Are we now too impatient to receive even good preaching? Should we, therefore, dumb preaching down?
Those who are familiar with the Fathers of the Church know all too well that their sermons were often pretty long, well over an hour. Think of St. John Chrysostom! He wasn’t the man with the “golden mouth” for nothing. What about St. Ambrose whose preaching (not brief) helped Augustine in his conversion? Augustine himself could preach for 2.5 to 3 hours at a shot. We are the richer for it.
Of course, people in those days were far more aural and oral. They were used to listening and talking. Many of the listeners were illiterate or barely literate, but they could follow well the skilled orator. They did not have screens and soundbites and tweets. Oratory was their delight. They could reel off stories, songs, poems, for hours. They did not have moving images with rapid, mesmerizing, flash-like edits. They did not have nano-span attention problems.
In the new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium the Pope says that sermons/homilies should be brief:
138. The homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It is a distinctive genre, since it is preaching which is situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration; hence it should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. [Si la homilía se prolongara demasiado, afectaría dos características de la celebración litúrgica: la armonía entre sus partes y el ritmo.] A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, [like many of the greatest, influential preachers in history] but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention.
Look. It is obvious that a sermon that is too long is not good. Why? Because – try to follow – it is too long. That is to say, it is long to the point where it is too long, it is excessively long, unduly long, inordinately long, overly long. Who will disagree that that is not good?
So, how long is too long? You will respond that “It depends on the circumstances.” Yes, it depends on the day, current events, the feast observed, the nature of the congregation, the skills of the preacher. As I mentioned above, Christians of yore could follow the long sermons of skilled orators. Skilled.
Lots of factors, no?
If nothing else, Francis’ exhortation (that’s what the genre of the document is) should prompt clerics to prepare more diligently and to hone their skills. Any and every preacher can improve through elbow grease and grace.
Francis also says that sermons should not be like “lectures”. I assume that that doesn’t mean that they should be like classroom presentations. Fine. What should they be like? Should they be like the pious fervorini of Italian preaching of the 19th century, all tears and eye-rolling, pulpit-slamming and gestures? Francis himself seems to adhere to a kind of non-Marxist “liberation” theology that is rooted in popular piety. So, should his little sermonettes each day be the model? Should his prepared pieces for greater feasts? Sermons/homilies must also instruct the faithful. They need to aim at deepening not only our fides qua creditur, the Faith by which we believe, but also the fides quae creditur, the Faith in which we believe.
While we must insist that not every sermon can say everything about some point of the Faith, deepening the Faith requires a little time and patience.
So, how long is too long? Who knows?
Again, I am faced with a paragraph that leads me to say: “What is Francis talking about?”
In any event, given your circumstances (see above), how long is too long? Turning the sock inside out, how long is “just right”?