Sunday, 15 March 2009

Sermon Length

I have been thinking lately about the state of the average churchgoing Catholic's knowledge of their faith.

In this connection I have been pondering the status of the Sunday homily. As I have mentioned on this blog before, I believe that most Catholics actually know their Bibles as well as your average Evangelical; they just don't know how it all fits together. They have no context. So they can identify a verse if they hear it, but they would very rarely know where it comes from or how it relates to the rest of Scripture. Now, of course, there are a few excellent courses and books available (I would, of course, like there to be many excellent books and courses, but this is the present state of affairs, alas) but for your average garden-variety Catholic, the sole source of catechesis and Scriptural teaching comes from the Sunday homily.

I've attended a few churches in my five years in the Church; at present, I am a lector at St Benedict's Broadway, Sydney. In all that time, I have, I think, only ever heard a homily of more than ten minutes from two churches, those being the EF use at Lewisham and the Maronite church at Mt Druitt (I must, however, except one dear old priest I know whose homilies are a delight but who does tend to ramble- I don't think that counts). Not an exhaustive cross-section, but still representative I suspect.

Why is it our homilies are so short? Even the good priests I know don't unpack all three readings, explicate them, draw them together, show why the Church has put these particular readings together AND apply them to our lives too. There is often good application. There is very rarely much exegesis. There is almost never any kind of broader context given to the OT readings. I would be surprised if many Catholics could tell one prophet from another.

As a Baptist, the Sunday sermon always had three points and usually went for about 20 minutes. When I was in China, the sermon went for an hour. I understand from the history of the Reformation why the sermon became the main attraction in Protestant services so that it came to dwarf everything else. Thats easy enough to grasp. But on the Catholic side, what are the precedents? Have our homilies always been this meagre?

Today I attempted an experiment to find out. A not particularly systematic or scientific one, but an experiment nonetheless. I picked out a homily from Aelfric in the tenth century, a homily from St John Chrysostom in the fifth and Augustine in the fourth (or possibly also the fifth- I didn't check), and timed each of them. The results were diverse. St John Chrysostom was the shortest at 25 minutes. Then came Aelfric at 35 minutes. Augustine came to one hour ten minutes (!) and, extraordinarily, apologised at the end of it because he wanted to say more but had too little time (!?).

So I'm curious. At what point did the mini-sermon become the standard? And, more to the point, is there anything that can be done to reverse the trend and make the standard homily longer? Business people go to conferences that run for whole days. University students sit through lectures of fifty minutes. So why in heaven's name are we satisfied with homilies of less than ten minutes? Why do we instinctively feel that the congregation can't handle longer than that?

Liturgical development should exist in continuity with the past, and clearly the length of homilies generally presented now hasn't featured much in the past (or, at any rate, in the first millenium) if my very unscientific results are anything to go by. So what can be done? This is a question I will continue to ponder. For it is certainly clear that, if the homily is all that the average Catholic's faith is fed on, a snack is not sufficient. Our churches need to start serving meals.

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