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Boring long sermons? Tell the priest!

By Susan Gately - 03 July, 2015

Homiletic directory gives guidelines for preaching but the most important thing is 'authenticity of preaching' says Director of Priory Institute, Fr John Littleton.

Pope Francis giving a sermonPeople need to be honest in a gentle respectful way and tell their parish priest if there are problems with the sermon, Fr John Littleton, Director of the Priory Institute in Tallaght, has said.

From personal experience he finds that Irish people are shy about coming up to a priest and giving feedback on a sermon unless they are infuriated as happened occasionally over the recent marriage referendum.

But often parishioners just talk among themselves or write to the bishop, he said.

“Most of us [priests] are able for a gentle critique. It’s good to say to a priest ‘I think you’re flogging a dead horse there Father’. This is particularly the case if criticism and encouragement on the good points are combined.”

“If he’s too long or can’t be heard, he needs to know that,” Fr Littleton told CatholicIreland.net.

The synod of bishops in 2008 was so exercised on the issue of homilies that it instructed the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to draw up guidelines to help priests.

The result of their work is the Homiletic Directory which came out last year. It is available in book form or at: http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/HomileticDirectory.pdf.

The Directory provides broad guidelines for Catholic preaching. The directory is in three parts.

Part one looks at the Homily in its liturgical setting.

Part 2 is titled ‘The Art of Preaching’ and it goes through the liturgical year – Easter, Lent, Advent, Christmas and Ordinary time.

It provides a “theoretical and liturgical background” to the scriptural texts.

The final part looks at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other post Vatican II sources have to say on the homily.

Fr Littleton says sermons are not meant to be about faith formation or doctrinal instruction.

“Some groups in the Church (lay people) argue that the Sunday homily is there to instruct people in the articles of the faith. But the real purpose is to celebrate the good news of the word of God for that congregation, in that time. So he needs to know the people and the local happenings.”

Homilies should absolutely not be used for talks about “parish accounts or an update on parish property”.

The Catholic Church only allows bishops, priests and deacons to preach “in a liturgical context”.

“I know from my teaching of theology that in any congregation there are going to be people who have theology degrees who have as much, if not more knowledge than the priest who is preaching. For that reason there is an obligation to prepare well,” he says.

His own rules in relation to sermon times are: daily Mass – 1.5 to 2 minutes.

“The word of God deserves to be broken and shared.”

On Sundays he keeps his sermons to 8 to 10 minutes.

He prefers not to use a text. “I’m engaging with people, looking at their faces. If I see they’re beginning to get tired, I wrap it up.”

By contrast young or inexperienced preachers often work from a text. The problem with this is if people lose interest, the preacher will still feel he has to get through it.

Praising the homilies of Pope Francis, he summarised his preaching as “simple, practical, authentic, encouraging, real and making a link between the word of God and being a follower of Jesus”.

Even if a priest is a poor communicator, says Fr Littleton, “what is most important is the authenticity and genuineness of his preaching. You can be a great orator but if you are not living the life it is an ’empty clanging symbol’.

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