Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Guide to Bad Homilies

I had posted this before on my other blog, but here it is again.


I'd like some input from our readers to help identify the features of what makes a bad homiliy. This way, next time you hear a bad homily, you can say, "Oh, that was a #3 on the Official Guide".

So, here are some features I've identified so far ...


This is the homiliy we usually hear in our suburban parishes. Love = quiescene / Fighting for what you love = evil. If this theme describes what you're hearing ... it might be a bad homily.


Beware of homilies that start with anecdotes about cute crap. "A boy at camp whose mother sent him cookies ..." "There was a woman who found she had a terminal illness ..." Anything with a Reader's Digest flavor to it is probably from www.homilies-r-us.com, which is what I call the clearing house for shallow thinking sermons that fit easily into a template. If your priest sounds like he's beginning his talk with a canned anecdote ... it might be a bad homily.

3. DON'T GET IT WRONG, BUT DON'T GET IT RIGHT ENOUGH. This is very common. The priest doesn't say anything wrong or heretical per se, but he makes a huge implication about the nature of the Faith in what he leaves out of his homily, in what he does not say.

So, for example, if speaking on Our Lord's commission to the apostles at the end of the Gospel of John ("Feed my sheep" "Someone will lead you, Peter, where you do not want to go"), a bad homilist will focus on how important it is that we must care for the poor, and leave it at that. True enough, but what about Our Lord's promise to Peter that in feeding his sheep and tending his flock he will be persecuted? There's an edge to this reading that a bad homilist will always cut away, giving us the gelded interpretation.

This is akin to discussing "King Lear" and saying, "a daugther should be nice to her father". Well, true, but that sure leaves a lot out.

If your homilist Doesn't Get it Wrong, but Doesn't Get it Right Enough ... it might be a bad homily.


If your homilist tells more jokes than Heny Youngman with a fiddle ... it might be a bad homily.


A quote from a homily I once heard: "My mother suffered. My grandmother suffered. My grandmother made my mother suffer. My father suffered. My father made my grandmother suffer. My grandmother made my father and my mother suffer. Our house was filled with suffering." Note to homilist: we are not your therapists, and that's way too much personal information.

The corrolary to "It's All about Me" is "It's All about the Musicians". And we all know what that message sounds like.

So, if your priest or deacon sees the Gospel as a Rorschach of his dysfunctional background ... it might be a bad homily.


This infects all of the liturgy and not just the homily. It's the mistaken attitude that going ... really ... slowly ... means you're being ... really ... pious.

If the homily and the Lord's Prayer both take the same amount of time, 40 to 45 minutes each ... it might be a bad homily.


If anyone other than a priest or deacon is invited to talk in place of the homily and solicits contributions ... it might be a bad homily.


This homily is used for school assemblies, eulogies of the retiring but still living, and for that dreaded monster, Catholic Schools Week. It consists of praising everything about the person or institution being honored, when in reality the subject of the praise is typically a despicable, hateful, machiavellian creep.

If Principal Power-Grabber is praised to no end, even after teaching your kids pop-Buddhism and no-math ... it might be a bad homily.


Any time the priest says, "The alleged author of the Gospel of John" or "The Q Source for this reading" or "scholars know this didn't really happen, but this was included to make a point" ... it might be a bad homily. You'd do better watching a Discovery Channel special.


One of the most insidious of homilies - speak clearly, make your points, don't commit any of the errors above - but leave the pews listless with a sense of pointlessness and despair. It takes a really effective subversive to pull off this one, but I've seen it done.

Well, that's my list so far, but it needs to be expanded and codified, so I ask humbly for your input.
Labels: Homiletics

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Action of Grace

“I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” wrote Flannery O’Connor.

This is hard for readers to grasp, for O’Connor’s stories are so shocking, violent, and disturbing that we wonder how they can be about grace. This is because we see grace as being a “nice thing”, like quietly saying grace before meals, like the “graceful” moves of a figure skater, like the “social graces”, which are about soothing and calming people and situations. We really believe the message of all the Scriptures is “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too.”

But the Grace of God is a man clothed in rags with a wild gleam in his eye eating locusts in the desert and warning his people to flee from the wrath to come. The Grace of God is the zeal of Phineas, who slew the Israelite and his wife who were flaunting God’s commands. The Grace of God is St. Paul, blinded, knocked down, humiliated.

When the hand of God reaches out to us, we usually see it as a disturbance in our otherwise orderly lives. We want to do things our way, and so we want no interference. We usually think of the strident atheist as railing against God, but in fact we are the ones railing against God quietly when we take the awe of Him out of our parish architecture and when we castrate our homilies and when we gay-up our liturgical music; we rail against God when we choose a life devoted to nothing but bourgeois comfort, when we placate our lusts with private porn and shut out the silence with headphones and texting. We come to feel satisfied that grace is a predictable thing we can keep in a box, that God is a feeling we can turn on or off whenever we want, that the prophets are wrong, that zeal is a bit much, that St. Paul is best left ignored, that he’s a tad embarrassing.

Now here’s the surprising thing. When we invite God out of our lives in this way, He sometimes exercises a great Grace on us – by going. The Grace of God is not always an active thing. He is content to be passive, as passive as a good man hanging on a cross. He is content to give great Grace by removing His Grace.

And what happens then?

In Psalm 106:15 we read, “And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” In Hosea 4:10, “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply.” Isaiah 9:20, “On the right they will devour, but still be hungry; on the left they will eat, but not be satisfied.” These are three penetrating descriptions of the modern world, of people filled with every activity but never able to be made full by this activity, of people working to crawl out of the hole, but never being able to pay the debt, of never being able to say, “It is enough”, of people who have been given what they want - sterility.

It is a great grace for God to remove His Grace and show us how empty we are without Him.

But then when the active Grace comes, when the great gift is given … we cry out, “Mountains and hills fall on us!” and we flee, as if from the wrath to come.