ASK FATHER: Does a short homily or no homily invalidate the Mass?

From a reader…


One would think having the bishop allow a diocesan priest to do the Tridentine Mass would fill the faithful with joy. However this priest (who strongly objects to the NO) also is angry with his TLM parishioners. The list of abuses is growing but today he — at the homily — took off the maniple, turned at the altar and said one sentence, then continued with Mass. He refuses to use a mic and has a deep accent which combined with the rapidity of his words and my hearing loss means I don’t have a clue what he said. I decided not to let it bother me. However a friend was livid, asked me if there was a minimum time limit for a homily for Mass to be valid. I said I didn’t think so. But the question of validity did flash through my and another friend’s mind. Going to the bishop is tricky and I hoped you could reassure me|us the Mass is indeed valid. I have no doubt whatsoever the priest intends consecration, btw. Since there aren’t any other priests and we live hours from the nearest TLM we are at his mercy. I’d like to know that at least the Mass is valid. Thank you in advance for any help you can give.

There is so much going on in this that I had to respond.

Good preaching is important.

At this point, you may be saying: Fr. Z… Master of the Obvious.

Firstly, I am sorry for your hearing loss.  I imagine that is really frustrating.  Experiential knowledge from after Masses confirms this.  Not a few times has a little old lady approached me after Mass to thank me for my “message”.  Often, it goes, “Oh Father, thank you for that message.  I didn’t understand it, but I could hear every word!”

The rudiments of good preaching have sometimes been summarized as The Three B’s: Be good, be brief, be gone.

Priests need to learn the basics of forensic speaking, including, in these sadder anti-McLuhan years, how to use a microphone, how to ‘hear yourself’ coming back in the space you are in, etc.

Refusal to use a mic.  Well, that’s a hard thing to respond to.  Some priests have big voices and know how to project.  Some don’t.  The aforementioned Marshall McLuhan had strong words about the corrosive effect the microphone had on the sacredness of Mass and the sense of the faithful.    I think he was right.  More HERE.  And we have heard the “open mic” anecdotes.  I once MC’d for a bishop who, over my protest, insisted on using a clip on transmitting mic for a live streamed Mass.  He had to use the bathroom and left the mic on, which resulted in a whole new meaning of “live stream” for the congregation and those online.   And there’s the famous confessional scene from Bless Me, Father (about min 19:00). I hate those mics.

The book I’ve been reading on the Council of Trent, which I have been repeatedly going back and rereading in parts (Trent: What Happened at the Council by John O’Malley. [US HERE – UK HERE]), describes how one of the important reforms undertaking by the Council Fathers was the teaching about and legislation about the importance of preaching, at least on Sundays and feasts: diebus saltem dominicis.  That also meant other reforms: the bishop had to be in his diocese, the priest had to be in his parish, they had to have basic training and formation.  The Council would eventually mandate a Catechism that they could use for Sunday preaching.

Ignorance of the faith on the part of the laity (and clergy) was a significant factor in the Protestant Revolt that incited the Council in the first place.   I suspect it is an even worse problem now, frankly.  And by that I DON’T mean that I want another Council!  QUOD DEUS AVERTAT!  I don’t think even the Lord would allow the Church to survive in any visible presence after a Vatican II2.

Here’s what the 1983 Code says in Can. 767

§2. A homily must be given [habenda est] at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause. [nec omitti potest nisi gravi de causa]

§3. It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during the time of Advent and Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or a sorrowful event.

§4. It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.

Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium 52 says: “at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, [a homily] should not be omitted except for a serious reason.”

Look familiar?  Can. 767 §2 was taken from SC 52.

So, Father may not, except for a grace reason, omit preaching on Sunday.  The Canon says, “all Masses” on Sundays.  Not some.

What could be a grave reason?

What would good reasons be?  Father has laryngitis or a broken and wired jaw.  A flaming cat ran screaming through the church setting pews on fire.  There was an earthquake.  Locusts.

Another reason might be that Father is a little stupid and the bishop has removed his faculty to preach without removing his faculty to say Mass.  There used to be a use of ordaining a man as simplex, a “Mass priest”, who didn’t have permission to preach or to receive sacramental confessions because he was too poorly formed to deal with those tasks or perhaps for some other reason.

Your feedback is different from the complaint Augustine received from some preaching in his day. To wit:

“You have had to acknowledge and complain that often, because you talked too long and with too little enthusiasm, it has befallen you to become commonplace and wearisome even to yourself, not to mention him whom you were trying to instruct by your discourse, and the others who were present as listeners.”

Augustine addresses preaching in Book IV of De doctrina christiana.   For some priests it just flows. For others it’s like pulling your own teeth.  I have known priests who suffer from real “stage fright”.  They have to man up.  But put yourself in their shoes when you think their sermon should have been longer.

Anyway, not having a sermon does not invalidate Mass.

While on the topic, today there is among many priests a strong impulse, nay rather, fixation, on preaching every day. Thanks Vatican II.  This seems to me to be a good impulse, born from the palpable hunger of the faithful to be formed and the fervor of the priest for the Faith he is engaged to form.  However, this can have a downside.  We can run the risk of shaping people’s notions that Mass is a didactic moment instead of a sacral moment.   This “didacticism” crept in after Vatican II and the expansion of Lectionary, especially in respect to having three readings in the Novus Ordo on Sundays (a mistake).

Fathers, it is okay not to preach. “Strongly recommended”? Sometimes we must just let Mass be Mass.

Not have a sermon might be a blessing.

There is a wonderful word in Italian for irritatingly dopey things: stupidate (stu-pi-dá-te).  This precisely characterizes the majority of homilies I have heard in pulpits of priests with whom I am not friendly.  That said, even though the priest might be less than sharp or may be a poor speaker, there is invariably some good point you can extract from his “message”, no matter how ham-fisted it was blurted.  This is one of the reasons why I post the “Your Sunday Sermon Notes” posts: to help people find the gold dust.

So, if Father doesn’t preach or just utters a sentence or two, count your blessings and work with what he said.

Meanwhile, if Father continues in this way, you might share with him what you find in Trent, Session 24, the 1983 Code, and Sacrosanctum Concilium 52.

You might jot down what you find in Trent, Session 24 – look it up in English, the 1983 Code, Sacrosanctum Concilium 52, and…

And for weary preachers, here’s the approach of St. John Chrysostom:

“Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears. Thus neither sickness itself nor indeed any other obstacle is able to separate me from your love….For just as you are hungry to listen to me, so too I am hungry to preach to you. My congregation is my only glory, and every one of you means more to me than anyone of the city outside….Oftentimes in my dreams I see myself in the pulpit speaking to you.”

Now, lest I go on and on and on… like some sermons, I’ll stop.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. NB says:

    If it were me, I might find out what’s bothering the priest, aside from the obvious, and try to get to know him, to discuss, to listen, to empathize. Invite him over for supper or some such thing. He’s a human being, after all.

  2. Littlemore says:

    My father used to say that one of the best sermons he’d heard was from the PP who was a Monsignor. On Trinity Sunday, he went up to the Pulpit, and started, saying, “I believe in one God” and returned to the sanctuary.

  3. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Your reply to this person is rightly, and in detail, about the homily, and you also address her concern in a short paragraph : “Anyway, not having a sermon does not invalidate Mass.”

    But you do not address the loud subtext to the question, repeated three times, and that is scrupulosity. “…for Mass to be valid.” Perhaps she should ask the priest to preach on those things which can invalidate a Mass. That would indeed be a short homily!

    As for keeping “lists of abuses” – there is a real worry here, I suspect this person needs to reflect widely on her own engagement.

    Concerning the microphone, it is perfectly reasonable to object to it at a TLM, most priests do not use it unless needed only for the homily with the ‘hearing-loop’ for those hard of hearing. With the numbers generally attending it is barely necessary on most occasions. It should certainly not be used at the altar.

  4. Tradster says:

    Count your blessings. We had the opposite problem at yesterday’s High Mass where Father’s sermon went on and on for forty agonizing minutes!

  5. Lurker 59 says:

    One of the detriments of living in the modern period is that “sound” preaching has been regulated to the Sunday homily. It also stems from the Protestant background noise of the culture as Protestants place such emphasis on the sermon/homily as they have deprived themselves of the Eucharist.

    A second detriment is that anyone with academic training, and all priests have this, have been taught that they have to have something to say and that they are required to personally opine with a novel thesis on any given subject. This is the root of so much bad preaching. Priests really should be taught that it is ok to read someone else’s writings. The Liturgy of the Hours has sound daily lessons/readings, just preach that, please.

    A third detriment is that the laity doesn’t seek out sound preaching outside of the Mass. If the parish was to have a preaching series, it is abysmally attended. The laity needs to demand extended preaching/lectures and then show up. This is part of the need to transition to a robust parish life, rather than Catholicism being just a thing that is done on Sunday for about 45 minutes.

  6. RobinDeLage says:

    The short homilies I always remember best. One summer it was over 100 degrees in our parish. The pastor simply said “It is hot, Hell is hotter. Go to Confession.”

  7. Dave P. says:

    I believe the quote is: Be bright, be brief, and be gone. And if you can’t be bright, then be brief and be gone.

  8. amenamen says:

    “A flaming cat ran screaming through the church setting pews on fire.”

    Yes. We all know what that is like. And we would expect the priest, or deacon, to keep the homily rather brief on those occasions.

  9. maternalView says:

    After awhile it became evident that most of the priests and deacons in my area all took the same “how to give a homily” class. Which was fine because at least it had a structure and usually a point even if they were all constructed the same. (For a number of years they all started out with a funny story. Then that disappeared. )

    I’ve heard some pretty good homilies from Deacons but I’m generally not a fan of deacons giving the homily because often it becomes their “chance” to preach whatever their point of view might be.

    The hardest homily to listen to was the first homily given by a newly minted Deacon at my old parish. He spent at least 10 minutes on the build up which was basically him telling the plot of a movie he apparently thought made his point. He then says something to the effect that “today’s gospel is like that movie” and sat down.

    Someone must have told him to flesh out his point more because several weeks later his next homily had a little more to it. After a few years he finally got the hang of it though he was never a master. His sincerity did a lot for carrying him through.

    Then there was the Franciscan priest from Africa that gave the homily everyone says they want. I was totally absorbed in it. He did talk for 40 minutes though. Not surprisingly at his next Mass the homily was considerably shorter (to my disappointment– he was a good speaker).

    Homilies seem to be like the music — everyone’s got an opinion.

  10. BW says:

    Our Diocesan Priest doesn’t do a homily.

    However he also doesn’t get the readings (Inc. Gospel) said in the vernacular, just in Latin. He also advertises the TLM in the bulletin. Naughty naughty.

    He also thinks Archbishop Roche can “do one”.

    I’ll take no homily, and continue to bring my 4 young lads to the TLM. With God’s blessing, I might be father to a priest one day. Fight the good fight people.

  11. TonyO says:

    Homilies, homilies,…some good, some bad. Most I can’t remember 10 seconds after leaving church.

    The first time I ever experienced a TRULY good homily was when I was in college, it was given by a (Old Style) Jesuit who was a teacher of St. Thomas. He broke down the gospel into parts, explained the parts, put it back together to explain the whole, and applied it to “the real world”. He borrowed from St. Augustine and St. Thomas. And I think St. John Damascene.

    I have only ever heard about 3 other priests come close. Here’s the sad thing: while this priest was in fact very smart, he wasn’t using brilliance to do this. He was using huge crutches: the Fathers and Doctors. Standing on the shoulders of giants like that, anybody could appear erudite. There are SO DARN MANY to choose from – why is this so hard, Fathers?

    And then there was a priest whom I love dearly (a personal friend), with a good speaking voice, who just loved to hear his own voice, and gave (literally) 45 minute homilies. They were quite good – for 15 minutes. At 30 minutes, backaches and headaches set in, and at 40 minutes people wanted to lynch him. Sure, I accept that we are wimps these days, where in the old days they could listen (standing in a corn field) while 2 politicians debated for 3 hours…but we are what we are. The problem is that after 20 minutes, the new stuff wasn’t really new content, it was just rehashing, and that could not keep people intent.

    For my druthers (as opposed expectations from canon law), I would just as soon a priest only give 2 homilies a week (obviously 1 on Sunday) and have them be real meat, than drivel and pap 7 days a week which is what we mostly get. I am now in a parish with a bad sound system, the pastor has a very strong foreign accent, and I have hearing impairment. Usually I catch almost nothing…and (I fear) that is probably better than actually hearing the stuff.

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