It’s a question almost as old as Christianity itself, and given that parishioners globally have some personal experience of it, it is certainly one worth answering: How long should a homily be?
This question has sparked discussion this week after Pope Francis told a gathering of 10,000 over the weekend in Italy that the homily shouldn’t last more than eight minutes. “A 40-minute homily? No.” By keeping it short and concise, listeners will easily be able absorb the content and meaning of the homily, and then act on it.
However, it may not be the case that a long homily is necessarily a boring homily, with its success actually depending on the topic being preached or the quality of the preaching itself.
That’s the take from Dr David Deane, Associate Professor of Theology in Canada’s Atlantic School of Theology, who said that the quality of preaching makes the difference between a good and bad homily, rather than how long it lasts. Francis’ remarks, he said, come from the fact that the Pontiff “has had a pretty poor experience of preachers” as many of us have, and so, the shorter they are the better.
However, now that men are entering the seminary because of their “passion and commitment” rather than as a “great career option” when vocations were aplenty, longer and more appealing homilies should be normalised.
“Thus, drab disinterested services are, in my opinion, less common now than 30 and 40 years ago. Francis is speaking from a particular cultural epoch. My take is that two minutes of boring disinterested preaching is two minutes too long. I could listen to Martin Luther King all day!” he said.
It’s a thought-provoking argument and for Irish priest Fr Silvester O’Flynn OFM Cap, it might hold some credence. Speaking to this paper, he said that homilies ought to be simple, clear, directed and well-adapted.
He added that homilies should be straight to the point, so that the “whole thing is rounded and connected”, but he said, there might not be a direct link between the longevity of the homily and those enthusiastically listening.
“To me”, he said, “it’s totally relative to interest. If you’re interested in something you don’t mind.”
He pointed out that some of the most stimulating talks he has attended have lasted well over an hour. What’s important, he emphasised, is that the homily “doesn’t take over from the Mass”.
“It’s integrated into the Mass. It’s isn’t a lecture. A lecture stands on its own,” he said.
So, should homilies be shortened because parishioners don’t want to listen to long sermons, or is general dissatisfaction towards homilies due to poor preaching? It’s probably a combination of both.
People are enthused by a homily when the priest is a good speaker and is talking about an interesting topic, but given that people are constantly juggling their time now-a-days, too long a homily might bore or deter parishioners.
Petra Conroy of Catholic Voices Ireland told this paper that homilies should speak to those who are connected to the Church “but are not really in it”, like busy parents or businessowners who are focused on things outside the walls of their church.
Priests, she said, should be trained to better communicate the message of the Gospel and in this way, they can really challenge the listeners.
The sign of good homily, Ms Conroy said, is really if it makes you think about your own life, and how you can act upon the message.