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


Tom Leith said...

How `bout the Homily Delivered to the Wrong Congregation. Every community has its own "characteristic mode of failing" (usually more than one, but never mind, the point stands I think) -- even Right Enough homilies that address the characteristics of a different congregation are Bad Homilies.


Dr. Thursday said...

What you are trying to catalog might be called the pathology of sin, since a bad homily is nothing more than a sin on the priest's part. Certainly it is sin; a mother is cautious about feeding her children; she does not give her babies poison. A bad homily is far worse than poison. (But then we've been told about the hired hand who runs away when the wolf comes, and also about how we don't give our sons scorpions when they ask for a fish.)

There are likely MORE diseases of homily than there are physical ailments, since the domain of possibility is metaphysical and hence larger than the strictly physical infections, injuries and diseases possible to the human body.

However for simplicity, you might start with the possible diseases of the body, and draw the analogies in that way. For example:

It is clear from our Lord's comments about "the smallest letter of the Law" and from our study of cancer (which may arise from as little as one letter in our DNA being misspelled) that heresy is cancer.

Also, there are formal errors (akin to genetic disorders) - some of these are properly dealt with under teratology, or the study of "monsters". I heard one of these recently: the poor man actually said that Jesus used "the metaphor of punishment" which could never happen to us since "God is loving". That is a teratoidal homily, a monster of an error, and extremely dangerous. After all, cancer is not infectious, but error is.

Some of the ones you propose are diseases of one form or another, lesser ones like hay fever or the common cold, or more serious ones like pneumonia or tetanus. They are unfortunately "communicated" by poor formation (in the seminary) before ordination or by poor episcopal care afterwards. Others are like trichinosis, caused by consumption of foul material (What DOES the priest read? Aquinas and Bellarmine or... something else?) And there are diseases of defiency, where the priest isn;t getting enough of the vitamins he needs - spiritual and inspiring material, like the lives of the saints; even good and uplifting literature that is not "Catholic" in an obvious sense is healthy.

Some are like poison ivy: annoying though they are only dangerous in certain cases, when there is some other weakness.

Others are akin to accidents, falling off a ladder and breaking one's leg, or so forth - they take some repair work to correct, and sometimes one never recovers to a completely satisfactory state. Still others are defects like those of age, such as cataracts or presbycusis (that is age-related hearing loss - a curious word to bring up in the context of "presbyters"!) - these require some external correction as the defect is beyond repair.

The examples may be prolonged; one could indeed get out a medical text and begin, but it will be a very lengthy task.

I am neither a physician nor a moral theologian (I deal with "sorting" of data,) but I know of an actual remedy, one proposed by the Physician On Calvary. I would propose that you request the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be offered for YOUR priest. If you can't bring yourself to ask him to do this directly, go to another parish and have it done there, or write to the missions - there are plenty of places where priests wil be glad to receive the stipend and offer their intentions as you request. In other words, "put your money where your mouth is" and use the medicine Christ gave us. It is far better than antibiotics or vitamins in curing and protecting against moral diseases - and it is effective for both laity and for clergy. The dosage is one a day, that's easy to remember, and be sure that you and your family are covered. It's supernatural Health Care, you know.

Remember, priests need priests, and priests need the Mass. Always remember to pray for YOUR priest when you are at his Mass.

The Unknown Poet said...

The other temptation for us in the pews is to nit-pick about the homiliy.

For example, last week's Gospel was on "How many people will be saved?" The priest I heard (at a parish I'd never been to) did a very good job on this Gospel, but left out any mention of hell. He gave a Catholic homily filled with good theology, but avoided the "wailing and gnashing of teeth" which is prominent is Our Lord's discourse. Not wrong, but not right enough.

The priest said, rightly, that we can not assume that people striving to seek God and do His will, even if they show no external signs of membership in His Church, are not saved. But the essence of that Gospel reading is, "Strive to enter by the narrow gate," in other words, focus on your own salvation, and realize salvation is not to be taken for granted, and the price for failure is eternal.

The priest did point out that if Jesus had answered the question superficially, we would be the worse for it. How many are saved? Ninety percent! Well, then I need not bother to seek sanctification; I'm certainly as good as 90% of my neighbors. How many are saved? Ten percent! Oh, dear! I'll never hit that mark. I might as well give up. By answering the question as He did, Our Lord offered a grace the questioners did not expect.

So a mixed bag homily, really. But to nit-pick does no good. Such criticism of homiletics is only appropriate when heterodoxy is evident, which is indeed a communicable disease. Otherwise, we become critics, not worshippers.

On the other extreme, when soon-to-be Blessed John Henry Newman gave homilies, they were stunning, and always challenging; though, truth be told, a touch of the modern softness and focus on mercy would have helped Newman.

As our rotund writer friend points out, much of the Catholic Faith is a healthy balancing act between two extremes, heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, and all the other paradoxes of God. Such a balance is a homeostasis, Doctor!