The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

“It’s the general mediocrity of Catholic preaching that leaves me depressed…”

A priest (and homiletics instructor) sent this my way, and it’s well worth pondering — one man’s reflections on the art of preaching:

Listening to sermons at Mass, one often thinks, like the professor in the Narnia Chronicles, “What do they teach in school?” Not that the sermons are necessarily all that bad, but they are rarely as good as they would be had the priest been better taught. It’s like listening to a fiddler who hits most of the notes but doesn’t know how to keep time — because, one suspects, he learned the fiddle from an accordion player.


I am not going to deliver the usual lament about preaching (often delivered, a friend reminded me, by lapsed or lukewarm Catholics). When I was an Episcopalian, friends worried that I might become a Catholic always brought up the liturgy and the preaching. Even then this struck me as irrelevant, but they saw the two bodies as brands in competition, and so thought that I was about to spend the same amount of money for a bashed-up Saturn as I would for a perfectly maintained Mercedes. Why endure old Father O’Shea when you can sit at the feet of the Rev. Canon Horace Q. Swizzlestick III, D.D.?

But in my experience of almost eight years as a Catholic, I have rarely heard a genuinely bad sermon, and I have heard a few very good ones. Even some of the most ineptly composed and delivered sermons included some striking insight that redeemed the mess. Perhaps I’ve been blessed — or maybe my standards are low — but I haven’t found Catholic preaching to be the horror show I was led to expect, even by some Catholics. (I hear horror stories, and I’m sure they’re true, but I cannot tell any.)


That said, most sermons could be much better than they are. The content is either much better than the presentation or the presentation much better than the content (rare is the preacher who does well in both, but not so rare is the preacher who does badly in both); the treatment of Scripture is almost always inadequate; too little is said to connect the Scriptures with the Catholic Faith; and the insights are usually left unconnected to real life, or are connected abstractly and moralistically.

Some priests only deal with the text when they’re trying to explain it away. Many stick to certain all-purpose themes — “living in community” and “being Christ to the world” are two I’ve heard several times — that produce vague and generic conclusions, which tend to be the same conclusion you heard last week, and in the weeks before that. One rarely gets the feeling that the words of the Word matter. I have heard sermons that offered a deeper, more exacting analysis of a popular song than of the Scripture readings of the day.


Sitting in the pew, I often feel that the priest means well but simply doesn’t see any need actually to prepare his sermon. The false starts, the hesitations, the repetitions, the truisms, the lack of any specific reference to the lessons, the conclusion that just trails off — these all suggest that he spent at most 15 minutes working on the ten to twelve minutes he would be speaking. That is more than a little insulting.

Though I don’t have any horror stories to tell, it’s the general mediocrity (in both the dictionary and popular senses of the word) of Catholic preaching that leaves me depressed. It could easily be much better. The basic skills of preaching are not that hard to teach, or to learn.

On the other hand, Protestant preaching is not necessarily that much better. Since the sermon is so central to their worship, these bodies choose their ordinands partly on their ability to preach and train them hard to do so, but still, this only takes them so far. If you listen to a randomly selected Southern Baptist minister and Catholic priest, the odds are about six to one that the first will be the better preacher, but this isn’t true across the Protestant board.

Visit the link for the rest and see what you think.

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posted February 24, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Protestant ministers not only study the art and science of preparing sermons, there are lots of books available to them with sermon prompts and help. Maybe priests should look into the available resources.

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St Edwards Blog

posted February 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm

I just read a similar post at Googling God.As I said there, I am blessed to have a good homilist as our pastor. In our neck of the woods, basically one priest/pastor per church, so it is him, period.I always ask these questions of a homily… Did it teach me something? Propel me further into my faith? Did it embrace rather than shame me into understanding what I so often don’t want to understand? Things like that.For many years when I was in a suburb in the NY Archdiocese, I heard some really criminally bad homilies. It never stopped me from being part of a community, but it always made me sad.Fran

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Martin the Rationalist

posted February 24, 2009 at 8:37 pm

You said: “On the other hand, Protestant preaching is not necessarily that much better. Since the sermon is so central to their worship….”If there is a label I should wear it is Protestant, however I question the validity of the above statement. The problem I have with the majority of Protestant “worship” is that it fails the biblical test for worship. Based on my nearly 25 years experience, most Protestant sermons during worship is merely an evangelistic endeavor. I believe that preaching should be as much a part of worship offered to the Triune God, as a prayer during worship. I’ve written some papers on the subject, preached and lectured, but not well accepted. Thanks for your comments.

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posted February 24, 2009 at 9:33 pm

My wife and I often discuss the sermon after mass. It is amazing how often different phrases and words strike us in different ways. I find that a lot depends on how well we prepare for the liturgy of the word prior to the sermon and also where our heart, soul, and mind are during the mass. What may seem to be a bad sermon, may actually speak very profoundly to someone else in the pews.

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Diane M. Korzeniewski, OCDS

posted February 26, 2009 at 5:12 am

Excellent analysis. I didn’t realize how banal preaching was throughout my 46 years of life until I walked through the doors of Assumption Grotto in Detroit and heard a solid homily back in 2005. I’ve been there ever since and there is never a dull moment. One thing that struck me, aside from the fact that my ears were hearing words from the pulpit not heard before (sin, mortification, last four things, sacrifice, etc.), was the heavy reference to the Fathers, Doctors and saints. Similarly, Church documents were often cited, as well as quotes from the Holy Father and others recently in the news.A good example of the kind of preaching I hear on a regular basis, was my pastor’s this past Sunday, which in the Extraordinary Form was Quinquagesima Sunday. He spoke on….gasp….concupiscence! I mean, when have you last heard a priest talk about fallen human nature and how to deal with it?Considering that when I first went to an introductory theology class at the local seminary in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I was told that Adam and Eve were just fictional. Heh! So much for original sin. If this is what priests were being taught, is it any wonder why we have not heard “concupiscence” from the pulpit?Thankfully, Sacred Heart Major Seminary made a solid turnaround shortly after under then Auxiliary Bishop Allen Vigneron who was the rector. Gone were the fuzzy theology books like McBrien’s “Catholicism” which was being used in my class.

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