The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

The state of Catholic preaching

The sage Msgr. Charles Pope has a few thoughts about what goes on (and doesn’t) up in the pulpit:

pulpit-large.jpgWhen I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.


1. The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching. The old “say it in seven” rule needs to be re-evaluated.


2. I think many confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences: “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better” (Now please stand for the creed).” This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.

3. Teaching is often lacking. When I ask Catholics who have gone on to the “Word churches” why they like the preaching there more they usually say it is because the minister teaches the Word of God. Perhaps he shows the stages of the faith journey of a biblical character, or Five aspects of a healthy marriage from Ephesians 5. Maybe he expounds on the Four Disciplines of Devoted Discipleship in Matthew and so forth. But the Word of God is both taught, and applied to life in memorable ways.


There are some other reasons at his link. Take a look.

My two cents: I’ve never had a Catholic tell me they left the church because the preaching was bad. It’s usually something else: a problem over contraception, or divorce, or a wedding, or a callous remark by a priest at a wake. (You want to know what a lot of people dislike about preaching? Constant and insistent pleas for money.)

And there is this: just because someone is ordained to preach doesn’t mean that they should. This goes for deacons, bishops and priests. Some just don’t do it very well. Others dislike doing it. A sizable number of clergy just don’t have the time to pray over scripture and prepare properly.   (Someone in the sacristy once asked me how long it takes me to prepare a homily and I said, “I dunno.  Four or five hours a week.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s not.”   A priest who heard that laughed.  “Good grief.  I could never imagine doing that,” he said.)     

I’m increasingly coming to favor the idea of qualified lay people being given the opportunity to preach.  Being able to preach effectively is both a gift and a skill — and not all the ordained have it.  A ministry of preaching would attract people who have those talents, and also give the people in the pews a fresh perspective on the scripture. 
Who knows?  It might also keep people coming back.   
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posted March 18, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Deacon Greg, preaching about money has very little to do with people leaving the Church. When people receive a message of truth, when their kids get a religious education and quality fellowship experience, when the are part of a community rather than a passive bystander, then they stay. They get engaged and parish life is part of their family reality. If more preachers in our Church were not affraid of the Gospel message of stewarding God’s gifts, we would be much better off. Peter

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posted March 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm

No one should be coming to Mass solely for the homily anyway. They are primarily there to worship God and celebrate and receive Christ in the Eucharist.
Most people I hear from left the Church because they could not adhere to the Church’s teaching on the indissolubilty of marriage.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Dcn Greg I agree with you fully up until the part of lay preachers (assuming you mean at the mass, which I think would be against Cannon law). Not only have I never known anyone to leave over “bad preaching”, most don’t want ANY preaching. From all that I’ve seen, most leave over birth control,divorce, and imporper marriage situations; in other words, when being a Catholic gets hard.
While I’m a huge fan of lay preachers, I would never want to see them at the mass. Most of the problem, I think, is that many at the mass don’t understand the mass; consequently, they are usually bored
I am a big fan of lay preachers, just not at mass. While we all don’t have access to Scott Hahn or Peter Kreeft at local after hour activity centers, more and more Catholic apoogists and great speakers are making the scene. For those who really want them, they aren’t very hard to find.
I also agree that not all have the gift to preach.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 1:16 pm

There is currently a provision that allows for lay “reflections.” The priest or deacon give a very brief homily and then invite a member of the laity to offer a reflection. The conditions in which this is permissible are somewhat narrowly defined, but there is already the potential.
But beyond that, I am a fan of the reintroduction of the sub-diaconate. As a minor order, they are not ordained, so they could be both men and women. But there is a discipline and institution to the role – it could require a vow, a discipline like the LOTH, etc. I think this is something that could be used to help regulate all lay ministries: extraordinary ministers, lectors, catechists, and perhaps even the introduction of “preachers.”

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Your Name

posted March 18, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Having experienced a very powerful conversion experience as a guest at a Catholic Retreat five years ago I have since converted. I have spent a great deal of time learning my new faith, including the teachings of the Church’s early Fathers. The more I learn the more my faith grows. I am just in awe of the lack of understanding of the Catholic faith by a vast majority of the members of both my parish and most others I have become familiar with. They are, to put it politely, clueless as to what is going on at Mass. We locally are gifted with a superb homilist as our parish priest. While I don’t always agree with him (you’re going to Hell if you don’t recycle… not exactly , but pretty close…)he truly cares and prepares for his weekly homily. He believes it mostly useless to teach Catholic men the fundementals fo the Faith. I strongly disagree with him. Most of the men I come across in my parish are starving for spiritual direction and understanding of their faith. They want MEAT and the Church continues to give them watered down milk. Small groups of the faithful all across America are coming together to take their faith journey into their own hands. Hopefull priests will help and encourage them rather than see it as a threat to their perceived role in the parish.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I’ve often felt that we shouldn’t force those who don’t want to preach (or perhaps can’t preach) to preach. I’ve hoped that the rise of the deaconate would help with that. Although deacons do much more than preach, I wonder if we need a group of “wandering deacons”, not attached to a particular parish, whose focus is to preach at the different parishes. If every parish doesn’t have a talented homilist, at least people could get some occasionally good preaching.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Re: SUB-DIACONATE. It was supressed as a separate minor order but is still present (in a sense) in the installed acolytes. See the Vatican document supressing minor orders and instituting the installed ministires of lector and acolyte. In this docuemtn the local bishops are given the option of naming the installed acolytes “subdeacons”. HOWEVER while not hoyl orders, installed ministers of lector and acolyte are resticred to males.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm

There is a very big element that was not mentioned here. The reason that the ordained man preaches is precisely because of the grace of ordination! The man is “sent” to preach and it is when he cooperates with the grace of Holy Spirit that God’s message is delivered. I would speculate that the problem is that many ordained men are not spending time in prayer and reflection with the Sacred Scriptures and listening in silence to the Lord as to what HIS message is. Yes,the Lord’s message ultimately gets filtered through the man and his experience, but that is precisely why God called him. Remember, God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the one He calls.
The other issue is that preaching the homily is only half of the issue. The other half is that the faithful must be open and receptive to God’s message.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

An old friend of mine is a retired Baptist minister. He was given some wise advice by one of his profs as he left seminary.
“There have been many a good ten minute sermons preached in an hour.”
It was advice he took to heart during his career.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I think if there was a greater bent within the Catholic faith tradition of guided bible study – there would be a greater opportunity to explore the journeys various characters in the scriptures have made in their faith.
In my experience, opportunities like this are very limited in Catholic parishes and it’s sad. For the Bible is ‘our’ book – yet traditionally Catholics are not known for their study of scripture on an in depth basis.
I think it’s getting better but my own parish for example offers nothing accessible to me, a stay at home mom with young children. The only groups they offer are in the mornings :(
I follow a great online study at and find that when I hear scriptures at Mass, and the teaching by the priest on them – I’m much more familiar with the context and therefore can glean and absorb more of the sermon’s message.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Deacon Greg:
This is a topic you periodically come back to.
We hear on a regular basis that Catholic priests are not good “preachers.” Some are excellent and some and not so excellent. In some ways, it is an art form — how to put together a talk and then giving it.
I see the potential in many young priests but sometimes it does not bloom properly because the pastor may not be very good himself.
Yes, our priests do not focus on the Bible. Many make scant reference to it. That is a shame. The homilies that I ahve learned the most from are those that take the Gospel and weave it in and out of the Old and New Testament. It is amazing how they are inter-related.
Msgr. Pope is an excellent homilist.
Finally, people do not leave the Church because of a bad sermon. That is just an easy excuse.

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Art Genova

posted March 18, 2010 at 6:32 pm

It’s been my experience that most who say they are Catholic, have never ever opened the Bible! They do not know the scripture, and do not strive to know Jesus Christ! I have attended a couple of Lutheran services and was very impressed with their 1/2 hour to 45 minutes of Preaching.
I think that Catholics would be bored to tears if our Priests did a similar thing! I would welcome it!
I agree that most “Catholics” have left the Church when it became “hard” for them to follow the rules. Either on Divorce, co-habitation, Gay Marriage, or some other teaching of the Catholic Church.
Some, I’m sure have left because many many of our Priests are very liberal and do not present our faith in proper context and form!
A Priest at a church I “left” told us from the Alter, that although Abortion is Intrinsically EVIL, one could still Vote for Barak Obama even though he was going to revoke the “Mexico City Accord”, and push “FOCA” through, because he was going to do other “good works” for the poor!
I talked to him about this after Mass, and he stood by his guns, so I now attend another Catholic Church!
Father Corapi is the best example of a “Good” Priest!!!
I’ve watched all his tv spots, and listened to his 48 cds on the Catechism of the Catholic Church!
And, Not everything he and the Church tells me is something that I like to hear, but it is something that I “NEED” to Hear!
I’m very glad God chose me to be a member of his flock!
God bless!

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posted March 18, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I agree that if the Word is truly broken open and contains the four elements that you listed above, I am much more captivated and charged to go through the week. It also brings more passion and intention to the rest of mass when the preaching truly is great. We all have the charge to worship, but the better the LEADER of worship, the easier it is for the congregation to truly dedicate themselves to the mass.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm

One reason priests can’t preach wellis that they are so isolated from life; they don’t know what it is to worry about putting bread on the table or to provide for and rear a family with all of its attendant problems, not to mention the workplace…..priests live in a bubble…therefore it is difficult for them to open the word in a way people can relate to

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posted March 19, 2010 at 9:18 am

I do not think that 7-10 minutes for a Catholic sermon is to short. My priest gives a very good sermon and it does not bore me or lose me, he does not go on and on so long that you lose what he is preaching somewhere along the line. I have heard other sermons in different churches and the priest just goes on for so long that people get bored and some of what they are talking about does not have anything to do with the gospel that was just read. If people are leaving the church is surely is not because of the sermon. Something else is going on in their lives and it is a poor excuse.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 9:28 am

Thanks for letting me vent my frustration with the way things are today regarding catholocism, Mass, priests, etc. I have very mixed feelings about whether or not I should feel “guilty” for not persevering and sitting through a Mass each time when the priests invariably have extremely limited skills in speaking English – the native language of most of the parishioners in my area. I understand there are few religious vocations in this day and age, so priests are ‘imported’ to U.S. parishes … overnight, our parish has changed completely – long time parish priests disappear, and we now have every priest in our parish from other countries – Korea, Africa, India, etc. These priests will repeatedly mumble and go on and on for an hour, yelling or whispering, leaving the parishioners straining to understand, and it is so draining and exasperating to leave the Mass feeling like you could get more essence of Christ’s teaching and example from a TV evangelist (like Joel O’Steen for example) than from your own parish priest … abd then there are the politics … and I do mean the governmental politics, which should NOT be inserted into a sermon at Mass. Separation of Church and State, remember! Also, I too have had to deal with priests who ‘live in a bubble’ and have no clue about what life is really like outside of their environment … how difficult it is for people today to juggle all of the demands necessary to just live … I have gotten arrogant remarks from priests at confession if I say that I truly couldn’t get to the Mass, which is infrequent, and was made to feel like a criminal … The criminal is the man sitting behind the wall judging the confessor … and I say ‘man’ because Christ surely would never treat a confessor with such disdain … While I would never turn away from Christ, I find it more and more difficult to continue this unfulfilling and unsatisfying mode of worship.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

Mary, I think I was once where you were, only coming to relize I was clueless about the mass. I suggust that you read Scott Hahn’s “The Lambs Supper.” At the very least, read the reviews on Amazon, if for no other reason, to know that you are not alone when it comes to being “bored” at mass. Until we understand it, it makes sense that most of us will be bored, Once we understand it, most of us still there in awe!
Please don’t leave for Olsteen. I don’t know if you have noticed, but there is no CROSS from where he preaches, consequently, nothing more than “feel good” whatever, certainly not Christianity.
I also suggest that you go to Father Corapi’s website and order a tape or two about the mass or especially the crucifix. No matter how boring any mass could ever get, with God’s grace we should all never want to take our eyes off of the crucifix, which is on the altar at every mass.
I promise you, if you take the time to understand the mass, you will not only see everything from a new perspective, but fall in love with the mass.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Fortunately the pastor at our parish takes time to prepare his sermon and is respectful of the sacredness of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I think any priest who falls back on the “seven and out” rule or strives to have the entire service completed in 50 minutes is looking for excuses, a cop out. If the presider at the Mass has so little respect for the awsome privelege and responsibility for which he has been chosen from his community, how can he expect his congregation to begin to comprehend the most sacred mystery to which we are invited to participate each and evry time are at Mass?

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posted March 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm

To those who are “bored” with Mass and can’t understand the foreign priests that have to be imported because our self-centered society and families who discourage vocations have left us without vocations-When was the last time you got on your knees and prayed for vocations to the priesthood? How many priests have come from your families????

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