QUAERITUR: Would a request for meatier sermons offend a priest?

From a reader:

I was just wondering if you, as a priest, would find it offensive if you a received a letter from a parishioner encouraging you to spend more time catechizing from the pulpit?

We have a wonderful, holy, orthodox priest at our parish. He occasionally hosts little talks or educational sessions, and he is clearly well-educated and articulate.

But his homilies are a little…thin. They tend to be somewhat vague and kind of…blandly spiritual. I would like to encourage him to bring these insights to his homilies, so I have considered writing him a letter asking him to discuss “hot topics” like contraception, cohabitation, the sinfulness of missing Mass, the importance of confession, etc.

Would you be offended to receive such a letter? Is there a more appropriate route to talk, or should I just relax and thank God I have a good pastor?

Would I be offended?  No.  For my part, I wouldn’t be offended were the letter respectful.  But then I don’t think I have ever been asked for heavier sermons.  Lighter, yes.  I have also been set upon by deeply offensive, offending and offended people with red-raging eyes and ears-shooting-steam because I explained what the Church says.  I have actually been spat upon in a narthex after a Mass while still wearing my vestments, and not as an accident in the course of spittle-flecked grand-mall liberal pique.

The General Institution of the Roman Missal says:

65. The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.

The needs of the listeners.

I am reminded of Augustine on the sometimes painful process of correction.  The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because his patient is screaming for him to stop.

The homily/sermon can certainly, must certainly, be used also to catechize – a term which is pretty broad.  But I think we have to be careful as the Church’s preachers not to make Mass into a didactic exercise.  In a sense, all preaching involves repetition of the Church’s doctrines, and explanations of who we are and what we do as a result… and don’t do.  But the pulpit isn’t the lecture hall podium.

A preacher does well to make reference to the readings and the feast, but, from there he can really go just about anywhere.  The beautiful thing about the Faith is that it is so interconnected and the history of our Church goes back, well… to creation, if you think about it.  We have lots of material to work with.

That said, I think it is okay for you to tell the priest that you would like a bit more meat along with the mashed potatoes.

Would you as a father of growing children be offended by, “Please, father, may I have some more of those slightly bitter but nourishing Brussels sprouts?”

Okay, some fathers – priests – are very touchy.  But if you are diplomatic, I don’t imagine there should be a problem.

At least he will know you are listening.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Good topic. And, as usual, Father Z is on target with how such a communication is made to a priest.

    There is a lot of false charity today on the part of priests, yet those who practice it are unaware. They don’t deserve our contempt, but our prayers and encouragement. It is best to reason with him, and not try to force him to change. Before writing such a letter or approaching a priest about the subject, spend some time first praying for him, and continue to do so after. If we want changes in our priests, prayer should always be our first recourse. Using a war analogy, it is like “softening the target”. In this case, it is not what we do, but God’s grace.

    Just off the top of my head a few points came to mind that I hope will be helpful to at least some priests with regards to preaching.

    1) The priests at my parish – all of them – preach the fullness of the faith. I still remember picking my jaw up off the floor that a priest would dare mention words like contraception and abortion from the pulpit, or discuss cohabitation. I also heard about other things that seemed foreign to me before I got there, like the need to mortify a variety of apetites, frequent reference to Original Sin and the need to practice virtue to combat it’s effects. Confession is regularly encouraged, and it is those sermons which compliment Scripture readings which feeds our examination of well-formed consciences. Good preaching can prompt Sacramental Confession.

    2) The priests are skilled and graced with the ability to convey the truths of the faith, without condescension or anger. People have a free will and it is through prayer and reason that they will be won, not through trying to force them to accept the teachings. There is balance as God’s love and mercy are emphasized, as well. The priests refer extensively to Sacred Scripture, Church documents, the Popes, and the saints, especially the Church Fathers and Doctors. They actually take the time to prepare their Sunday homily, and study necessary reference material which they then pass along to us. This alone has prompted me to always look to these same things when I find myself conflicted and wondering how to proceed.

    3) The priests in my parish make me look inward, not at “all those other people”. When people in the pews are offended, it is not always the case that some hurtful truth has been explained, but sometimes how it is explained. I have witnessed some well-intentioned orthodox priests “out there” whose preaching is more of a complaint about “all those other people” who are doing things against Catholic teaching. No. A homily is not suppose to make me think about all those other people; it is suppose to make me look inward. When people leave Mass all fired up about all those other people out there, a very rare, precious 10-15 minutes was lost.

    4) Even when the priest speaks the truth without condescension or anger, and doesn’t pile on too many things at once (which can shock the uncatechized), I have seen some become offended. That’s ok. Some walked away from Our Lord too. He did not avoid truth, nor did Jesus run after those who could not accept it. And, just because someone storms out or feels offended doesn’t mean they won’t remember at some later point what was conveyed with love and gentleness.

  2. teaguytom says:

    I love the talking brussel sprout. Looks like its wearing a green camauro.

  3. EWTN Rocks says:

    This is an excellent post Fr. Z, and as an aside, I love the graphics! I am shocked that someone was so offended as to spit on you – just the thought of that deeply offends me.

    We have a traditional, holy, orthodox priest at my parish who is an excellent homilist, and draws attention from the laity when he speaks. He is exceptionally skilled at speaking truths of the faith in a non-threatening, gentle way. However, even though he is highly skilled, he still raises the brows of some in the pews when he discusses “hot-button” issues such as cohabitation or contraception. Afterwards, some parishioners have whispered to me “he is strict.” The way I look at it is even though some of the laity were offended, they are not likely to forget, and if like me, they will be haunted by the truths heard during the priest’s sermon when exercising free.

    I now have a greater appreciation and respect for our priests and the difficulties they face, and will continue to pray for them.

  4. Maltese says:

    “I have actually been spat upon in a narthex after a Mass while still wearing my vestments, and not as an accident in the course of spittle-flecked grand-mall liberal pique.”

    ROTFL! The first part of your sentence, Father, is, of course, not funny, but “spittle-flecked grand-mall liberal pique” is classic; liberals can fleckle and froth when things seem unseemly to them! I’m reminded of the time when I was a valet at a nice hotel, a co-worker said his male lover was literally God-incarnate, and I said, respectfully, that only Christ was human God-incarnate, and splat, he spit right in my eye! (You can’t make this kind of stuff up, btw.)

  5. benedetta says:

    Brussels sprouts. Yummy. We love brussels sprouts.

  6. I suppose that it all depends upon who the priest is that one is asking.

    Through the divine revelation of our Lord God, we know this: “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.” Proverbs 9:8 (Authorized Version).

    If he is a scorner, he will hate you. If he is a wise man, then he will love you.

    Fortunately for me, my priest, Fr. Alexei Smith, is such a wise and a good man and priest that I don’t need to correct him in this regard. But I am sure that he would listen, and redouble his efforts, if the need arose.

  7. benedetta says:

    While I of course think that when it comes to prolife all Catholics wherever situated must be clear, committed, unequivocal, affirming, when it comes to homilies it seems to me that there are nearly infinite ways to go about this, preaching about prolife and the goodness of what God has created, without always having to specifically say the word “abortion”. As a matter of fact perhaps it would be best if it is not named, at all…to preach on prolife and the goodness of life the sources and ways are infinite whether referencing the early Church fathers or looking into more recent homilies of someone like St. John Henry Newman or someone such as Servant of God Fulton Sheen. Or referencing the various writings, or examples, of women saints and doctors of the Church. Scripture standing alone affirms prolife from many different vantage points. I think that there are times when it is necessary to speak plainly and clearly about it, and we should all seize whenever the opportunity presents and in whatever form. But also everyone benefits from the broadest and most expansive, generous and merciful view imaginable. We are somewhat dependent on thinking along some very established grammar when it comes to many of these areas which this questioner mentions and I agree that it benefits no one to live in denial about it or shirk the challenge and responsibility to speak about it. It is a big error to reduce prolife to a vote. The Church’s teaching is meaningful in the widest sense, and matters to everyone whatever stage in life. As a parent I do not necessarily need a homily to advise a child that abortion is sinful…but I do need the encouragement of the Church in helping me to raise a child fortified to make even the toughest decisions in the light of what God desires for us in the most generous way. It seems to me that a pastor committed to cooperating with that sort of need has countless options at hand.

    Would also say that I have found thankfully that the homilies at the Marian Shrine are very uplifting and encouraging and all about God’s constant love and mercy, with a lot offered, to consider and ‘chew’ on, for people in all circumstances and needs…

  8. poohbear says:

    Maybe instead of approaching it from the weak homily view, praise him for his talks and educational sessions. Mention how much you like them and how you think more people might like to hear them in a homily since they can’t make it to the talks. This way you are praising the positive, and not focusing on a negative. Maybe he is afraid to get too involved during a homily for fear people won’t like it, or, if he’s not the pastor, maybe he can’t say more, but either way, at least he knows you appreciate what he is doing, and at the very least, this might encourage more talks.

  9. Fr. Basil says:

    I am blessed to be associated with a spiritual healthy parish headed by a holy, Christ-loving priest.

    I’ve requested that he put his sermons on line on the parish’s web site, as I frequently find his sermons deserve a second hearing to fully absorb them, but he’s uncomfortable with that.

    Remember that priests have the unenviable duty of preaching to a congregation whose spiritual understanding ranges from just barely evangelized to very pious and knowledgeable.

  10. EWTN Rocks says:

    Oops, I just realized that I dropped a critical word (i.e. will) when I posted a comment earlier. I meant to say, “The way I look at it is even though some of the laity were offended, they are not likely to forget, and if like me, they will be haunted by the truths heard during the priest’s sermon when exercising free will.” What I’m trying to say is that priests can positively impact the lives of many people and strengthen faith by educating parishioners on Church principles, values, and beliefs. I know it’s not easy and requires a degree of balance to ensure explanation does not become lecture. I would hope they would step up to the plate (or in this case pulpit) and do so without prompting from folks in the pews.

  11. Regina says:

    I think sometimes when we are looking for meatier homilies it is for our own sense of affirmation, rather than looking for our personal conversion. “You tell them, Father!” I will admit to having done that myself at times. Perhaps the “thin” homilies have something in there too, especially if this priest has demonstrated that he is a solid thinker and teacher. Perhaps, in his pastoral judgment, he feels the parish is not ready for much talk of abortion, contraception, etc. He may be laying the groundwork in his homilies and catechizing on the tougher issues through other means.
    I find that too many lay people feel entitled to critique the priests, whether on liturgy or preaching or temperament. Unless a priest is really out of line, I think he should be left to pastor as he sees fit, without unsolicited advice.

  12. benedetta says:

    It seems to me as well that when it comes to prolife and all that goes with that outlook, children raised in an environment which is generally trusting in God come to appreciate the teaching of the Church with minimal to no lecturing or argument at all. Whereas the justification of abortion is the position which requires indoctrinating children in all of the various arguments and rationales, many which contradict one another or lack reason, all to justify the result at all costs. I have observed it frequently over the span of years and I find it astounding.

    Of course Catholics have responsibilities as citizens to ensure just laws and so parishes should be the center of encouragement in this in a variety of ways, in plain language, without pretense or double talk or disguise. The topic of the obligation of parish with pastor is another subject which might be different from homilies.

  13. Random Friar says:

    Personally, I value good and constructive criticism. “That was a nice homily, Father!” is nice, but generally does not tell me much. Some of our friars even purposely ask the professionals (university teachers, especially communication professors, etc) for that valuable criticism.

    The only caveat I would add is that while I don’t mind a letter, many priests I know, including myself, almost always discard anonymous letters as a matter of course.

  14. Faith says:

    Everyone is addressing the content of the homily, but I was wondering about telling a priest about his delivery. What do you think? I’d be offended; but it would make we reflect and possibly change, if I could. I’m talking about telling a priest that his jerky hand gestures are annoying; he never looks at the people on the right; he always, always, always…begins the homily with “I was reading this story…”; he shouldn’t read his homily; his voice is monotone; etc. We’ve had a couple of foreign born priests assigned to our parish, and while conversing one on one they’re understandable, but from the ambo, no one knows what they’re talking about.

  15. robtbrown says:

    I don’t think reading the homily is all that irksome to people if the content is good. The reason I say that is that a few months ago at a Sat morning mass the priest simply read the second reading from the LotH. The content was excellent, and I noticed that the people at mass were really plugged into what they were hearing.

    BTW, I had a prof in Rome, a very well known Brit, who always read his lectures. It was surprisingly easy to listen.

    I also think that it doesn’t matter whether the homilist looks around or waves his hands, etc. , simply because most people don’t sit close enough to notice.

  16. albizzi says:

    I accused myself once in confession that I fell asleep during an homily.
    The priests laughed and agreed that often homilies are boring.

  17. Patti Day says:

    @Faith ………telling a priest about his delivery

    I can’t help thinking that Father doesn’t ever look to the right because he isn’t actually ‘looking’ at anyone, rather his gaze is fixed on some spot above the heads of those in the pew, so he doesn’t get distracted. I see what you’re saying about monotone, hand gestures, and the same predictable opening of each week’s homily, but these are such personal critiques (personality, style, maybe even ability), that I would be reluctant to address all of them at once.

    We have a priest who either shouts the homily so that your hair stands on end, or whispers so you have to read his lips, but his Consecration of the the Holy Eucharist is so deeply reverent, I feel as if I am there in the Upper Room with Jesus, surrounded by the Apostles and the Communion of Saints. I’m afraid that if he changed his delivery on one, he might change it on the other.

  18. Random Friar says:

    Bad delivery can kill the best homily. Imagine reading the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” as if you were reading the instructions on how to complete a 1040 tax form.

    Critique of form has helped me immensely. To what was said above, folks forget that we don’t know what the acoustics are in different areas of the church. Folks have to tell us if we’re going too soft (maybe we have a better speaker aimed at us), or if we sound like someone blowing a vuvuzela full blast next to your ear. Moving from the ambo to the presider’s chair or the altar, and perhaps a different microphone, the acoustics change for me, so I might simply be unconsciously over or undercompensating.

  19. Random Friar says:

    Oh, and besides being often too utilitarian and trying too hard to be “leading edge,” newer churches rely too much on speakers, which create all sorts of problems, and even the best designs can be thrown off by different things. Architects, know your natural acoustic design well!

  20. Former Altar Boy says:

    How sad. I’m sorry that someone spit on you. I’m sure you thought, “Well, Lord, they did it to You first.”

    [It happens. I had the honor of being spat upon again in NYC during the Triduum… in church, too. Just the way it goes. Hard on the dry cleaning budget.]

  21. TKS says:

    Our mega-parish has three priests. Two are ESL and not ‘understandable’ at all and the pastor is super progressive and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So after years of being annoyed, I simply go online to some of the wonderful blogs written by priests and read their homilies. Works for me.

  22. RichardT says:

    I occasionally go to a church where I’m pretty certain that the priest buys in his homilies, ready-written. Which, if you can’t do decent ones yourself, seems like a good idea.

    (Thinking of which, Father, perhaps you should consider offering a Z-sermon subscription for priests? A useful means of evangelism, a help for fellow-priests, and a source of bird-seed money.)

    But I just wish he’d read them through before Mass. Occasionally he’ll be half way through one, and it starts going in a direction that he doesn’t like, at which a ‘what is this nonsense?’ look appears on his face.

  23. RichardT says:

    Of course other groups have different ideas about preaching.

    I once had a Welsh (protestant) friend stay for the weekend, and come to Mass with me on Sunday. As we came out I was just about to apologise for the lengthy homily (nearly 20 minutes long) when she started complaining that it had been far too short.

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