultimately , that’s how Christ showed the world through His own death , how we face death – now, everyday in our lives and to the ‘ end ‘ – already defeated by Him through ‘ love. ‘
        That’s why ‘ relics ‘ of Holy Men and Women are so redolent with the presence of Gods grace and favour in the ‘ way ‘ they lived out their lives……… and as Catholics accept their power of transference in respect of their holy provenance.

      • Martha says:

        Thank you, Brendan, and, yes, that must be true of most of those who are ready to sacrifice their lives for Christ, for God, but St. Paul seems to be saying that this can be done from the wrong motive, bravado or obstinacy perhaps, even hatred, and then it would not be an acceptable sacrifice. Only God knows what is in anyone’s heart, but it could apply sometimes, to Christians as well as to Isis suicide bombers. They may think they are praiseworthy and will merit a place in Paradise, or they may be consumed with evil hatred, we don’t know, and some of the poor misguided victims are so brain washed and drugged up that they don’t know what they are doing anyway.

  30. ignatius says:

    When I worked in China there were stories of Christians getting themselves locked up because , having read the scriptures they became convinced that only ‘real’ Christians were to be found behind bars. Yes, Paul had already been strongly ,fanatically, zealous in persecuting the Church so he knew the dangers of what we term ‘excessive zeal’. I used to suffer from it a bit myself in Missions till a collapse through exhaustion came along and gently hinted that perhaps I had the balance slightly wrong. I had a good friend once who was zealously involved in the Evangelical church as a church planter, everyone thought he was a saint until he began threatening to kill his wife…
    I think what Paul learned was humility.

  31. John Nolan says:

    Given that few laity pray the Office of Readings, might it not be inappropriate that the homilist at Mass ‘recycle’ some of the published sermons and commentaries of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church?

    I have been reading some of the sermons of Gerard Manley Hopkins and it would seem these were not given at Mass, but as part of evening devotions.

    One of my many objections to the Novus Ordo is its excessive wordiness. The celebrant eyeballs the congregation throughout, even when delegating roles (e.g. the readings) to others. You feel that you have been subjected to an hour-long lecture given by a poor lecturer. Even the congregational responses are artificial and stilted; whereas singing in unison is a natural activity, speaking in unison is not.

    Worst of all, the attenuated liturgy has to be padded out with introductions, explanations, interjections, homilies and mini-homilies, not to mention add-ons which are extraneous to the Mass but are fitted in prior to the dismissal, to keep you in your seats.

    It’s a colossal bore. Fortunately I rarely have to endure it.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Nolan.
      ‘When I was a child I thought like a child, now that I am a man I put away childish things’!
      I understand what you say but only in reverse.
      I remember when I was around seven years old, not long after making my first Holy Communion and was on holiday or visiting my grandmother for a weekend, or perhaps living with her as I did for a while. (Apologies if I have told this story before)
      Big Bray Church as ‘I called it’ Mass on a Sunday was every half an hour.
      I was with my mother sitting at the back,( she had to as she fainted in crowds) only small, listening to ‘some man muttering a foreign language, kneeling before some big people (they were all big to me in those days) and asking my mother ‘what’s he doing now Mam’ , being told to shush, and read your prayer book which was my first Holy Communion one, with pictures of the priest with his back to me celebrating Holy Mass. Bored and figidty wasn’t the word, want to wee now Mam, I’m thirsty (My mother had some Lourdes Holy water she would drink if she felt faint.
      The only consolation was that I could move at last to go up to the big enormous Altar rails to receive Jesus, except for one morning the priest passed me by, thinking I was too young, or that he was moving so quickly did not see me( as he was in a hurry to finish for the next Mass.
      When I came back to my seat tried to tell my mother that the priest passed me by-she would not listen to me as she was pray and then say (‘shush say your prayers’) I would tap her again but got no response.
      They say persistence gets results as I continued to tell her I had not received Jesus, and wanted to stay for the next Mass(I don’t know why as I was bored) but I was determined being very persistent and probably naughty, In the end she took me around to the Presbytery and told the priest , he told me to kneel down and he went back unto the Church and brought me back Jesus,
      John so we have to place ourselves sometimes in the minds of little ones, and remember what Jesus said. ‘Let the children come to me!’

      • John Nolan says:

        St Joseph

        Before I made my first Communion, indeed at the age of four or five, I was taken every Sunday with my younger brother by my father to the ‘High Mass’ (actually a Missa Cantata) at the local parish church. I was transfixed; the music I know now was of no great shakes, but the congregation belted out the Asperges, the Missa de Angelis (the default setting in those days – mid 1950s) and Credo III. And what was happening in the sanctuary fascinated me to the extent that I desperately wanted to be a priest (although in the end I settled to be a server, and served my first mass at the age of eight in 1959).

        From 5-7 I attended a CofE infants’ school, the Catholic school not having enough places. It was excellent in every way and the staff were very welcoming. I remember when the gifts of the Magi came up, the teacher saying ‘of course you have incense in your church.’ At age 6 we were asked to draw and paint a picture of a church. My classmates all portrayed the outside of a church. I attempted to portray the inside of a church, with Mass being celebrated at the high altar.

        Aged 10 or so, and now at a Catholic school, we learned about the Reformation. How English Catholics were devoted to the Mass but found that almost overnight it was replaced in their parish churches by a communion service in English. I couldn’t conceive how they could have put up with this. Alas! Within a few short years I was to be disabused. But to be let down in this way by your own Church, by your own priests, by your own bishops, by the Pope, even; it was only intellectual conviction that kept me a Catholic, and only the rediscovery of liturgical tradition in the few places where it was maintained, that kept me practising.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Thank you for that information-it sound really lovely.
        I believe you would have been a wonderful priest, still time if you are not married. A parish priest of mine who has died RIP now, his father when his wife died became a priest, I think he was the oldest to be ordained. A lovely man as was his son a lovely unsighted priest.
        Fr Edwin Gordon you will have heard of him, a wonderful writer-my late husband would help him sometimes with all his printing-he had a secretary who helped by typing for him.
        He wrote for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He taught my two oldest grandsons their Religious Instructions. privately, although they went to a Catholic school. I helped him by taking him to the sick and the dying and reading sometimes, also when he needed new clothes. etc; He is buried in Fatima.
        My maternal grandmother was a wonderful singer and sang in the choir at high Mass, also my mother many years ago. Then things changed for my mother as we moved about a lot.

  32. Iona says:

    John Nolan – you mentioned (somewhere back up there) “contextualised knowledge”. When a homily provides this, I really appreciate it. For example, I heard a homily in which the priest explained that in Jesus’s time and place, if a man was eating, and wanted to leave the table but return to it, he would roll up his napkin neatly as a sign to his servant that he should not clear away, since Master was coming back. When he had finished and was leaving the table for good, he would leave the napkin any old how. This practice was linked to Jesus’s headcloth being rolled up “in a place of its own” in the tomb at the resurrection; a way of saying “I”m coming back”.

    • St.Joseph says:

      You make a good point.
      Reading somewhere with regards to the Good Samaritan when he said ‘I will return’ to the poor man-meant His second coming. But it could have meant His Resurrection ‘

    • tim says:

      Iona, I do agree with you about contextualised knowledge! An example, to follow up on the Good Samaritan. From “Redeeming Economics” (Mueller, 2010, which I’ve just begun reading – strongly recommended!) p 37 “The economic value of the Samaritan’s time and the two coins he gave to care for the man probably amounted to about half his wages for the week – not for the year or his whole life. This was a generous but also properly human – not superhuman – act, and everyone should be prepared to undertake such a sacrifice in order to prevent the death or extreme misery of another human being.” I find that comment more helpful than the – perhaps equally valid? – interpretation that St Bede gives.

  33. Brendan says:

    Martha 2.O4 pm and Ignatius. Yes, what you say is true. Christ reminded us to ….” Judge not least you be judged .” … the dictum that tears at us and is constantly confronted at the heart of our sinful nature.
    It is of great consolation and humble acceptance by the Catholic recipient of the Sacraments , that is not conditioned on the need for the priest/ intermediary to be necessarily in a state of grace at the time for the Sacrament to be effective.
    Indeed in Our Lords words …” no one is good except God alone. ”
    To his Apostles question .. ” who can be saved , them ? ” , Our Lord replied …. ” By human resources , this impossible ; for God everything is possible .” Matt:19: 25-26 (NJB)

  34. tim says:

    St Joseph ” ‘would we now as Catholics die for our faith if need be?”
    Good question. Part of the reason we pray daily not to be put to the test?

  35. St.Joseph says:

    I have a strong feeling somehow that it might not be long before we are put to the test.
    We are being tested spiritually always since birth!

  36. Alasdair says:

    The best homilies I have heard were those which expanded upon, and added value to one of the preceding readings – usually the gospel.
    It is quite a long time, possibly years, since I last heard a homily given by a native English speaker. Surprisingly I believe that that can even be advantageous as one is forced to concentrate on the heavily accented English rather let one’s mind wander.

Leave a Reply to St.Joseph Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s