ASK FATHER: Father’s sermons are simplistic

From a reader – QUAERITUR:

The priest in my parish seems to be a very decent and holy Man; but his homilies are super simplistic and boil down to being good and faithful. He also tells a minimum of two jokes per homily. Of course he is right about being good and faithful and his jokes are harmless and I’m sure well meaning. Plus he is on the front line and deserves slack; but I would love something deeper that could help me understand the readings better, understand the Church Fathers better or Sacred Tradition better…and help me learn to BECOME more good and faithful.

Any advice?? Do I just need to buck up and stop looking for perfection in the Mass, and just be glad that I’m back? Say the rosary? It doesn’t feel right to shop for Churches because I don’t like an aspect of it; and I’m sure the Enemy will direct me to spot something else to complain about in another parish anyway.

It is probably good advice to cut Father some slack.  There are, however, some positive steps one can take to help Father improve his homilies, if … if these steps are taken carefully. Very carefully.

Consider that Father might want to preach more substantive homilies.  It may be that he has in the past.  Then consider that he may have received letters and calls of complaint from parishioners. Thereafter, he may have decided to tread lightly, use humor, to deflect those complaints, lest the fill up his personnel file at the bishop’s office.

Yes, the local chancery will get letters and calls about priests’ homilies, and yes, they are often kept on file… for future use.

To start, you might get to know Father a little better. Without being weird stalker creep, seek him after Mass, thank him for offering Mass, and tell him something significant that you got from his homily – and not one of his jokes. “Father, my name is Eleutherius Witherspoon. I just wanted to thank you so much for offering the Holy Mass for us. I also wanted to say that point you made about the Holy Spirit appearing at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove was prefigured by the dove returning to the Ark signaling the end of the flood was very interesting – I plan on praying over that image this week.”

Over time, maybe invite Father out to a meal, or for coffee. Some priests love to do this, others, not so much, so don’t take offense if Father says no.

Once you’ve established some kind of rapport with him, you can share with him some of what you are reading to improve your own spiritual life. “Father, I just started reading these collected sermons of St. Augustine, or Fulton Sheen, or Bl. Columba Marmion.” If he shows an interest, offer to buy him a copy.

Try to avoid directly criticizing Father, since he probably gets enough of that. If he asks for your input, don’t be shy about giving it. Instead of un-asked-for criticism, offer him some comparison to your preaching heroes. “Father, I just got back from a business trip to England. Fr. Tim Finigan at Blackfen completely blew my socks off with his homily!”

In the meantime, while dealing with homilies that might not be heterodox or completely slipshod, pray. Say a prayer to the Holy Spirit as Father ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Offer a prayer to his guardian angel when he begins to preach. Ask the intercession of Sts. Anthony of Padua, Dominic, and John Chrysostom for your priest. Keep a rosary in your pocket or a finger rosary on, and if things get to befuddled, offer up a couple of decades during the homily, quietly. And, if the homilies aren’t providing you with the grist you need for your spiritual mill, spend some time after Mass reading some quality patristic commentaries on scriptures, or homilies by Doctors of the Church, or find some good priests who do podcasts of their homilies.

 

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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36 Responses to ASK FATHER: Father’s sermons are simplistic

  1. There’s also a wealth of excellent homilies available online. Some parishioners I know use them for family discussions during the ensuing week. Others use them for personal reflection. Sometimes the online homilies are more in-depth than what can be delivered during a typical Sunday Mass. Some websites also have question boxes for readers to submit questions/comments/etc. It’s a great use of the technology for the purposes of evangelization.

  2. MichaelD says:

    Thank You for this excellent advice, Father.

  3. MarkG says:

    >>>Yes, the local chancery will get letters and calls about priests’ homilies, and yes, they are often kept on file… for future use.
    Very petty and ungrateful on the part of people making such complaints.

  4. Phil_NL says:

    Also, keep in mind that it is very hard, even for an experienced priest I reckon, to talk for 10 minutes or longer in a way that keeps the intelligent and educated among the audience interested without loosing the ‘simpler folks’ along the way. It is possible to teach (and therefore also to preach) on different levels simultaneously, but it is quite hard, and extraordinarily hard to do it each week anew. Most end up somewhere in the middle, meaning the tails of the distribution (the very bright and the very slow) are getting a poor deal. Maybe this priest decided to err more on the lower side. And if that has become a habit, it might be hard to break it, even if after many delicate diplomatic nudges he decides that he wants to shift gears.

    MarkG: depends what the complaint is about, why it’s lodged, etc. Frankly, I recently stumbled on a moral dilemma: what if a priest, who notably deviates from approved texts every Mass he says, and mixes some language into the Canon that -at best- is only approved for masses with children, not to mention is skirting the boundaries of orthodoxy, ends up on a terna? I know one priest who fits that bill, and the guy is going places in his order. I have no reason to doubt his personal holiness or good intentions, but in all humility, I think he would be a disaster as a bishop. Personally, I simply try to avoid his monthly visit and let it be. But I wonder if a few more letters in the chancery’s filing cabinet might not benefit the Church in the long run. Even though it seems a negative, petty action taken in isolation, and I really have no appetite to write one

  5. lsclerkin says:

    This is very very good, Father. You just inspired me to thank Father in this way after daily Morning Mass and Sunday Mass.

  6. APX says:

    In the meantime, your reader may want to just look into reading the sermons of the Church Fathers (for the EF, there is actually a series of Fathers of the Church Sermons for every Sunday. Our previous priest used to use that for his sermons), or the saints. Even audiosancto can be helpful.

  7. brushmore says:

    I would love a simplistic homily compared to some that I have heard. I am all for cutting priests lots slack for their homilies as long as they don’t try to teach things that are against the Church’s teaching.

  8. Hans says:

    Excellent advice, Fr. Z, really thoughtful, though I hope Eleutherius (Mr. Witherspoon, that is) knew in advance you were going to use his name so publicly. I mean, imagine the trouble some people might find themselves in if it were learned that they craved substance (or even consubstance) in the Mass!

  9. Deirdre Mundy says:

    It actually *IS* possible to teach about the Church Fathers in your homilies while keeping them accessible to a general audience. I know this, because our current pastor manages to do it ALL THE TIME. My 10 year old and 8 year old enjoy and understand his homilies, yet he’s not simplistic– they’re just learning a lot about the patrimony of the Church and the symbolism of things like beeswax candles, for instance.

    I think he puts a lot of time and effort into his homilies, though. And that’s the key– if you want to be able to explain complex ideas for a general audience, you have to plan carefully and edit carefully.

    Instead of nagging your priest to give the sort of homilies you want, I’d suggest positive reinforcement– praise him when he DOES deliver a more organized or more in depth homily–let him know that someone is listening and appreciates his work…

    And also, be willing to accept that homilies may NOT be his forte— we expect our pastors to do so many different things, and no man alive can be good at all of them!

  10. RafqasRoad says:

    I can sympathise with this very much, having attended services in many, many churches during my teen and adult life from the most liberal of the liberal to pulpit-thumping protestant fundamentalist services (the likes of the late Pastor George Burnside and Brothers Standish back in my SDA days) similar during my ‘Anglican detox’ period and again within my past two years as a Catholic Christian (in both Eastern and Western Catholic Churches).

    My observations are these:

    First and foremost, being a pastor is hard, and I mean hard work

    In the Catholic Christian context the priest

    has the profoundly awesome, sobering and humbling task of

    consecrating the bloodless sacrifice at the altar
    being ‘in persona Christe’ (excuse spelling) within the confessional booth – the hard job of confessions from the priest’s point of view would fill a comments box but is a ‘side issue’ in terms of this topic thread)
    is not let off before 9AM and after 5PM five days a week but in effect is a priest 24/7 (think the battered wife or homeless man that in dire straights knocks on the rectory door at midnight, the call-out to the bedside of the dying, hospital visits, pastoral calls etc.)
    is called to comfort and counsel the bereaved, the grieving, the hurting.
    Is called to be a diplomat when dealing with those who were termed in my SDA days ‘Concerned Brethren’ or in Catholic Christian terms ‘Parish Police’ (you know the types) (either lib or uber-trad and always more Catholic than the Pope)
    Called to counsel the simple, educate the ignorant, be gentle and delicate with the sensitive and delicate souls in his parish
    put up with b*tching, griping and moaning from everyone who doesn’t like this, that or the other about how he discharges his role as shepherd of the flock
    be an essayist and thinker (all skills necessary for writing a homely – emagine it as writing a theology esay, even a short and comparatively simple one) every week, or even every day for those priests who include a homely in their daily mass).
    be on show (or is it ‘on trial’( in their parish church all the time by this I mean visible, viewable etc., not ‘showy’…though Fr. Z. turning up to his parish church of ‘St. Verity’s in his new Lotis Elphin…hmm…).

    I think I’ve made my point.

    Preaching is hard also. Not all pastors/priests are going to be electrifying preachers. some will, some won’t. Some will leave half the congregation in the dustcloud, others will be over-simplistic for fear of not delivering their point to those who are what may be termed ‘low information’ parishioners, or visitors, or drop-ins off the street etc.
    and some priests/pastors though satisfactory preachers may have their gifting elsewhere e.g. amazing confessors, excellent prayer-warriors, fantastic community-builders etc.

    Furthermore, a young priest only a year or two out from ordination will still need to grow into the stirrups, so to speak and may try to break the ice or even steady himself by a harmless joke or two injected into the sermon (though in my thinking this is risky because there will without a shadow of a doubt be someone in the congregation who finds such distinctly humourless, and others will consider it imprudent and making the priest vulnerable. Get to know your priest and be hospitable as Fr. Z. suggests (if he’s one for whom such hospitality is agreeable) With so many priests not living in community I can’t imagine the loneliness that must come with the role nowadays. over the next month or two, I and my husband will be happy to invite Fr. D. in our new parish to coffee/tea or a meal when I book the house-blessing.

    You priests burn yourselves up for Christ each and every day of your lives and for this gift I am eternally thankful; not to mention the scorn and ridicule the majority of broader society hold priests and pastors in today…makes the calling ever more amazing and remarkable. Keep fighting the good fight, and don’t lose heart.

    Blessings,

    South Coast Catholic. ,

  11. Netmilsmom says:

    I have the laudate app on my phone. When we are in a parish where Father talks about his dog, the lady in the line at the grocery store, or his yellow tile problems at the rectory wrapped up in a ribbon of “love your neighbor”, I open the app, reread the readings and ask Our Lord to give me the message He wants me to hear.
    Sometimes I get great Holy messages.

  12. wmeyer says:

    I think, too, we must remember that when Father gives a good homily, we thank him for it, complimenting him on the quality of the homily. Fr. Z: Do letters of a positive sort do any good, if sent to the chancery? [I don't see how they can hurt, if sincere.]

    I know that in my parish, if the pastor receives complaints, the priest in question–never him, mind–gets “guidance” from his pastor.

  13. LadyMarchmain says:

    Thank you for the really excellent advice, Fr. Z.

    I’ve often given books to pastors as a gift, wrapped, in a gift bag, with a bag of Mystic Monk Coffee or tea. More than once, something from those books has found its way into a homily. And once I asked the pastor a question about the Church Fathers and was quoting some passages that seemed to be unclear. The next thing I knew, quotations from the Church Fathers were in the Bulletin and in the next few homilies. I think when Father realized there were people in the pews interested, he made sure to provide for us.

  14. Hey: I never knew that about the dove returning to the ark. Cool.

  15. Kent says:

    Go to audiosancto.com. Hundreds of sermons to choose from by traditional priests.

  16. I seldom get much feedback on homilies, other than a “good homily” sometimes. I happen to love feedback, even if it’s not positive. If you think my homily was good, I want to know why. Especially as, some of the homilies that get more thumbs up are homilies I didn’t like!

    If people suggest topics they want to hear about, I don’t mind that. There’s a world of difference between a suggestion given in a friendly way, and one that isn’t. The priest in question probably can tell the difference as well.

  17. RJHighland says:

    A great gift idea if your priest is interested is “The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers” it is a four volume set I picked up when I was getting very frustrated with the homilies that the priest at my local parish was offering. It will give any priest great ideas for what to focus on for the readings for any given Sunday. They are homilies the writtings of St. Augustin, St. Cyril, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great, St. John Chrysostom (personal favorite), St. Bede, etc…

  18. RJHighland says:

    Oh probably should add published by Igantius Press

  19. As an Eastern Catholic, I might be biased, but in supplementing lackluster homiletic skill I cannot think of a better thing to do than look up St. John Chrysostom’s homily on one of the readings for that given Sunday. He gave so many homilies on passages of Scripture that chances are good there will be one for one of the New Testament readings. Not only is he a Doctor of the Church and one of the most celebrated of the Greek Fathers, but he’s widely recognized as the greatest homilist in Church history.

  20. Regarding giving priests books.

    This may just be me, b-u-u-u-t…

    I don’t especially like getting books as gifts.

    Sometimes–frequently–people give me books I, honestly!, have no interest in reading.

    Maybe I ought to read them. But I still don’t want to. Yet I feel kind of bad that I don’t read them.

  21. Palladio says:

    I must say that, blessed as I’ve been by knowing wonderful priests, I’ve nothing to complain about. But the reader who wrote to Fr. Z might be encouraged to attend Mass at a Benedictine Monastery. I cannot begin to say how uniformly great the homilies at our local one is. Of the three priest there, two seem totally inspired. I don’t say that lightly.

  22. They are not Augustine but I know http://www.epriest.com had pretty decent pre-made Sunday homilies. They were designed for “average” US parishes so were not super deep but neither were they trite.

  23. Bev says:

    Audio Sancto — if your priest is a lousy preacher, there are some good ones on http://www.audiosancto.org

  24. Therese says:

    The priest who travels 300 miles–one way–to offer the TLM for us gives simplistic homilies. However he is well-read in the spiritual life and is so helpful in private consultation, an absolute jewel. I say be thankful and make good use of your pastor’s natural and spiritual gifts. (If you can’t figure out what these gifts are, maybe you’re not looking hard enough.)

  25. Martlet says:

    And one of our priests is often plain wrong in his homilies. So much so that it is sometimes hard to keep a straight face, like the time he talked about the Apostles fishing on the Dead Sea.

  26. idelsan says:

    A good sermon it’s not necessarily a very deep or theological one. It’s the one that best adapted to that particular congregation. If in the same day you have to preach in a convent, in a rural parish and a Mass “for children”, you are, probably, to say the same, but not the same way. It’s really difficult for us parish priests because we have to think in the whole congregation and we tend to land in the “low” side to be sure that we are understood. My old parish priest always said: Be sure to be understood by even the most simple of people, but a couple a times a year make a homily so difficult that nobody understands, so they do not think that you are the simple one. :)

  27. Imrahil says:

    Forgive me, but I cannot for all things in the world see what is the supposed bad thing about a joke or two. A joke is a rhetorical device, as is a pun, and while they are not necessarily necessary, it’s still a good thing to see rhetorical devices used for a sermon.

    Other than that, a sermon that does not deny a millimeter of Catholic teaching nor accuses anyone of a sin for things he can justify, seems to me a pretty examplary sermon for starters, even if it is simplistic.

    But… still, about the being simplistic part, a few kind words on time might be in order. I give this simplistic advice because I don’t know better.

    Coming to think of it, even in this simplicism might be a deeper sense. “Be good and faithful” – that’s what it is all about, is it not? And there is no synonym for “good”. I have come to be rather tired of people who try to use synonyms for good. Sure, there are concretizations, and some might think that there is no bad thing about e. g. premarital sex, who must be corrected. But still – our moral job is “avoid evil and do good”, as the psalm says. There is no synonym for “good” – not social, not unselfish (unless perchange we define selfishness not as self-love, but as bad self-love, which begs the question), not spiritual as opposed to earthly, nor, for that matter, soil-rooted as opposed to spiritual. There is no synonym for good, and it is our moral job to be good. Just as it is our religious job to be faithful.

    According to your description, your priest avoids making mistakes beyond that. But, you know – primum nil nocere, as the doctors say.

    Summarily, I think you should not cease to look for perfection in Mass, in the sense of lack of defects. But what you described did not sound a defect for me. You should, though, cease to look for a sermon perfectly adapted to your own edification – though you may still wish for it, say some kind words at their due place, and be all the more joyfully surprised when one day it does come. It would not seem a rather unusual thing to me if you practically have to edify yourselves by reading and thinking, hoping to do so orthodoxly.

  28. Imrahil says:

    That said, for what it’s worth,

    “A politician who wants to be a good speaker will always include some things people don’t understand. [...]
    I never speak shortly, I always make long sentences, I use many foreign words and foreign-language citations. All three thing put together obviously have a rhetorical effect I never could lament, concerning size and perseverancy of my public. By my critics, I speak as if I tried to give Cicero’s Latin in German, you know: long sentence constructions which surprisingly do find their end at the end. Attentive listeners ask themselves whether I’ll arrive at the end or not – which gives additional suspense.
    The longness of my speech is often certainly caused by my joy in finding formulations, my fun in presenting. But, according to my oppinion, mere politeness to the citizens coming in thousands and from far away obliges us not to give them merely a couple of catchphrases in few minutes. I consider it an outrage if the citizen comes to receive information from the politician and is served with meaningless set-phrases. Twenty speeches a day of five minutes’ length – as a politician, just like as a rhetor, I consider this the wrong way.
    [...] An audience that laughs is already by far on the speaker’s side.”
    (Franz Josef Strauß)

  29. Darren says:

    I just realized that I know who the priest in the photo attached this article is, and where he is. He is an excellent preacher who assists another priest who is a most mighty preacher!

    Re: Kent says: Go to audiosancto.com. Hundreds of sermons to choose from by traditional priests.

    Excellent recommendation! Take these sermons along on your commutes or longer drives.

  30. TomG says:

    Our associate pastor, a native of the Far East, is a mediocre homilist, but he is known to be a holy man (of a charismatic bent) and, frankly, the real deal. I realized early on that any complaints I might make about his preaching should cause me to examine my conscience a little more deeply – and then promptly go to confession :) (he is, BTW, a fine confessor).

  31. kimberley jean says:

    Poor priests. Someone is always criticizing. At my parish we had people complaining that the pastor’s homilies were too intellectual.

  32. JacobWall says:

    Almost every priest whose parish I was involved with for any length of time has delivered good sermons, each with their own style and strengths, of course. Yet, for each and every one of them I have heard some complaint or another. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate and come from authentically caring parishioners who only complain in discrete confidence, not going around “bad-mouthing” the priest. Other times they are sheer nonsense.

    The complaints I’ve heard include too intellectual, not intellectual enough, too long, too short, he moves around too much, he stands too still, his sense of humour is too dry for this parish, he’s not funny enough, he shouldn’t be telling jokes, he reads his sermons, he doesn’t plan his sermons, etc. You get the idea – there’s always something people don’t like; some are legitimate concerns, others are not.

    So far, I haven’t come across anything serious enough to complain – neither to the priest nor to other people. I understand that for some other people there are more specific needs; e.g. for many people – especially those who do not understand English well – a sermon read directly from the page, with the priest looking down at the page the entire time, is very difficult to follow, even if it is an excellent sermon.

    I appreciate these tips, Fr. Z, because it may very well be my lot at some time to approach a priest on behalf others. (Which I would only do for concerns that I see has having some point other than personal preference.) So far, I’ve been very fortunate in connecting well on a personal level with my parish priests. It gives me a good head start on this kind of approach!

  33. DrBill says:

    The pastor at my old parish was like the reader’s, both in the sense of being a good guy and in the sense of giving unchallenging homilies. One day, now maybe four or five years ago, the local ordinary instructed his priests to start enforcing the rule against laypeople returning the unconsumed hosts to the tabernacle. This, evidently, occasioned many temper tantrums by the various EMHCs who had done the job previously. Several left the parish.

    What followed was the best homily I ever heard this priest give. A detailed presentation on the humility of Padre Pio. A presentation on the hierarchical nature of the Church and our obligation to obey. There was one arguably too defensive bit where he explained that he was just doing what his superior told him to do. But whatever. It was awesome.

    I made sure to tell him, “Father, that was a beautiful homily” after Mass.

  34. robtbrown says:

    RafqasRoad says,
    First and foremost, being a pastor is hard, and I mean hard work

    No doubt that’s true. But I also remember when I was doing consulting work in DC, while commuting from KC, that I would now and then hear a priest at Sunday mass complaining that he had to say 3 or 4 masses that day. A few hours later I would head for the airport, then spend at least 4 hours traveling until I arrived at the hotel . . . and this was on a day off.

  35. Nicholas Shaler says:

    At my parish we are blessed to have FOUR priests.

    Our pastor gives middle-of-the-line intellectually sermons. One parochial vicar gives simple sermons, which are never the less very good, while the other gives more complex theological sermons. We also have a retired priest who is very well traveled (~65 counties or so) and speeks about his travels in the Holy Land or his missionary work in S. America or some aspect of history.

    This seems to be a perfect balance of preaching, as the variety is good.

  36. Darren says:

    Ok… well, in my previous comment… I should have looked a little more closely at the image :O I did not realize that it is the most esteemed owner of this blog. In a quick look I just assumed it was the priest who assists the rector at that church.

    Ah well… …I must have been looking through the wrong part of my bifocal lens :)