Pope Francis and the Search for Solutions to the Bad Sermon Phenomenon

pope francis and the search for solutions to the bad sermon phenomenon

From the very first moments of his pontificate—when he emerged onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and famously asked the crowd gathered outside to pray for him—Pope Francis has garnered praise for his approachability and common touch. He has continued to win fans for displaying these same attributes throughout his pontificate, often making headlines for dramatic gestures of compassion. On more than one occasion, Francis has even managed to connect deeply with average believers by speaking to a topic that likely seems minor and basic to outside observers (but not to regularly-churchgoing Catholics): the quality of sermons. In , 2018, and most recently in January of 2023, the Pope has said what most Catholics would likely say when asked about this subject—that is, that homilies are often bad, and unnecessarily long.

The need to reduce the length of homilies has consistently been a part of Francis’s message, with him repeatedly calling for priests to limit their sermons to ten minutes. Most recently, in remarks to a gathering of liturgical directors at the Vatican in January, he modified the standard to “eight to ten minutes” and was blunt on his assessment of sermon quality: “in general, the homilies are a disaster.” While the word “disaster” drew a fair bit of reaction (and concurrence) from outlets across Catholic media, the sentiment was nothing new from Francis. In the past, he has found it necessary to explicitly warn priests that “your homilies should not be boring” and stated outright that “sometimes there is reason to get annoyed about an overly long homily, one that lacks focus or thats incomprehensible.”

Francis’s repeated critiques reflect the importance that he places upon the homily, a subject he finds so critical that he dedicated a substantial portion of Evangelii Gaudium to it. In that document, he provides an initial assessment of general sermon quality as the basis for an extended discussion of the subject:

We know that the faithful attach great importance to [homilies], and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of [them]: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case (§135).

Across the next twenty-four paragraphs, the Pope addresses what to do to ensure better preaching. Of course, he emphasizes the importance of brevity, even going so far as to state that a preacher who sermonizes at length risks creating a situation in which “his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

In addition to making this call for short sermons, the document delves into elements of style, prodding preachers to avoid lecturing and pretentiousness, and to use a warm tone of voice. While the average churchgoer will appreciate that prompt and hope for priests that heed it, Francis’s encyclical does not stop with these matters, dedicating substantial attention to issues of content. First, Evangelii Gaudium echoes the catechism’s call to anchor the homily in scripture, elucidating the text’s “principal message, the message which gives [it] structure and unity . . . If the preacher does not make this effort, his preaching will quite likely have neither unity nor order; what he has to say will be a mere accumulation of various disjointed ideas incapable of inspiring others.”

Rather than disjointed ideas, Francis calls for a homily that provides a “synthesis” between the messages and themes of the Word and the lives of the faithful. On this point, he writes that “the preacher also needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need to hear. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.” Through such contemplation, the preacher can understand and speak to the parishioners’ “aspirations, riches and limitations, ways of praying, of loving, of looking at life and the world” and can address “people, using their language, their signs and symbols, [and] answering the questions they ask. Ultimately, the synthesizing task of the homilist is to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation.”

Among the tools available to preachers endeavoring to accomplish this, Francis advocates most strongly for the use of imagery, as “images . . . help people better to appreciate and accept the message we wish to communicate. An attractive image makes the message seem familiar, close to home, practical and related to everyday life.” In recent years, the Pope has repeated a formula of the three core elements, introduced in Evangelii Gaudium, that he believes constitute a good homily: idea, image, and emotional effect. While all of this seems relatively simple, it can be quite powerful if taken seriously by homilists: extract the principal message or idea of the day’s Gospel and readings, then link it to the lives of the parishioners using imagery, with the goal of producing an emotion or sentiment; keep it under ten minutes.

Of course, there are plenty of prominent voices that have acknowledged and proposed solutions to the bad sermon phenomenon. Writing in 2012 in response to a survey that asked ex-Catholics why they had left the Church, Bishop Robert Barron noted the prevalence of those who had cited bad preaching as among their reasons (homilies were described by respondents as “boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared”). Barron’s diagnosis of the cause of such homilies was refreshingly simple: “sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.”

A preacher will always fail, Barron suggested, if he “has not endeavored to correlate the answers he provides with the questions that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks.” Luckily, he goes on to note, scripture itself can bridge the gap, as “practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person—Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc.—who is questioning, wondering, suffering, or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.”

Barron’s point is indeed essential, both because Christ is the center of Christian worship and because Christ is never boring. Even when a passage recounting the words of Jesus seems straightforward or basic, there is always more there; in the words of René Girard: “When Jesus says something that seems banal, it is necessary to be wary.” Common dynamics of Jesus’s ministry, such as the ways in which his actions and words reinforce each other, or the ways in which his questions to other figures in the Gospels are often actually also questions for the reader, provide rich and easily accessible material for homilies.

Matching his healing of an unnamed paralytic in Mark 2:1–12 with his explanation about forgiveness in Mark 2:17 (“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”), for instance, would provide a preacher with an opportunity to combine idea (forgiveness), image (the healed paralytic), and an emotion (the uplifting notion of God’s willingness to accept and “heal” each individual sinner) into a brief and enlightening sermon. Similarly, Jesus’s question to the disciples after he has washed their feet in John 13:12 (“do you realize what I have done for you?”) can be emphasized as a question that is being asked directly to sermon-hearers in pews as much as to the characters of the Gospel story.

A sermon that merely outlines dynamics like these, tying them to contemporary parishioners’ concerns about their own mistakes, imperfections, struggles, and doubts, could be easily and compellingly written by any preacher. There is certainly ample material offered in the scriptures to do just that on a weekly basis. And it can be done in under ten minutes.