by Russell Pollitt SJ
Twice before, when I have written about the poor standard of preaching in the Church, I have received a flood of emails. Almost all the positive ones are from lay people, agreeing with my assertion and, often, saying that they are at their wits end with what they have to listen to. Not surprisingly, the few blow-back emails I get, are always from clergy telling me I am being mischievous or, as one told me, you “don’t understand the purpose of preaching.”
As I have explained before, I often find myself in the benches on Sundays – I am not working in a parish. This has been an education. Admittedly, I have heard some very good homilies but, for the most part, can say they have been few and far between.
Recently I did something I never thought I would do: I walked out of a Church one Sunday because I could no longer sit and have my dignity assaulted by a preacher. The lesser sin, I reasoned, was to leave.
The preacher began by showing how shallow his understanding of the Scripture text was. He basically abused the text (completely ignoring its meaning and context) to build up to a patronising, moralistic diatribe about all those things associated with the pelvic regions. Chewing gum, genuflecting in the right direction, and shutting noisy children up also mysteriously made their way into what seemed to go on and on…
It seemed fairly obvious to me that the congregation had switched off. Some were reading the bulletin or Southern Cross, others fidgeting and, others still, counting the blocks on the roof. It was clear that the preacher had no awareness of this as he droned on.
Just when I thought the runway was in sight and he was about to (mercifully!) land, he pushed the throttle up and the engines roared back into a treatise about perversion, immorality and how Holy Communion was the preserve of the righteous. I could no longer take it and, so, I got up and left.
A few days later I was talking to someone who regularly attends mass at this parish. I was told that this was ‘normal.’ When I asked why they continued to attend at this place the response was “Good question. I know others who have left but, I guess, it’s convenient.” The person then went on to tell me that most Sundays they “switch-off anyway” when the sermon begins.
Why have we settled for the lowest common denominator when it comes to Sunday sermons? Pope Francis, dedicates a significant section of his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, to the Sunday homily. This suggests he too knows that we face a challenge when it comes to sermon quality.
Why do we sit back and accept intellectual insults or inappropriate lectures when we should be leaving Sunday mass feeling suitably challenged, inspired and hopeful, rejoicing that God has spoken to us? Why has wearing fiddle-back vestments, making sure chalices are gold, or using a bad English translation become disproportionately more important than feeding God’s people?