Listen to my sermon

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekly Mass in my parish – to commemorate an important family occasion. My housekeeper came with me. Being a big parish, we often have a foreign priest – as we had on this occasion. When we left, my housekeeper asked me what the lengthy sermon was about. Given that she was a Ukrainian that was understandable. But I had to confess that I too didn’t understand a single word from beginning to end. Nor do I criticise the preacher: he had clearly spent a long time in preparation. No one, I presume, has pointed out to him that a much shorter sermon, but given more clearly, could have been effective.

Pope Francis has much to say on the sermon: “Everyone who goes to Mass has the right to hear the word of God in all its fullness, which means it must be read well and explained well with fervour.” I am told that his own sermons tend not to be longer than ten minutes.” And that, I think, is the maximum – even if you happen to be the pope. Five or seven minutes is usually quite enough.

I assume that priests in training are coached in the skills of preaching although I haven’t read the principles which are exercised. But, were I were asked what the principles should be, I would have a clear list of the important points. You may say that these have more to do with secular skills than religious ones. And that is so because speakers and audiences have the same characteristics whether the matter is secular or sacred. My expertise lies not in only in having trained speakers but in a lifetime of addressing audiences – from Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to major business conferences.

The first is the most important: set out your objectives. These are not what you are going to do but what you want to change or develop in the congregation’s mind. For example, you might want the congregation to recognise the relevance of a passage such as “So it is when a man stores up pleasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.” (Luke 12). And you would hope that at least a few will set aside time later in the day to think about themselves in this regard. Every aspect of planning must measure up against these objectives.

The second is to glance once or twice around the whole congregation, including the side aisles and people standing at the back. They now all know that you are speaking to them – person to person. And this will also trigger your volume and your speed so that you engage with everyone.

You will of course have checked the loudspeaker system, and you will know how to use the microphone without taking your eyes from the congregation. You will be aware of the different acoustics between a full and a thin congregation in this regard.

Yes, use the occasional story to illustrate the point. In this case the Gospel tells us of the man who stored all his crops rather than all his virtues. There are modern equivalents. Tell it well, and you will not need a second story. And avoid going round and round — giving the same message in different forms. If you can’t make it clear the first time, get that right first.

Use your own insights when appropriate. You are a priest with a long spiritual life. Understanding what you yourself have been through in coming to terms with the message reminds the congregation that, whether or ordained or not, we all have similar struggles in imitating Christ.

How you start will be important. Audiences decide within a few seconds whether to listen to what you are about to say. You don’t get two shots at this. At least metaphorically, the congregation will sit up and move forward in their seats or close their minds and sit back.

Use pauses, but with discretion. Information is taken first into the short term memory but it disappears if there is no pause to move it into the long term memory. Give your congregation that fraction of time, so that they can remember.

Few people will buttonhole you at the door and tell you what was wrong with your sermon. So, finally, pick a group of, perhaps three, sincere friends whose rôle it is to criticise each sermon. If I ever achieved a competence in public speaking it was because I relied on my wife to point out my various faults or potential improvements. And she didn’t hold back. I learnt a great deal.

About Quentin

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56 Responses to Listen to my sermon

  1. David Smith says:

    Political correctness and the fear of being branded “racist” surely play large parts in this incident of the incomprehensible preacher. Also, doubtless, the stupidity and arrogance of bishops and clergy.

    I’ve seen it here, with an American priest in an Hispanic parish whose sermons are incomprehensible to his listeners.

    The Church suffers self-inflicted wounds continually from a clergy and a hierarchy who fall far short of their most basic obligations. It’s far worse than simply sad.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // You will of course have checked the loudspeaker system, and you will know how to use the microphone without taking your eyes from the congregation. You will be aware of the different acoustics between a full and a thin congregation in this regard. //

    In the local inter-city bus terminal, the public address system is of poor quality and the acoustics are bad. Announcements about when and at which of some dozen doors departing passengers must queue for which buses are badly garbled and practically incomprehensible.

    If the announcers were to speak much more slowly than they do and take care to enunciate clearly, the announcements would probably be understandable, even through the faulty system. But they do not do that, even though they must know that passengers cannot understand them. Why don’t they make the effort? Because, I suppose, their job is simply to make announcements, not to make them clearly. One supposes that if they took pride in doing their work well, they would take the trouble to compensate for the poor equipment they’re obliged to work with. That they don’t do this conveys the message to everyone listening to the garbled announcements that they are not happy with their jobs and don’t care a fig for the convenience of the bus company’s customers.

    I imagine that parishioners obliged to listen to boring sermons spoken badly receive the same sort of message: I’m just doing this job because I must. I don’t care a fig whether or not you like the way I do it.

  3. Geordie says:

    Forty or more years ago, we had a priest whose sermons were between three and five minutes long. You felt that he was speaking to you personally and his sermons affected you all through the week. On more than one occasion, he was accused of betraying confidences with the words “Father, I told you that in confidence and now the whole parish knows about me”.
    He wasn’t an expert in public speaking. His gift for making a good sermon was the fact that he was a prayerful and holy man. His name was Fr Austen McElhatton and he is still talked about today by older members of the congregation. Fr. McElhatton worked tirelessly dedicating a lot of time to visiting; most especially to the sick and the housebound and those in hospital. Tragically he died 5th Oct. 1974 aged just 38 and is buried in the cemetery opposite the church. Both Catholics and non-Catholics from our town attended his funeral. The church was over-flowing.

    • milliganp says:

      Back in the early 80’s I had a parish priest who was prayerful and holy and who did parish visiting. His homilies (which were in fact a series of sermons he had written years previously) only coincidentally touched on the Gospel and had little if any bearing on the day to day challenges of living the Gospel. I particularly remember his annual homily for the feast of The Holy Family for, hoping for some guidance on christian family life, we were treated to a reminder of the errors of modernism.

      • ignatius says:

        ha ha ha ha !!! I know one or two like that…they have to prepare a whole set of homilies in advance…I think its probably advised in seminary….most manage to update a bit ass they go but sometimes you can still get the ‘student’ version.

  4. Hock says:

    I once commented on here that the clergy are not free to talk about anything in their sermons but that they must be based on the readings of the day,, especially the gospel. (Hence it being a homily rather than a sermon.) Some of the responses to this made me wonder if those contributors had ever been to Mass!

    But that is the truth of it and so those clergy who wander off into other realms are really only doing an injustice to their office unless they link the topic to the scriptures of the day.

    As for length I often find that if there is an appeals speaker ( at the end of Mass and not at the homily time, ) who is speaking out of real experience then length is far less a problem and brevity can be something of a ‘let down.’

    In other words it can be counter productive to get too concerned about length, objectives and the like. It is content that matters and surely the scriptures give plenty of scope.

    • ignatius says:

      I preach pretty much weekly either in prison or parish. The general guidelines from our Bishop who is pretty well steeped in the art go something like
      1) Dwell at length in the scriptures of the coming week, allow the words to sink in , pray through them. 2) Try and see what God is saying both TO you personally and then THROUGH you to the parish. 3) Take into account the pastoral situation in which you operate.4) If in doubt or needing clarification yourself check over other coverage, homilies, commentaries etc, of the readings for the particular cycle. This is similar to the classic formulation:
      assemble your materials..set the fire… then step back.

      There are a million reasons why the preacher may not be to our taste on any particular day..some of these reasons are due to technical issues as described. Not a few though also have a root in the attitude of the listener. Good preaching is a result of gift, art and solid craft. Spare a thought for the poor guy has neither gift nor art yet still has to slog away at craft amid the multitudinous and often mutinous concerns of his indolent audience!

      • milliganp says:

        Much of what Quentin has posted falls under the category “the children of the world are wiser than the children of the light”, that is he draws from commercial teaching about how to communicate and present effectively.
        The main part of my career was spent as a technical specialist working alongside sales teams. As part of that role I attended a course on ‘active listening’, the aim of which is to better understand the customer need. I’ve tried applying these techniques when listening to homilies but rarely get past the first couple of minutes as few priests have any training in communication.

  5. Nektarios says:

    What is a sermon? What is a preacher? What is the sermon supposed to be and accomplish?
    Where is a sermon to be got, I suggest first on our knees before God; from scriptures. A sermon is supposed to be a communication of truth, of the Gospel, of doctrine, of teaching concerning Christ and our relationship to Him as it meets us on the road of life.
    An inspiring sermon that leads to understanding and action in one’s life is of the Holy Spirit.

    • galerimo says:

      Beautiful – I agree with this.

      I have a problem with terms like – Sermon and Preacher

      But I think you make several good good points

      Especially the Christ centre of any and every “sermon”.

    • milliganp says:

      I used to work for an IT company and our production manager was a Scot’s Presbyterian, he used to try and bring the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture into every conversation. I ran the company’s customer support department and challenged him because, despite our excellent technical manuals, we had to run a team of three engineers answering customer queries, I said him “what do you do if you don’t understand the manual – you phone tech support”. One of the rolls of any minister and the church is to assist those who don’t understand (which is all of us).

  6. Melvin Sarjeant says:

    Thankyou everyone for your comments on the article relating to the length of sermons. Interestingly my friends and I were discussing this subject over a cup of cappuccini in our nearest (to the church) cafe just after Mass last week. We all agreed that there are important factors to be taken into account when addressing a diverse group of people, particularly when you really want to “get your points across”. However we were all of similar minds relating to many of the priests here in souhern Italy, firstly they absolutely really do love to talk about the various readings and gospel – AT LENGTH!! and this tends to last from between 15-25 minutes and in one particular church a 45 minute sermon is the norm. Unfortunately there seems to be no realisation by these preachers that after the first 5 minutes people switch off, and in fact I’ve noticed many people in the congregation talking to each other, looking at or answering their smart phones. Obviously this is not good behaviour, but the priests seem totally oblivious and these lengthy sermons actually do the opposite of what was clearly intended. Preachers/Priests need to understand that generally in the 21st century people can read and the majority have the capacity to think through the words and meaning of the gospel and relate this (and hopefully) translate the message to their everyday lives.
    A few well chosen words can have a huge impact, whereas thousands of boring words are never truly heard. My views are absolutely not intended to hurt anyone especially our lovely priests, but maybe in the seminaries the message that “if you can’t get your point across in a 5 minute sermon then you’ve lost the congregation!!!” could be part of the learning curve for all our young priests.

  7. ignatius says:

    Hi Melvyn,
    Hope your weather is good over there. Here in the diocese of Birmingham in England parishioners would be hurling hymn books and setting fire to the pews if we were to dare pass the 9 minute mark and still remain standing! Generally I aim for between 6-8 minutes. In case I lose the ability to see my watch there are several parishioners in the pews who have developed very advanced skills, not only, as you say, can they read..but also they can count, tell the time and point tellingly at their smart phones should I miss their message…. 🙂

  8. galerimo says:

    I heard a good one yesterday.

    The resident priest from one of the small islands just off the coast was “filling in” while the local clergy were away “on retreat”.

    An old geezer if ever there was one

    – I kept thinking about the Bishop keeping him in such a remote location and concluded it was jealousy

    He spoke all about women and how like Jesus they are.

    Greta Thunberg – you can tell she is a prophet because so many men hate her – tick for Jesus.

    Well dressed woman he saw giving $50 to a dirty homeless girl who just said thank you- another tick for the Jesus message.

    And the Apostle Mary Magdalene – a brilliant pick for Jesus as post resurrection witness.

    But I still think the best “cermons” are never in Church – but the best distractions always are.

    And I learn a lot by distraction – it is the best pedagogy there is. After the Gospel.

    Some modern church architecture is truly inspired by plain glass that lets you see the sky.

    And God knows there is great need to see the sky when some twit is mauling the Word of God in flowing vestments at the ambo.

    The birds and the trees and sometimes just the traffic outside in the street where Jesus worked.

    Some old Churches truly inspire through distraction with their stain glass and even awful art.

    θεός is very clearly stamped on old church windows and is always a great portal through which to can take you leave into fantasy from some godawful “Sir MOn”

    They say the old Cure of Ars was quite inaudible but inspiring to SEE breaking open the Word.

    And no way could even half the crowd,if they were as big on some occasions as the Gospels say, possibly hear Jesus – Luke says there were 5,000 and John 4,000, or speaking from a boat or half way up a hill. Without a mike – I dont think so.

    But I’ll bet it was worth seeing Him.

    There is not much difference between a lecture and a zermon they way you describe it.

    Christian tradition has taught us, like women in church saremuns should be seen and not heard.

  9. ignatius says:

    “…And God knows there is great need to see the sky when some twit is mauling the Word of God in flowing vestments at the ambo….”

    It is a shame that we have so little to say on this subject. Perhaps there is nothing to be said. Perhaps the subject is too intimate for this place. Perhaps we should stop jeering now.

    • milliganp says:

      I would love to post about great homilies or preachers who have inspired me and I don’t think that it is merely cynicism, lack of charity or personal arrogance that prevents me from doing so. The things I do remember have been a number of times that a lay person has made a deeply moving contribution, comment or personal witness. Perhaps we need to turn faith into a conversation rather than a lecture.

      • ignatius says:

        Yes thats true,
        I’ve just come from my 2 hour prayer/teaching group in prison where we share readings and chew over them together. Parishes all should have points of contact where we can share our faith together..but this cannot be done by homily

  10. Nektarios says:

    I wonder if you all knew that when the Church in Korea, for example, started, grew and was established there was not a clergyman, priest in sight at all. The Church came about in Korea through laypeople who heard the Gospel in China mostly and the Lord sent them forth to preach the Gospel and the whole counsel of God to them. It was well-received and grew to such an extent before the main institutional churches took any interest at all and moved in.

    Preachers are believers with a gift of God and they are sent by God. They have an interest and love for the souls of mankind to see them come to Christ, redeemed and where their souls, now in Christ are truly His, are destined for heaven and eternal glory.

    Preachers are a gift to the Church. There was a day when such men were sought out by believers.
    They had the gift to communicate to the hearts and minds of men and women and young folk Christ; and like their Master, the common people heard them gladly.

    Preaching or the mechanics of it some think can be taught. But such approaches only leads to arid and lifeless mechanical methods of preaching with no life in it.
    The real deal is very different, fruitful and well-watered which comes out of a life which is walking with God, receives directions from God and communicates what God wants to communicate.

    • milliganp says:

      Sorry, Nektarios, I hadn’t read this post when I commented above. There is definitely a danger, in institutional religion, to think that the power of the Gospel is the sole property of the leadership. During the communist era in Eastern Europe there were underground churches operating autonomously and their contributions were not fully recognised after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
      On your point that preaching should not be seen as a technical skill, I agree. If we use an analogy from marriage, you cannot teach someone to love but you can help them to express their love with care and sensitivity. A preacher can only pass on that faith which they, themselves, possess. If that faith is deficient they can only pass on the deficiency to others.

      • ignatius says:

        Yes, I agree with this and that is why we should not burden the priest with our high expectations..we should read pray, talk over stuff with others, form groups to pray and be together…badger our priest and deacon to help..that is partly our function as deacons by the way..the development of spiritual growth in the parish….

  11. FZM says:

    I wonder if you all knew that when the Church in Korea, for example, started, grew and was established there was not a clergyman, priest in sight at all. The Church came about in Korea through laypeople who heard the Gospel in China mostly and the Lord sent them forth to preach the Gospel and the whole counsel of God to them. It was well-received and grew to such an extent before the main institutional churches took any interest at all and moved in.

    I didn’t know about Korea but I do know what happened when this type of missionary activity spread in China; T’ai Ping Christianity. The subsequent T’ai Ping rebellion is supposed to have been the bloodiest civil war in history.

    It probably needs to be balanced with the positive example from Korea.

    • ignatius says:

      Just a bit of clarification re “Taiping Christianity”:

      “..Led by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ, the goals of the Taipings were religious, nationalist, and political in nature; they sought the conversion of the Chinese people to the Taiping’s syncretic version of Christianity, the overthrow of the ruling Manchus, and a wholesale transformation and reformation of the state.[7][8] Rather than simply supplanting the ruling class, the Taipings sought to upend the moral and social order of China.[9] To that end, they established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom as an oppositional state based in Tianjing (present-day Nanjing) and gained control of a significant part of southern China, eventually expanding to command a population base of nearly 30 million people… ”

      PS Sorry about the quote Quentin but Wikipedia did put it so well

      • Quentin says:

        Yes, the rule about quotes was set up at a time when contributors were inclined to conduct argument through quotations. But there will be cases, like yours, when a brief quotation is necessary. And, like yours, the reference must be shown.

  12. ignatius says:

    Actually the Church in Korea is thought to have had early roots during the invasion wars between Japan and Korea in 1592 -1598 when there was exchange between slaves and the military of both cultures. Jesuit missionaries did visit Korea around then but made no great inroads though their introduction of principles of Science and philosophy began to pave the way. There is an apocryphal story of a jesuit swimming ashore in Korea and just being able to thrust into the hands of a soldier a copy of scriptures in Chinese before being killed himself.
    As to the Tai Ping rebellion…. I doubt that Jesus started it!.

    We were in China for 5 years just after Tiannmen Square and one could not but be struck by the governmental fear of rebellion which apparently is a feature of Chinese authoritarian attitudes. This underlying fear of ‘the masses’ seems based on China’s many historical rebellions. I fear Hong Kong may well soon fall into thrall of that ancient and rigid grip.

    Overall though it is true that the Korean church is seen as a ‘homegrown’ affair though obviously the gospel must have been first carried there by believers. It is definitely the case that something happens when revival comes to a nation and that there will be a spontaneous upsurge of belief in hearts already prepared by the Holy spirit. One of the amazing things we noticed during our years with the underground church in China was the miraculous nature of its growth. We met whole communities of people gathering together just to listen to Far East Christian Broadcasting on their radios and doing so despite the possibility of reprisal.

    Any culture will though, sooner or later, form its own religious norms and peculiarities. That much is plainly obvious in Britain when one looks say at the distribution of Methodism or Catholicism. It is also true that cometh the hour cometh the preacher so there will always be anointed men and women who will blaze brightly. The bulk of church life though runs in quieter streets among quieter people some of whom will be required to preach though their primary gift may be in other area’s these being usually of a pastoral. I love preaching over anything else, I put a lot into it and am generally well encouraged by frequent and positive feedback, but if you were to look to me for good pastoral care then you would be sorely disappointed..for that you should go to my parish priest who excels in all areas of it.. preaching however he finds a bit of a trial and is greatly relieved when I take the weekend for him.

    • Martha says:

      Thank you, Ignatius, for that very impressive and informative comment. I have mostly found our sermons to be helpful and alive. I think it helps to listen properly and to look at the speaker, keep my eyes open and let him see some response, though it is a captive audience and I sometimes wonder about a verbal response.

    • FZM says:

      As to the Tai Ping rebellion…. I doubt that Jesus started it!.

      Hong came to believe that he was Jesus’ brother. There seem to be different opinions among Western historians at least about whether Taiping Christianity was just a variant more closely adapted to Chinese culture and traditions or whether it represented a novel religion.

      It is true that Hong got many ideas for it from material distributed by US missionaries and their Chinese converts. It was also definitely explosively successful.

      We were in China for 5 years just after Tiannmen Square and one could not but be struck by the governmental fear of rebellion which apparently is a feature of Chinese authoritarian attitudes.

      Thinking about the about the Taiping rebellion (supposed to have resulted in about 20 million deaths) and the smaller but still significant revolts that happened in other parts of China at the same time, then the 1910 Revolution and 25 year long series of civil wars that followed that, then the 1945-49 Civil War… I think you can see why the Communist Party gets sensitive about this possibility.

      • ignatius says:

        ” I think you can see why the Communist Party gets sensitive about this possibility.”

        Yes, that’s precisely my point! But that sensitivity in itself tends instinctively towards brutality of response, one of the many contradictions of China’s mind, I loved the place myself and the people I encountered there.

  13. ignatius says:

    Believe me Martha heads nodding and mouthed or spoken “Yes” ‘s are always a welcome sight from a lectern… as is the occasional thanks at the door on the way out. I really like it when someone engages me on one point or another from time to order to agree/disagree, express outrage or whatever. Usually whatever I have said has been prayed and mulled over several times, has been on my mind all week and is in its umpteenth draft by the time it reaches take off point so I am always happy to chew over the topic afterwards. Though it is true that there is a gift in preaching there is also a lot of straightforward hard work involved. I remember once a very famous evangelical preacher telling us how he said to God one day:

    “Why is it Lord that I spend half the week in the library studying up on your word then you tell me what you actually want me to say as I’m cleaning my teeth on sunday morning before church..”

    According to the preacher God answered him and said:

    “Son, if you don’t spend half the week in the library I’m not going to speak to you while you are cleaning your teeth”

    To be honest I don’t think it is widely understood just how challenging it is to stand behind a lectern regularly. if people did then they would perhaps be a bit more encouraging to the poor guy in the vestments standing at the front of the church!!

  14. ignatius says:

    MilliganP says:

    “I would love to post about great homilies or preachers who have inspired me and I don’t think that it is merely cynicism, lack of charity or personal arrogance that prevents me from doing so…”

    I think this is true. It is also my own experience that it is hard to recall particular details of what has been said. But I know that I have been affected by things people have said. In the diligence of reading and listening I must have read a library full of stuff and heard enough words to deafen an army…I remember almost none of it, yet I find myself to be profoundly changed somehow by that steady slow drip feed.

    We do so enjoy having our senses tickled and we delight in soundbites, we expect revelation by the earful, but that is not the way it comes. I agree with much of what has been said here by the way, partly because I’ve had the privelege of watching powerful speakers practise their art and I have taken the trouble to search out principles of communication. But I also believe strongly that listeners have responsibilities too.

    It is an interesting view from the lectern and the person who deliberately switches off, preferring their own heroic fantasy, is easy to spot, as is the one who is troubled in some way and thus unable to bring their attention to bear. For them it is a bad day and the voice of angel would not penetrate at the time of listening yet may sink in a little later on.

    On this topic we do not, or should not speak as merely disgruntled observers, as persons demanding their money back at the box office because the play was boring or not to personal taste that particular day. Things should run a little deeper than that and while I share the disgruntlement everyone expresses here I think it is helpful to be careful with our own attitudes and to take the opportunity to examine them from time to time….as usual I am speaking to myself here as much as anyone else.

  15. David Smith says:

    It’s interesting that seems to be no consensus among the comments here on what the ideal sermon should be. One person remarks that orders from headquarters are that it must simply expand on the scripture reading of the day, but I don’t remember anyone else remarking on that. How free are preachers in the Catholic Church to deviate from that simple criterion?

    I remember that one of Andrew Greeley’s peeves was that preaching was not taught in seminaries and, as a result, it was generally bad. One would think that this matter ought to be given a high place in the teaching of future priests, but it may be that other matters considered of greater consequence – social justice, financial administration, and leadership among them – simply crowded it out. If that’s so, I’m afraid it’s just one more indication that the Church hierarchy are, alas, far from the sharpest knives in the drawer.

    • milliganp says:

      I think it’s important to note that the Catholic church, in practice, is far less hierarchical than most believe. Firstly there are few absolute rules on preaching and even less inclination by most priests to feel themselves subject to such rigours. Prior to the reform of the liturgy, scripture was read in Latin and the sermon was often entirely detached from scripture; it might be about the sacraments, the commandments even the life of a particular saint.
      As part of the reform of the liturgy a new lectionary was produced so that a far wider range of scripture was used and that the links between the Old and New testaments were more dramatically illustrated.
      The official document on the use of scripture is contained in the general introduction which contains the following paragraph (38):

      “The one presiding at the liturgy of the word brings the spiritual nourishment it contains to those present, especially in the homily. Even if he too is a listener to the word of God proclaimed by others, the duty of proclaiming it has been entrusted above all to him. Per- sonally or through others he sees to it that the word of God is properly proclaimed. He then as a rule reserves to himself the task of composing comments to help the people to listen more attentively and to preach a homily that fosters in them a richer understanding of the word of God.”

  16. David Smith says:

    ignatius writes:

    // It is an interesting view from the lectern and the person who deliberately switches off, preferring their own heroic fantasy //

    As I recall, you work in a prison. Is it possible that a few people attending services are doing so at least partly to get high marks in the administration records for good behavior? If so, one might not expect them to be paying much attention.

    • milliganp says:

      Having volunteered, for a brief while, to assist in the chaplaincy of a prison I got a very strong impression that the religious services presented an opportunity to escape the rigours of prison life and to briefly associate with a different group. However, it also represented an opportunity, presented by the Holy Spirit, to preach the Gospel, in word and deed.
      I believe that vanishingly few of the prisoners continued faith practice once released but that does not negate the words of the Gospel “I was in prison and you visited me”.

    • ignatius says:

      David Smith,
      Sorry I should have clarified. The heroic fantasy comment referred to Parish not to prison. In our prison no record is kept of Mass attendance other than the one I keep which is purely for pastoral purposes. My prayer/rosary group attendance is recorded but core time attendance (during the day) earns no brownie points in the prison because it is time off the working day. Prisoners come to church for many reasons (just as we all do) and that is fine by us, in fact I often invite individuals to Mass ‘just for a change of scene’ and to get off the wing for an hour. In general I find prisoners to be quite attentive listeners.

  17. Nektarios says:

    I don’t particularly like the word ‘ideal’ when applied to sermons. we all know what an ideal is, don’t we? It is an idea or set of ideas elevated to the ideal level. So ideals are thoughts projected into the future and never, ever met. This is especially true in politics, in religion and in relationships.

    I don’t buy the idea that everyone nearly when it comes to sermons has a very short attention span.
    People, for example, will watch television programmes or films lasting and hour and a half; go to a football match for 90 minutes no problem, but when it comes to sermons 6-9minutes maximum, no I don’t by it. The same can be said of hobbies.
    When one sees others for example engaged in watching a football match or television programme or anything else, what holds their attention is an interest which can and does provide attention.

    So, if we are saying when it comes to sermons where we have a 6-8 minute slot before we allegedly lose their attention, we are either saying they have no interest, so no attention, or the preacher is boring and dull and not communicating anything that speaks to their soul’s need?

    • milliganp says:

      Several years ago I read a history of the Oxford movement and John Henry Newman. I seem to remember his Anglican sermons were 30-40 minutes long and people made journeys just to hear him speak. Anyone who has attended a university will have experienced spoken lectures of a similar length, so there is certainly no absolute law about humans having short attention spans. I still believe, that at Anglican Vespers, a sermon of 15-20 mins is not unusual.
      As a Catholic, I have to admit that we have no tradition of detailed study and exegesis of scripture by the laity and thus an exegetical homily would, in the most part, fall on shallow ground.

    • ignatius says:

      It is probable that our tendency towards short homilies is based partly in custom but also because the homily is seen as only one hinge of the Mass, the celebration of eucharist comprising the other half. We try to keep longer periods of teaching for catechetical groups.
      Obviously peoples attention can easily be held for longer than a few minutes, but the aim in the catholic homily is to make a clear point and not to flannel around it. In my own experience 8 minutes is quite enough time to expound and expand upon a particular topic.

      The last preachers training day I attended was run by a preaching order ( The Dominicans) and the emphasis was on brevity and focus. When we all took our turn to preach a given set of texts the main teaching point was to stick to the point and that one truth, elaborated illustrated and well delivered was worth a dozen half considered and only vaguely considered.

      I’ve adhered to both models over time-the long when I preached in the evangelical church and the shorter formas Catholic. These days I generally prefer homilies to be short unless there is good reason for them to be otherwise.

  18. ignatius says:

    Just one more point on what a sermon/homily is meant to be. I had twenty years or so in the charismatic/evangelical church. I went on many bible weekends attended all sorts of short exegetical courses and did a course with the London Bible School. The exegesis I was exposed to by and large was Pauline based in that it was overwhelmingly influenced by the new testament letters. Either that of there was strong emphasis on old testament studies.

    When I began to train first as catechist then as deacon in the Catholic church it was impossible not to notice the difference between the two approaches in that the Catholic approach was and is far more based in expounding the Christ of the gospels. This means that the catholic homily is far less likely to be of an exegetical nature and far more concerned with story and application.
    Also the aim of the catholic homily is usually towards giving an interpretation of a gospel segment which is relevant to the here and now. This will naturally be perceived by the evangelical church goer to be watered down and lacking in fully fleshed out theological discourse. It is true that the word ‘sermon’ means different things to different people

  19. Nektarios says:

    When one says, Pauline, it usually means we have moved forward from doctrine, teaching and practice to the muddle so many are in today. Let us remind ourselves, what is termed Pauline, was, in fact, the doctrine, teaching and practice agreed by all the Holy Apostles, and was preached, taught and practised. As it is the inspired Word of God, what the Apostles agreed and passed on to us will serve us equally well in our day and generation till the end of time.
    Sermons and the preacher should faithfully communicate all of the whole counsel of God so the people are truly built up in holy faith and so feed the soul in Christ.

  20. ignatius says:

    “When one says, Pauline, it usually means we have moved forward from doctrine, teaching and practice to the muddle so many are in today.”

    Just to clarify what was my specific and non muddled, intention, the term “Pauline” here is a short definition from wikipedia which seems pretty much as good as any:

    “Pauline Christianity or Pauline theology, also called “Paulism” or “Paulanity”,[2] is the theology and Christianity which developed from the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. Paul’s beliefs where strongly rooted in the earliest Jewish Christianity, but deviated from this Jewish Christianity in their emphasis on inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s New Covenant, and his rejection of circumcision as an unnecessary token of upholding the Law”

    If anyone wishes to grasp the distinction better then simply google ‘Pauline Theology’ and wade through the various discussions which essentially boils down to a couple of issues around the apostle himself .Paul never actually knew Jesus in the way the evangelists Mathew, Mark, Luke and John did and the gospels themselves were written down after Paul’s letters to the early churches.
    The letters and teaching of St Paul were essentially his own situational understanding according to his own revelation. Paul’s teaching did form much of the doctrine of early church orthodoxy and is still held to, with varying levels of rigour and conviction, across the Christian world.
    However St Paul was not Jesus and the gospels themselves present a much wider view, as I said earlier this leads to a difference of approach which emerges between strands of the church as time goes by. I wasn’t really aware of all this until I left the charismatic/evangelical axis of orthodoxy and moved into the broad fields of the gospels as written by the evangelists Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Obviously much has been written around these developments in the focus our understanding of scripture and of Christ. Trends such as this, over time, probably do go along way towards understand why there is no ‘ideal’ sermon.

    • Nektarios says:

      That is why earlier I posited what an ideal was, not only of sermons but just about everything.
      An ideal is an idea or set of ideas, projected into the future and never, ever met.

      The Apostle Paul and the other Apostles met quite a few times and though not one of the original band of disciples, he saw himself as a humble servant of God who was arrested by Christ on the Damascus Road. He spent some time over his life why the Lord had arrested him on the road that day.
      What the Apostles preached and taught was not a trend of their times, rather it was something applicable in at all times and to be communicated to every generation till the end of time because the Holy Spirit is the Author.

  21. Nektarios says:

    Further to what I said earlier, the Apostles doctrine, teaching and practice was not an ideal as such, but a message concerning our souls in relationship to God and to one another as Christians. I think we can all agree that what the Apostles laid down as doctrine, teaching and practice is a work in progress in us, which if followed leads our souls in the way of Salvation with all its heights, depths and breadth. More, it leads with certainty to life eternal in Christ.

    Communicating all that in sermons is the work of the preacher, speaker or priest. Is it at this point that lack of clarity that has lead many to being weak Christians, feeling they are failures, letting the Lord down?

    The Holy Spirit has been sent to communicate what the Apostles taught and practised, for He receives of the things that are Christ’s and shows them unto us. Many other facets are involved with what the Holy Spirit does in us, such as empowering to live victoriously and the joy the Christian life in its many aspects such as worship of God This too is the work of the Preacher, speaker or priest working with the Holy Spirit to communicate with clarity to hearers and to believers for their edification, encouragement, and adding to their faith, so they grow in grace till they reach the full stature in Christ. This is a proper sermon.

    • milliganp says:

      I suddenly feel so inadequate – which I should – but I draw some hope from Paul’s words “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (NRSV)

  22. ignatius says:

    “..This too is the work of the Preacher, speaker or priest working with the Holy Spirit to communicate with clarity to hearers and to believers for their edification, encouragement, and adding to their faith, so they grow in grace till they reach the full stature in Christ. This is a proper sermon…”

    Betch’a can’t manage that in 6-8mins MilliganP! Edify, encourage and reach the full stature of Christ…takes at least 15 minutes I reckon.. though you can manage it in 12 if you really concentrate and try very very hard..

  23. Nektarios says:

    When we were born, we were born with all the potential to reach the full stature of adulthood.
    Similarly, when God regenerated us and we were born again spiritually from the dead, we were brought to life with all the potential of reaching the full stature of Christ or in Christ, or Christlikeness.
    We were humanly born as babes, similarly, we were spiritually born as babes in Christ. Growth to full stature goes at its own pace.
    We grow in grace, in knowledge and in understanding to that full stature. There is no fast track to reaching the fullness of our human or spiritual potential.
    We need the right nourishment and environment if we are not going to have our growth or potential stunted.

  24. milliganp says:

    I’ve just watched a Bishop Robert Baron talk on why people leave the church. There are some issues where the church cannot change – typically divorce, gay marriage, abortion. However the two most significant areas where the church could improve related to how people are treated and a general criticism of homilies.

  25. ignatius says:

    Its quite interesting. Pretty much mirrors my own thinking. Looked at from a business model the ‘front of house’ service in our parish churches is, by and large, pretty appalling.

  26. Nektarios says:

    This reasons Fr. Robert Barron raises from a survey has been known not only in the Catholic Church but all of the mainstream Christian Churches for a very long time now. But the will to do anything and to follow up on the obvious reasons he mentioned and there are others, have been let slip. When a religious institution uses the congregation as pew fodder or cash -cow such a Church has lost its way and the people sensing this will elect to vote with their feet.

  27. Nektarios says:

    David Smith

    Pew fodder is an old term where priests, ministers, pastors, tele-evangelists and the like are not serving or feeding the flock, rather the other way around where the flock are serving them, usually financially. Where the clergy think you are all dumb and don’t know or understand anything spiritually, in fact, stealing your God-given gifts to themselves they think.
    Where one is chained up in their stall, to listen to and be fed with so much rubbish, lording it over the household of God. Like dumb animals, we are led into thinking this is normal and how the Church was set up. This is what the term pew fodder means.
    Thankfully people are waking up

    • milliganp says:

      Nektarios, I think you confuse cock-up with conspiracy. 60 years ago many churches had ‘pay, pray, obey’ models that required little from the clergy but to confirm beliefs, social practices and morals that were widely accepted in the broader society yes we had ‘prostitutes and sinners’ but the majority did not question that sin was sin.
      Today, the majority live in a society where ‘everything goes’ and, rather than trying to be a counter-sign, many clergy choose not to disturb people from the social norms. Because of the power of modern social thinking, to disturb it requires either strident contradiction -the way of traditionalist, or powerful persuasion which can only happen when trust has been established – to genuinely become an ‘Alter Christus’. This requires time, bit also a plan which might require preaching outside the flow of the Lectionary.
      On your final point, as Robert Baron points out, most who ‘wake up’ leave the church and any practice of religion – very few become born-again Christians.

      • Nektarios says:


        There is so much that can be said here more than space allows.

        You wrote: “Today, the majority live in a society where ‘everything goes’ and, rather than trying to be a counter-sign, many clergy choose not to disturb people from the social norms. Because of the power of modern social thinking, to disturb it requires either strident contradiction -the way of traditionalist, or powerful persuasion which can only happen when trust has been established – to genuinely become an ‘Alter Christus’. This requires time, but also a plan which might require preaching outside the flow of the Lectionary.”

        I think we are all very well aware of the liberal tendency that is the wrong name they ascribe to themselves, for they are the direct opposite of a true liberal-minded person.

        Meeting the social media strident person, trying to pass themselves off as liberal is just a recipe for a very loud argument. What is also a problem with social media liberals they care not a jot for facts, just their agenda, for many on social media are grinding their own axe. Looking at it more closely, one finds their philosophy is all tied up with the manipulating Globalists and Chi- Comms (Chinese Communist Party), who have no problem it seems to every form of lying and deceit. The modus operandi is very dangerous, anti-human, anti-Christian and truly Satanic.

        Finally, your statement is not based in fact. Those who are truly born-again Christians that are also leaving Churches. But birds of a feather flock together.
        One can hardly preach outside the lectionary these days or in the street without great difficulty, Background checks, Police permission to hold any outdoor meeting PC has seen to that.

    • David Smith says:

      Thank you, Nektarios.

      That there was a term for it suggests that at least some concerned people saw it as organizational and personal rot. That, at least, is encouraging.

  28. ignatius says:

    Much simpler still, and less strident than Nektarios’ dark fantasy is the point that English Catholic churches simply aren’t set up for sociability.We do not encourage talking in church while to brave the tea room afterwards you would need strong perseverance and a very thick skin because most likely no one will speak to you.

    • Nektarios says:


      I don’t indulge in ‘dark fantasy’ but what you claim for the Cof E which may in part be true, is also true in the Catholic Church and all the other denominations too. But on what you have written, above, what do you suggest is the way forward?

  29. Nektarios says:

    This song /video, the lyrics will have us facing reality and the questions of today, and asks many questions. Brilliant!

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