Evangelii gaudium 138: Sermons should be brief. How brief is “brief”? POLL

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”?

In ordinary circumstances, how long is the ideal Sunday or feast day sermon/homily?

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  1. David Zampino says:

    As an old mentor of mine used to say “There comes a point at which, if you have not struck oil, quit boring!

    I voted 10 minutes or so.

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    People confuse “orthodox homily” with “good homily”. I hear plenty of orthodox homilies (a welcome change from 20-40 years ago, I grant) but I hear rather few good homilies. My chief complaints: (1) too many good points being made, such that they become of mishmash of truths; (2) too many personal examples, such that listener, not sharing the homilist’s experience, is excluded from applying the point to himself; (3) obviously canned homilies delivered in a character that is obviously not the homilist’s, and telling thereby us we were not worth preparing for; (4) homilies delivered with a conversational-style that is dysfunctional in public address situations–you don’t have to sound like Lincoln at Gettysburg, but you can’t chat up Christ like Cuzin Buddy over brews.

  3. Patrick-K says:

    I think, assuming that most people aren’t great orators, the general rule that shorter is (all else being equal) better than longer makes sense. This is just good style in any form of communication. Adding ornamentation is something best left to those who are skilled enough to do so, and they should know when it’s appropriate. So I don’t think Francis is necessarily trying to establish a fixed length for sermons. I read this as saying that, as a general rule, a 10 min. sermon is better than a 15 min. sermon that communicates the same idea. And also, I think this idea fits with recognizing that the priest should not be the focal point of the Mass.

  4. Ad Orientem says:

    ” Honorable Senators,
    My sincere thanks I offer you. Conserve the firm foundations of our institutions. Do your work with the spirit of a soldier in the public service. Be loyal to the Commonwealth and yourselves. And be brief. Above all else, be brief.”

    -The opening address of the Massachusetts State Senate by its president, Calvin Coolidge (Feb 1914)

    Yes, that’s the entire speech. [Amusing, good ol’ Cal, but not really relevant to this topic.]

  5. Eric1989 says:

    Let’s not forget St. Peter Chrysologus, “our Chrysostom”, Bishop of Ravenna. His homilies were notoriously brief and to the point. After reading some of them, I can’t imagine them taking more than 15 – 20 minutes to preach. I can definitely see some of Augustine and Chrysostom’s sermons and homilies taking at least an hour to preach.

    I would gladly sit to hear a modern version of Augustine or Chrysostom preach. I don’t think length matters as much as content. If a priest rambles on and on about giving to the poor and offers no concrete examples, then I’ll get very bored. If, like Augustine, Basil the Great, etc, the priest spurs us on to almsgiving with very stirring examples and warnings then I’ll be much more keen to listen.

  6. Rich says:

    When I read our Holy Father’s words, I think of those homilies which develop well to allow you to hear and very potentially retain a point which you are going to take with you. The homily gets to a point to where this point has struck home and you have already begun thinking of ways to apply it to your life. Father seems to come to a point in the homily which really seems to wrap it up. THEN…he rambles on about somewhat-related material for five to seven more minutes. You begin to wonder where Father is going with this…whether perhaps he doesn’t feel he has done enough talking to get his point across, when he has. Then, suddenly the homily ends at what would have been much less identifiable as a good stopping point than before. And, you are left trying to remember what exactly it was you were going to take away from the homily…

  7. Imrahil says:

    7 minutes. 10 minutes is fine, 5 minutes is brief; since 7 minutes was available, I voted 7.

    15 minutes, I guess, on the rather greater solemnities plus the Sundays of Lent, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and All Souls.

    In Masses where people expect no sermon at all (read: weekdays except requiems or if announced in the parish bulletin), 3 minutes.

    Long, emotional, thoughtful, forceful, etc. preaching should ideally not be absent from the parish, but should, in my view certainly, not be enforced via the Sunday obligation. I guess it is rather more apt for special services of a devotional nature, where then, maybe, the pulpit could once again be put to good use (where there is a pulpit).

  8. zapman449 says:

    This may be based in a lack of historical understanding. That said:

    I understand that the Fancisian of the 1300’s or so would do Homilies (in Mass) for a goodly length of time, but part of that was to exhort the faithful to attend their non-Mass presentations, which were known to go on for several hours. (akin to a current church Mission)

    Does the same apply to Augustine? Could homilies which were a part of a Mass be combined with ‘speaches’ which were not a part of the liturgy and collected together under the term ‘homily’? My understanding of the term Homily (and its history) might be lacking here.

    Also, to Francis’ main point: The Homily is not the Mass, nor is it the point of the Mass. The culmination of the Mass is the Holy Sacrifice on the alter: “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

    (FYI: I’m certainly not arguing that the Mass should only contain the Eucharistic Liturgy)

  9. Matthias1 says:

    Fulton Sheen was was complimented by a man on a recent sermon. The man said told him it was the most enjoyable hour and a half (or some such) that he’s ever spent. Sheen replied that he’d never talked anywhere near that long and the man replied “well it seemed that long to me.”

    I voted 20 minutes, though 15 is probably better; on one hand, the sermon isn’t the focal point, but this is one of the priest’s big chances to talk to a large group of people about the faith, he should take advantage of that.

  10. B Knotts says:

    I think concise speech tends to leave more of an impression. If a homily is too long (and many are), I think people lose track of what the homilist is saying. I say 10 minutes or so as a general rule is just about right.

  11. JabbaPapa says:

    I cannot answer this poll — as my answer would be : “as long as it needs to be“. No such option exists in the proposed answers in the poll.

  12. TNCath says:

    As a schoolteacher, I can tell you firsthand that people’s attention spans have significantly decreased. At the same time, I think that IF the speaker is a gifted orator, he or she can hold the attention spans of his or her listeners for a longer period of time. Unfortunately, that is not the case these days. While I can appreciate what the Holy Father is saying, I respectfully counter with the following question: what about a Apostolic Exhortation that is 85 pages and 51,000 pages long? After 6 hours reading this rambling mess that is like taking a road trip from Maine to Miami by way of Los Angeles, I respectfully suggest that the Holy Father take heed of his own advice.

  13. Felicia says:

    We had a wonderful parish priest who gave truly excellent homilies in the 15 – 20 (sometimes 25) minute range. As a general rule, he would start with a bit of historical and sociological context in order to better place the point of the 1st reading, then link that with the Gospel reading (usually a pretty easy exercise), then point out how the 2nd reading amplified the spiritual “point” of the 1st reading/Gospel’s theme (which is often a less obvious link, but he found it!), then follow up with a practical application which sometimes included a commentary on the modern sociological context (e.g. difficulties of maintaining your faith when surrounded by a secularist culture), and generally ending with an exhortation to either (a) repent and go to confession, (b) deepen your prayer life or (c) go out an evangelize. Unfortunately, he had to go off on sick leave before his term with us was up, and he is fondly missed. On the negative side, his delivery wasn’t the best–a little too soft and too fast–but you could follow without too much difficulty.

    We now have a fellow who gives 5-minute homilies that use the Gospel (only) as a spring board for some general Hallmark platitudes. His delivery is much better, but the content just isn’t there.

    Those 5 minute homilies by the new guy feel twice as long as a 25 minute homily from the old guy.

  14. Eric1989 says:


    I’m under the impression that Augustine’s sermons as we have them are as they would have been preached. Augustine had some stenographers who took down his homilies in a type of shorthand, so says Possidius his biographer. Presumably these were then edited into proper Latin.

    These publishers have the best modern translations for Augustine, the exception being his Confessions (Chadwick takes the gold there).
    These also have some fantastic introductions on Augustine and his preaching

  15. iPadre says:

    10 minutes is probably about all most people can handle today, but all depends on the circumstances. I have heard some really bad homilies that were both long and short.

  16. APX says:

    On a more positive note:
    138. The homily cannot be a form of entertainment

    No more sing-a-long guitar homilies or Fr. Popular making it a spotlight about him.

    Our Sunday sermons are typically 20-25 minutes long. For the most part, it is easy to stay focused for that long, and it’s long enough to be thorough and edifying.

    That being said, if it’s a daily Mass during the day or in the morning, if there is a sermon it should be short and brief. I was at a 7:15 am Mass during which the priest preached a sermon of 20 minutes. Too long! I felt bad for the people who had to be at work.

  17. mamajen says:

    I voted 10 minutes or so. My priest’s sermons are a delight to listen to. I almost always learn something new, and never feel like looking at my watch. With young kids, though, even a very good sermon can be a challenge if it goes on too long–they get antsy. And, like others have said, it’s easier to remember a concise homily that focuses on a couple key points rather than some long laborious slog. I agree with Pope Francis that a sermon should not be a lecture.

  18. anilwang says:

    This is one poll I won’t take since I don’t believe a sermon should have a prescribed length.

    An hour long sermon, can be too short, especially if the priest is skilled and the congregation is knowledgeable in theology. A five minute sermon can be five minutes too long, if the priest is just going to rattle on about something he saw on Oprah. The key thing that should determine the length is the skill of the speaker, the nature of the congregation, and the time and nature of the mass (e.g. if the mass is a daily mass and people are going on their lunch hours can’t afford long sermons).

    That being said, I think it is out of place for the liturgy of the word to dominate over the liturgy of the Eucharist. Remember lex credendi lex orandi. Unlike Protestant services, if the music is banal and the preaching is boring and there’s no socializing afterwards, the mass is still worth going to since the Eucharist is the center of the mass.

    But I do think that long sermons have value, especially in this age of poorly catechized Catholics. One thing I’d love to happen is for something like a Baptist Ordinariate to be created. In this ordinariate, the mass would be the same and the liturgy of the word would still be “brief” (so as not to distract from the liturgy of the Eucharist), but longer sermons are available after mass. Just to keep perspective, in some Baptist Churches, sermons can be 6 hours long. Something like this already happens at the Newman Center in my city, and the lecture are well attended (although sermons are limited to under 2 hrs;-]).

  19. Lepidus says:

    Assuming an average speaker and standard congregation at an OF Mass….I voted for 7, but I would put it in the 7-10 range. This is not so much based on any religious reasons, but rather on human nature and studies that show when people (adults) start losing attention and squirming – in which case even the best point that the priest could possibly make might get lost.

    The question, which the Holy Father alluded to immediately after his comment on the 1 hour sermons, is “why are we there”? In the Catholic Church, the preeminence is not hear the preacher man, as in some Protestant communities, or to “give witness”. We have a much more important gift. Then, what comes in importance after that? Listening to the Word of God? Adoration / Thanksgiving / Petition / Reparation? Does it make sense, then, to have the sermon take up such a large percentage of the time compared with everything else?

  20. Imrahil says:

    The homily cannot be a form of entertainment

    Does it say that in English? In German, it says, “the homily cannot be an entertainment show”. That is a difference: I agree to the latter (though, I regret, not to everything the Pope says in this exhortation), but I don’t mind some entertaining side-effect. Abraham a Sancta Clara comes to mind.

  21. disco says:

    Father if you think your homilies are longer than Pope Francis wants then just go ahead and give sermons instead.

  22. PaulK says:

    The parish I attend has 10 very orthodox priests, with 2 or 3 of known by the laity as master preachers.

    The masters tend to keep their sermon relatively short (10-12 minutes), expound on one or two common struggles in the spiritual life, relate those struggles or shared experiences to the life of the saints, Scripture, and the life of Christ. (…keeping in mind the context of the feast or mass of the day.) They reassure you that Christ is someone you want to draw closer to, particularity in the Eucharist. You’re on the edge of your seat for these guys. Your desire to receive Christ in the Eucharist is inflamed by their words. You want to pop out of your seat for the Credo, and willingly offer yourself to God during the rest of the mass. Their words tend to echo in your ears for the rest of the week. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but they definitely keep your attention and make you receptive to that encounter with Mystery that is so important.

    A lot of them use famous preachers like Msgr. Ronald Knox and Bl. JH Newman as starting points for their sermons too.

    Compare that to Father “Hi everyone, please greet the person beside you… let me begin my homily by talking about Iron Man 2”

    My friends and I often get the sense that they are preaching to you alone. Like the sermon was crafted for your life and your struggle to draw closer to God.

  23. William says:

    First lesson in public speaking: one topic = one speech. Far too many Catholic priests preach extemporaneously and ramble on ad nauseum causing congregations to tune out. Seven minutes or so allows ample time to develop and conclude a topic. A homily differs from a sermon. Homily = explanation of texts. Sermon = instruction. They can indeed be combined but it takes preparation and speaking off-the-cuff just doesn’t cut the mustard. Dear fathers, please prepare and rehearse before you preach.

  24. Bob B. says:

    There is also the problem (and an increasing one at that) of the priest whose first language is not English giving the sermon in English. We have a couple of examples at my parish, where you can only pick up on every third word or so and after five minutes, you see people starting to drift. As time goes on, almost everyone is lost.
    Having said this, I think sometimes the sermon needs to be a lecture, particularly if it’s based on something that has occurred recently of importance.

  25. everett says:

    I voted 20, but it definitely depends on the quality of the actual homily. I’ve heard some homilies in the 20 minute range I’d happily listen to another 10-20 minutes of (if the quality remained strong), where I’ve heard many, many 5 minute homilies that were too long.

  26. The Egyptian says:

    In my experience it all depends on the Priest, some can say more in five minutes than others can choke out in twenty

    One pastor of my youth announced that all sermons would last at least twenty minutes, trouble was he ran out of material in 5 or 6 and just repeated himself, bored people to tears, plus he had a bad habit of talking down to everyone. Epic fail

  27. gertrude says:

    I can understand a little what the father is meaning, as at times my prior preacher enjoyed making several jokes, a little entertaining was done. Eventually the homily came full circle to “so our challenge today is just to be good people” and a pat on our backs about how we do our best each and every day. My current priest isnt so sugar coating, more direct and stresses fasting, penence and the Eucharist.

  28. Depends on who’s talking and what they’re saying. I picked 5 minutes or less, or better yet, no sermon. These are optional right?

  29. Robbie says:

    I voted five minutes or less although I believe the best range is five to seven minutes. After that, people just start to tune out. Speaking from my experience in various speech and communications classes I took in both high school and college, a lot can be fit into five minutes if the speaker chooses to be concise and to the point.

  30. Lepidus says:

    There is also a difference between a little humor to make a point or to keep interest (as our current archbishop does) vs. starting the homily with a joke (e.g., “a man dies and meets St. Peter…yada, yada, yada) – as our current priest does (and also give the same joke to our assistant from India whom I KNOW would never pick those jokes himself).

  31. jacobi says:

    It’s a matter of priority, Father.

    Given the near universal ignorance amongst the laity today, the sermons should be instructional and as such can be very short. For instance if the Gospel is say, the Marriage Feast at Cana, that’s a cue for declaring the Church’s position on marriage, i.e., that a Sacramental marriage between two baptised Catholics is for life, and indissoluble, and that anyone who divorces and remarries is committing adultery, and therefore Mortal Sin, etc.

    That should take about 5 minutes at most. If you wish to further explain mixed marriage between baptised Christians and the dispensation required, or the impossibility of valid marriage between a Christian and a pagan, i.e., non baptised, that might take a bit longer, say 8 minutes.

    I’ve voted for five minutes – although a couple of minutes extra of silence for reflection and recovery might also be advisable!

  32. I voted for ten minutes; but my own homilies seldom go that long. I rarely write a homily that will go more than 8 minutes, and frequently they are written to go about five-to-six.

    My ideal length is not necessarily everyone else’s; and even if it is, I think it’s good to leave the pulpit before the majority of the congregation starts wishing you would.

  33. vandalia says:

    Based on the relatively small sample size of the people I have contact with, the problem is not the chronological length of the homily. I have run into very few people who would object to a concise, well-constructed, 20 minute homily.

    The problem almost everyone has is when a “5 minute” homily BECOMES a “20 minute” homily becuase the homilist repeats himself, goes off on an unplanned tangent, or in the words of a former classmate “circles the runway without being able to come in for a landing.”

    If there is one skill that many otherwise excellent homilists need to learn, it is when to stop talking! The phrase “always leave them wanting more” can very aptly be applied to homiletics. Let the people make the obvious connection in their own minds, you don’t have to spell it (or talk it) out to them.

  34. Mike says:

    How long is a matter both of substance and of style. I drink in St. Josemaria’s transcribed homilies (which, by the way, I think are admirable models), but could I have sat through one without fidgeting?

  35. acricketchirps says:

    Since the poll said “in ordinary circumstances,” then 10 min = 3 min humourous anecdote + 7 min preaching. If no joke, then 7.

    Under ideal circumstances 25 minutes with no humourous story.

  36. Joe in Canada says:

    I agree with the point Lepidus underlines: why are we here? It is in the context of the Mass. I think there are lots of occasions outside of Mass for a longer instruction: during a mission, at Vespers or Adoration, or in a prayer service. Protestants can ‘combine’ these things into Sunday “worship” because they don’t have the Eucharist. Often, emotionalism and exhortation takes the place of the sacrifice of Christ.
    One last point – are we sure the homilies of St Augustine and St John were given in the middle of Mass? Perhaps they were at the end of Mass, or at a different service. A homily at the end of Mass can be longer since it wouldn’t interrupt the Eucharist. I have been to Orthodox Divine Liturgy where the homily was at the end, and was specifically (it seemed to me) an exhortation to the babies and old women to come to Communion, which they then did.

  37. Lepidus says:

    Fr. Martin Fox – Love that last statement!

  38. Phil_NL says:

    Voted 15 minutes, though I’d say the ideal length would be around 12 – but not 10, as that’s the amount of time it would take most priest to make a well-reasoned argument in a way that the larger part of parishioners can understand, and i’d like to allot father a bit of margin.

    After all, the priest has to preach to a very diverse audience, in terms of education, intelligence, life experience, theological formation, cathechisation. That’s quite a challenge, if the homily is to contain something for everyone! (a simple point might be made in a way the more sofisticated parishioners may need only 2 minutes to get it, but the rank-and-file may need more. Bringing a point in such a way it appeals to both groups requires more effort, and usually more time as the result is frequently an indirect approach.)
    15 is in fact already on the edge of attention spans even of people committed to listen, unless there is a lot of substance. And in that case, it would probably better be two homilies.

  39. Priam1184 says:

    Zero problem listening to long homilies or preaching that say something and are worth listening to, but let’s be honest: not every priest is St. John Chrysostom and most aren’t even on the same planet. I would personally favor the removal of the homily from the Mass entirely as it is generally a giant distraction for priest and person in the pew alike, and it takes away from the Sacrifice. But the Church has decreed otherwise.

  40. Jack007 says:

    Francis is undoubtedly influenced by his Argentine culture.
    Longer sermons are disdained there, and priests with a reputation for being verbose are shunned. When I was young we had a pastor who liked to go long, as in 30 minutes or more. My father would open up the Catholic newspaper and start reading it holding it up so the priest couldn’t help but notice. We were in the front pew after all. Other times he would hold up his hand and take an exaggerated look at his watch.
    My dad would always tell me, “Back in Argentina the bishop would have reigned in this priest or his collections would drop precipitously”. He noticed a marked difference in sermon length when he came to America.
    Jack in KC

    [Anecdotal but interesting.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  41. cregduff says:

    There has yet been, in my experience, an EF sermon I would deem ‘too long.’ While I have not had the pleasure of an Augustinan-long sermon, some have gone well over 30 minutes, which objectively I think most would consider to be on the long-side today. There is a qualitative difference between homiletics practiced within the context of OF and EF masses. I have had the fortunate experience to have heard a small number of priests preach at both OF and EF masses and their talks in the EF are always better, deeper, more spiritually rich. Preaching in the EF is universally better, in my experience. Whether based on suggestions from the Sermon Program in the Catechism of the Council of Trent or the works of the Church Fathers, or good holy sources, I remain better spiritually fed by priests celebrating the EF. That cannot be said for the OF, when, to my estimate, good, solid preaching, in my experience, only is had less then 25% of the time.

  42. LarryW2LJ says:

    I voted for 20 minutes. In my parish, we are exceptionally gifted with a Pastor who can seemingly spontaneously come up with excellent homilies without referring to notes. I know that’s not the case and there is serious preparation needed ahead of time, but I rarely experience a homily from him that is not very good.

    On the other hand, I dislike homilies that are read, in a monotone, like a boring book. I know not everyone has the gift for speaking in public, but homilies like that can’t end quickly enough. The content may not be bad (and may be quite good, in fact), but if it’s delivered in a way that makes it hard to understand what is being said – what’s the point?

  43. The Drifter says:

    There is no fixed answer. Some passages is the scriptures are more difficult to comprehend, therefore requiring more time for clarification. Of course, a skilled orator who also knows his exegesis may carry an audience for hours while commenting the simplest of verses. Then there is the person like my former parish priest – a man of God, I should add – who delivered THREE distinct twenty-five minute long sermons at three distinct moments during mass. No wonder the collection plate yielded increasingly meager sums as the pews emptied over time.

  44. Sonshine135 says:

    I have seen some Priests drag on and say nothing. I have seen some Priests say something significant very quickly, but have left me hungering for more. True, good, long homilies that significanty teach and bring clarity to the readings are few and far between. I recall reading a book one time about the Mass in the Middle Ages where the Priest would go on fo to or three hours, and there was reference to the parishoners yawning and farting loudly.

    Short homiles are probably better for today’s sound bite society, used to 5 minute news cycles. Unfortunately, that means instruction on the readings is very shallow. True, Pope Francis might rid us of droning homilies, but it throws the baby out with the bathwater.

  45. Maxiemom says:

    I’ve heard great sermons that were 8 minutes long and horrible ones that lasted more than 20 minutes. I think it’s the quality not the quantity that counts. If you can say something in 20 words, why use 40 if it dilutes the point.

    We have wonderful Deacons at our parish who give meaningful sermons that usually last 7 to 10 minutes. And we have two priests who usually speak 20 to 25 minutes and never seem to make a point or stay on topic – they are all over the place and end up a hundred miles from where they started.

  46. Michelle F says:

    I voted for the 10 minutes or so, but I do not think the amount of time spent giving a homily is something priests should take into consideration. They should take one or two points from the readings, and let the nature of the topic dictate the length of the homily.

  47. pontiacprince says:

    Dear God.Deliver me,please, from sermons that start and end with a joke that’s been around for 40 years or more.Please also deliver me from the preacher-man who tells me of his past sins of omission and of commission as tho’ it is to be worn as a medal of honour and that now he has been ‘saved’…Please also have that man say something that has to do with the readings…and finally, Dear Lord, perhaps all should follow an idea expressed by a Vatican cardinal some years ago (memory fails) that homilies ought to be banned for at least two years while the homilist takes courses on public speaking and upgrades on theology…
    That is all I ask Lord.

  48. amenamen says:

    I cannot vote on a specific time limit.

    A well composed homily of two minutes may be very memorable. But a stirring discourse by a great preacher (e.g., Fulton Sheen or Pope John Paul II) would seem all too short if it were less than 20 or 30 minutes.
    I was surprised how briefly Pope Francis spoke on several major occasions:

    At his inauguration Mass on the feast of St. Joseph, 16 minutes:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEPBLqkHQ9s (beginning at 1:20:55)

    At Rio de Janeiro, with a crowd of 3 million, 13 minutes:

  49. Imrahil says:

    I generally agree that the nature of the topic comes into play, and that a good sermon is worth listening for a while.

    However, there are exceptions where even the bare length is distracting. On a World Youth Day I once went to a Holy Mass because I was simply told there was a Mass here and there. Then I heard a (good) sermon of roughly half an hour as “support” and another (good) sermon of 45 minutes; and I suppose during that sermon they started to distribute lunch (which I had thought I would easily be in time to catch after Mass)…

    Now for something rather different: a bit of theory (if you suffer me…). It seems that the liturgical norm wishes for a rather short “homily” (though colloquially always called sermon) which basically sticks to explaining the text while perhaps adding the one or the other point, including a short admonition to live decently and religiously, perhaps in a particular area touched by the lessons (preferably with some concrete advice) and that’s it. See for example the very liturgical place, between the Gospel and the Holy Eucharist, i. e., between the Word of God and the Body of Christ. Anything but “some appropriate words” (to use the expression I remember attributed to President Lincoln) seems to be technically out of place, here.

    On the other hand, that does not leave very much room for the very thing we associate with “preaching”, and which undoubtedly is a good Christian thing. For one thing, preaching need not necessarily depart from the lessons, it can depart from a generally felt sentiment, a question which the audience does have*, the life of a Saint, popular traditions, popular songs, (at the risk of disagreeing with some) popular jokes, and the like. There is no objection (only the said liturgical one) to preach as Chesterton wrote.

    [*It’s probably not ideal to say something about questions nobody has; and I’d strongly suggest only to preach on a question when the answer can be given within the sermon.]

    Yet it is true, the Sunday homily is about the only chance for the shepherd to instruct his sheep at large. We would not expect to appear at a seperate preaching service many people, and especially not those who, while belonging to the herd, still need it most. And even if something of the kind is done (as for instance, around where I live, the Preacher Brothers during one weekday per Lenten week), by sheer habituation (and because people would otherwise be unnecessarily surprised) it is within a Mass, at the usual homily place.

    The solution or priests seem to have adopted is to actually give sermons, insert some reference to the lessons, and there we go, only they generally do try to keep it short. (In theology everything is connected with everything, so that works.) Maybe no ideal, but there’s something to be said for working solutions… The problem is complex.

    That said, I add a popular saying from around here (with the German language using the same words for “over” and “about”): “A pastor may preach about everything, but he may not preach over ten minutes.”

  50. I’ve heard hundreds of priests over the years. A really good preacher can make a 25-minute homily seem like five minutes and a really tedious preacher can make a 5-minute homily seem like 25 minutes. All other things being equal, though, I think a good Sunday homily should aim to be about 10-15 minutes. That gives time to make one or two memorable points and explain them in a reasonable way. If a homily is too long, it risks making the preacher the focus of the Mass instead of Jesus in the Eucharist. If it is too short, it risks not giving Jesus’ words their due.

  51. MikeM says:

    I think that Pope Francis’ remarks tell us more about his view of the purpose of the homily rather than of its ideal length in minutes. I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the sort of topic that would take half an hour to explain isn’t really a topic suited to the homily… that the homily, instead, should provide direction for meditation during the liturgy, pointing people to one (or a few… Francis might say three…) spiritual insights from the Gospel reading, the life of the saint whose feast is being celebrated, or the “theme” for that sunday in the liturgical calendar. This being opposed to both homily as theological treatise and to the less focused variety of homily that attempts to cover a dozen points. If that’s what he means, then I think that whether it is two minutes or ten is secondary.

  52. DeoAcVeritati says:

    I tend to think that if you know your flock and are trying to use a homily to address their real needs in their real life circumstances, you’ll get the right length. As I prepare my homilies I think through the week, think through the stories I’ve heard from the people, think through what’s going on with the community. I think specifically of a few people in the pews and what they’re going through, good or bad. I ask the Lord (and usually some of the saints who were known for great preaching) to help me make the scriptures a word of life, teaching, healing, and growth for the people. Because, I mean, that’s what we’re trying to do, right? We want people to grow in knowledge and love of Jesus in all his glory and fullness.

  53. donato2 says:

    I am quite surprised at the amount of support there is for homilies over 10 minutes. I can’t imagine a legitimate need to go beyond 10 minutes. A good homily should make one major point and one major point only. There is no reason it should take more than 10 minutes to make a point. In my opinion the appropriate length of a homily is about 8 minutes and 10 minutes max.

    I don’t know what the theology of the homily is but it seems to me to be the most dispensable part of the Mass. If the homily is more than 10 minutes, it inordinately dominates the Mass in my opinion. Some above have noted that St. Augustine’s homilies were quite long. I didn’t know this and I can’t speak to what the Mass was like at the turn of the 5th Century. In the modern context however it seems to me that a long homily makes the Mass more like an evangelical service that consists entirely of a a minister with a mic preaching (I’m aware of such services only because I’ve seen them on TV and have heard them on the radio). The preaching in these evangelical services can be pretty good (the preaching on TV and the radio is often much better than that which one typically hears in a Catholic church) but it is obviously not part of a Mass. These evangelical services seem like a case of the homily having swallowed up the Mass. To me, that is what a long homily in a Catholic Mass almost does.

    Of the homilies I have heard, a very small handful have been good, many have been mediocre, and many have been terrible. Among those that are bad, the problems typically are: (1) incoherence, (2) addressing disparate and unrelated topics (see above about making only one point) and (3) lack of reverence (jokes, gimmicks of various sorts (asking the parishioners to respond to questions, etc.)).

    Pope Benedict is far and away the best modern homilist I know of. It is hard to suggest Pope Benedict’s homilies as models because most of the reason that they are so good owes to Pope Benedict’s subtlety of thought and theological genius. Still, one might at least note that they are not long, they make one major point, and they do not contain jokes.

  54. The Cobbler says:

    Stop me if I’m wrong, but… wasn’t the rest of Mass besides the homily proportionately longer back in St. Augustine’s time? Like instead of being a thing people went to for an hour or so on Sunday it was more like the thing people did with their Sunday? That wouldn’t even be just a difference of proportionate time, it would be a whole different context: spending a couple hours of a day of sacrifice in pastor-lead exhortation and meditation to prepare mentally and spiritually for the Sacrament is hardly even the same thing as the in-Mass teaching moment we have in the homily today.

    Just my two cents, and sorry I don’t have a citation or anything.

  55. Michael_Thoma says:

    Agreed. Brief and to the point is best. When can we see the exhortation about keeping Adoration the same? I’ve unfortunately been forced to participate in the “charismatic” variety, which is basically a pentecostal sideshow with the Blessed Eucharist on the Altar. When can that be reined in?

  56. cpttom says:

    I voted for 20 minutes, because anytime a homily is longer than that it usually means the priest / deacon is rambling or interjecting their OPINION, but not the Church’s teaching.. Now that said, there are clergy (progressives usually) who even 1 minute is too long.

    Now, that said, one of our priest’s is good whether he goes a half hour, or if he has 5 minutes. One Sunday the Deacon who was supposed to assist and give the homily didn’t show until the offertory (he had overslept!). Father, with a slight acknowledgement of the Deacon’s absence, gave an off the cuff homily that in 5 mins covered the readings and Gospel better than some much, much longer homilies. It was concise, complete and very relevant. It was fantastic!

  57. Elizabeth D says:

    I said half an hour, because the priests where I am are generally both orthodox and good homilists and I like to listen to them.

  58. Elizabeth D says:

    Although, if Mass runs too long on a Sunday then I hardly have time for breakfast after before I have to run (physically, on foot) to a different church to teach catechism.

  59. donato2 says:

    Proportionality is relevant. The homily at a short daily Mass needs to be proportionately shorter.

    I continued to be amazed that in some parishes homilies are regularly over 20 minutes. When I read about homilies in the 20 minute to 1/2 hour range, I wonder how the Masses are spaced. In many parishes there is only 1.5 hours between Sunday morning Masses. A 1/2 hour homily would result in a people jam, with the incoming colliding with the outgoing.

  60. ray from mn says:

    A good friend of mine, a [priest for over 50 years, in retirement visit parishes throughout the U.S. on weekends for a Catholic charity in Florida that funds ministries in the third world. He swears that 8 minutes is as long as anyone needs to go to get their message across. He is extremely successful at his retirement ministry.

  61. Kathleen10 says:

    What a pity. I have a feeling good, in-depth homilies are about to shrink, and there are going to perhaps be more “express homilies”. How would any priest know where they fall in their homilies, and if I were a priest I imagine I’d shorten it just because. The notion of anyone preparing their comments and people finding it too long, etc., is a heartbreaking thought. Except for humor or totally canned homilies, I do enjoy hearing the homily. My favorite is if the gospel is further illuminated and explained, and if Father illustrates how that might apply to life today. I appreciate the reality of any priest taking time to prepare his homily so as to instruct and bring souls to God. We can often detect the bit in there that is meant for us.

  62. Lin says:

    I voted for 10 minutes which is about right if the priest is well spoken. If not, any sermon is too long. I would love to be able to attend a lecture on religious topics every week. Since that is not available where I live, I look for opportunities in and around our diocese and the neighboring diocese. In addition, I read books written by and about the saints. And, of course, I read Father Z. Thank you for all your hard work!

  63. PeterK says:

    The Gettysburg address was less than 3 minutes.
    a good sermon can be done in 10 minutes or less. I think the priests not only need to be taught what makes a good sermon, but also how to write a good speech which is what a sermon is.

  64. carl b says:

    I appreciate his comments exhorting pastors to have less lengthy homilies. I can think of a couple bishops who would do well to heed this: trying to preach on every reading, and during ordinations, teaching about the text of the rites which we’ve just experienced, as though the rites didn’t speak for themselves. And a priest of my acquaintance tries to pack in every hard hitting moral issue into each Sunday homily, while he has a captive audience, preaching for a good 25-30 minutes. And makes a point of asking that people not leave before the end of Mass. Their leaving is indefensible, but at a parish where there are often many visitors, not expecting such an extra-long homily, the priest might do well to help them be disposed to staying.

  65. Lepidus says:

    Just another thought…. The Church, in her wisdom, keeps the readings short – generally to one point and often breaks up a story line. Maybe this is a suggestion…..

  66. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I have not read all the comments, but note that 17th-century English pulpits were required to have an ‘hourglass’ and preachers were permitted one turn of it (if I recall correctly: Donne mentions this in the text of at least one sermon, where he says something about just turning it again to go on a little bit longer; there is also at least one painting of him in a pulpit with hourglass ; based on an old Caedmon lp of Anthony Quayle reading one of his Easter sermons, I take it the glass ran for a half-hour, so one turn would equal an hour) – I do not know if this was peculiar to ‘the (English) Reformation’ or if the 17th century was ‘catholically’ full of one-hour sermons. I certainly found that Anthony Quayle reading well worth repeated listenings…

  67. Lepidus says:

    Interesting, Venerator. I wonder from the historical perspective what the Mass schedule was like at that time. Was there one Sunday Mass that all the Catholics went to? Were they spread out significantly over the course of the day?

  68. Supertradmum says:

    If there is no Sacrifice of the Mass, if there is only the reading of Scriptures and commentary, of course, the sermon would be long.

    Protestant sermons have historically been longer.

    As to Catholic sermons, on Sunday, my priest talked for 25 minutes. No one minded. We need teaching and where better than in the sermon.

  69. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Lepidus and Supertradmum,

    An interesting point! Would the length of sermon vary in relation to the sort of service, and the ordering of the services of the particular day (and place)?

    I was assuming that the Donne Easter one was from a service of Holy Communion, but am not sure (and have not tried to check, yet). The only Donne one I can find on YouTube is a LibriVox recording, also of nearly an hour (which I have not tried, yet, either).

    Can either of you (or anyone else) recommend any sermons of the same vintage to try (say, as preached by exiles at Douai)? (Once again, I have not tried searching for likely preachers and online collections/selections, yet, myself.)

  70. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Doing back about a century from Donne, I remember reading about Thomas More quizzing his children about sermons they had heard together, but do not recall whether anything is known about the length or complexity of those sermons.

  71. Venerator Sti Lot says:


  72. Random Friar says:

    The greatest factor in limiting time at our parishes, I’ve found, is the Mass schedule. At most parishes, we have Sunday Masses every 90 minutes, so Sunday Mass cannot go to 75 minutes, without causing gridlock. 70 is pushing it. 60-65 is “safe.” Yes, it’s a silly and mundane concern, but otherwise we do not have enough Masses. We get full/near-full at almost every Mass.

    I try to limit the daily homilies to 5-7, since, like the parable of the Unjust Judge, I have a widow in the pews ready to strike me if I do not give her what she wants — a Mass she can attend which allows her to catch her bus to work.

    I imagine in St. Augustine’s day, people were much more leisurely, and there were no chariot back-ups and charioteers losing all Christian charity as they attempted to depart/enter the Cathedral parking lot.

  73. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Random Friar,

    A good, clear picture! I expect, in your circumstances, St. Augustine would so just as you do! He seemed very good at fitting his sermons, in length and style, to the situation, including to whom he was preaching. (I just random-checked a volume of his sermons in English translation at Internet Archive, and there seemed a characteristic adaptability where length was concerned.)

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