Improving Catholic homilies

Preaching better homilies

It is common knowledge that the homilies offered in many Catholic parishes (how can one say this charitably?) often have a lot of room for improvement.

The quality of Catholic homilies, of course, varies widely according to the specific parish and priest involved.

I have actually heard some of the best sermons of my life in Catholic Masses. But I have also heard plenty of lousy homilies too.

So, if the common view on Catholic homilies has at least some basis in fact, it can only strengthen the Church if those responsible for offering homilies consider ways to improve them.

As a sociologist of religion who has studied and reflected upon church meetings and sermons for many years, I suggest the following, which I think can significantly improve the quality of many Catholic homilies.

Focus on one point

One of the main reasons that homilies and sermons are bad is because they are unfocused; they try to make too many points at once. If so, that problem is readily fixable. How?

Before addressing this problem, let us remember as background that success here is not defined by the homily itself, but about how hearers are formed by homilies—their practical effectiveness in communicating truth.

It does not matter that a homily is amusing or elegant or theologically astute or anything else in and of itself.

Preaching is not ultimately about the homily or the person giving it. It is rather about effective communication by which the Church forms God’s people in truthful and good ways.

Ideally, the homily and homilist should become somewhat transparent, so that the message of the homily stands out and impresses itself upon the hearers in a way that forms them well.

That said, how can the problem of unfocused homilies be fixed?

The answer, I think, is to focus the homily on one and only one really important point.

Way too many sermons (both Catholic and Protestant) have, as I have said, little focus. They often ramble about, saying various and sundry things that are more or less true and may be quite admirable.

But, having listened for fifteen, thirty, or forty-five minutes, those in the pew end up walking away with little clue about what the speaker actually said.

Much is spoken with minimal impact.

Everything we know about human cognition and learning tells us that both operate with severe limits, even for smart people.

People can only absorb so much information and engage so many challenges at one time. Continue reading to find out what a successful homily looks like.

Image: University of Notre Dame

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