The Hidden Benefits of Bad Preaching

It is the essence of the Church to have a lot of low masses and no sermons. 
Hilaire Belloc

It’s a truism to say that the pulpit is at the center of most Protestant worship whereas the altar is at the center of the Mass, but nothing drives that point home better than a bad homily.

When my non-Catholic friends express curiosity about Catholic worship, I struggle to help them understand that Mass is first and foremost about fulfilling an obligation, and what we might get out of it is of secondary consideration. I’ll explain that liturgy is, quite literally, the “work of the people,” and it’s no secret that human work can be kind of routine and even boring sometimes. Yes, we always receive Jesus in spades at every Mass, wonder of wonders!, but our first purpose is to go and bend the knee – it’s a Commandment after all.

My Evangelical friends just don’t get this, and so I’m always happy when they join me at Mass to experience it for themselves – although I know what the fallout will often be: Scrunched up faces and raised eyebrows as they suffer through seemingly mindless ritual, rote prayers, and the occasional lousy sermon.

“Is the preaching always this bad?” they might ask.

“Sometimes worse,” I’ll offer gleefully. “Or, on weekdays, sometimes we luck out and get no sermon at all!”

“Then,” they’ll wonder aloud, “why go at all?”

Ah, there’s the nub, and it’s why bad homilies played a role in my conversion. As an Evangelical inquirer, I recognized very early on that the Mass was the heart of Catholic faith and practice, so I went as often as I could – daily even after a while. I endured many a bad sermon in those days, especially at the weekday liturgies, but they helped to cement the idea in me that the Mass is a numinous encounter that does not depend on clever preaching whatsoever.

Instead, it’s an encounter that is much more rich and profound and (most importantly) dependable than mere sermonizing. It’s an encounter borne of proclamation of a written Word and, more particularly, celebration of a Sacramental drama, the Eucharist. The setting might be a gorgeous cathedral with beautiful music accompanied by a well crafted and scintillating sermon, or it might be a drab suburban chapel with an off-the-cuff homily from a harried priest who spent the night at the bedside of a dying parishioner. No matter: Jesus will show up at both. Sure, we’d prefer inspirational and energetic preaching, but it’s not at all necessary.

Indeed, there’s a benefit to mediocre preaching once in a while, and it’s this: The faithful will be all the more likely to focus on what’s most important in the Mass if they aren’t distracted by the brilliant homily. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

The Holy Father went on to stress that the “homily cannot be a form of entertainment,” distracting us from Jesus as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, “yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” It’s a tricky balance, no doubt, so be on your guard if you’ve developed a taste for great preaching. A diet of superb, memorable homilies might tempt those in the pews to grow attached to the homilist, and the last thing the Church needs are personality cults, sermon groupies, and church-hopping in search of jazzy hermeneutics and/or rhetorical pyrotechnics.

How do I know that? Easy. Those are precisely the things we converts left behind when we joined the Church – and we don’t miss them at all.

image: Radoslaw Maciejewski / Shutterstock.com

Richard Becker

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He resides with his family in South Bend, Indiana, where he and his wife, Nancy, serve as Co-Directors of Religious Education at St. Matthew Cathedral. Rick also serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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  • Jane Ellen Hautanen

    Okay, I admit the purpose of mass is not to entertain us. But does it need to be TORTURE as it sometimes is 🙁

  • Claire

    Awesome reflection! I love good music and a good homily, and I wouldn’t want every Mass to be void of those elements. But it is too easy to get hooked on those feel-good experiences and lose sight of what’s important. Your reflection has also given me some talking points to use with my 7-year old when he complains that Mass is boring.

  • Romulus

    In addition to not entertaining, it is also not the purpose of the Mass to instruct or to edify. Few Catholics these days realize that the celebrant at Mass is not talking to them — indeed their presence is more or less beside the point. Liturgy is not “by the people”.

    Protestants insist on viewing liturgy through evangelical and didactic filters because they refuse to accept its sacramentality. This is at the heart of so many Catholics complaining that they”get nothing out of the Mass”, completely missing the point that the Mass is directed not to them but to the Father. We are present to contribute our own sacrifice of praise and worship.

  • Mike17

    If a sermon at a Catholic Mass is boring there are still riches to be had at Mass but what does a Protestant gain if the sermon is boring at his service?

  • Enders_Shadow

    An interesting Old Testament argument, but one that fails to engage with the role of the gathering of the body of Christ in the New Testament. This is presented as the edification of the body – which is the test for everything that Paul offers in I Corinthians 12 and 14, whilst Heb 10 offers:

    24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…

    If that’s the role of ‘the mass’ – and given that it’s the only occasion that the average Catholic gets together with his spiritual siblings, it presumably must be as well as it being anything else – it’s a comprehensive fail.

  • Enders_Shadow

    It’s interesting that John Wesley – founder of Methodism – had a very high view of the ‘Mass’, seeking to attend every day. But he ALSO had a high view of the role of preaching to achieve conversion. The problem is that most of us fail to recognise the need for BOTH if people are to truly engage with God in a life changing way. Sadly the mechanistic attendance which the teaching of the Magisterium ultimately boils down to, is deeply inadequate: as I say above, the New Testament emphasises that the role of meeting together is to be edified, and I Cor 14 shows that that is through the coherent presentation of God’s will (‘prophecy’).

  • Romulus

    A Methodist would readily agree that liturgy ought to be an occasion for improvement. We’re not Methodists, however.

    If you suppose the Magisterium calls us to nothing more than mechanistic attendance, you are badly mistaken. Active receptivity is the ideal, the summit of which is reception of Holy Communion when in a state of grace and properly disposed.

  • Enders_Shadow

    One of Jesus’ more crushing comments is about those who use tradition to set aside the clear teaching of the Torah (Mk 7). What I’m hearing here is the same problem: the role of gathering together is clearly to encourage each other and to hear the word of God (Heb 10, 1 Cor 14). Instead the Catholic tradition has over emphasised the drama of the mass – and the rest has got lost. THIS WILL NOT DO.

  • John Felcyn

    A good holmily touches the spirit and heart of the listener and flows into a passionate encounter with Jesus in the eucharist. A good homily prepares the way for the eucharist.
    It is not and should not be a matter of either/or, but rather, both/and. Good homiletics can be taught and learned. Bishop Fulton Sheen was proof of that. If protestant preaching is so consistently good, it is because of devotion to the word in scripture and intense preparation. It is true that the word of God really is “living and effective, sharper than any two edged sword….”
    Just the opinion of a lay Catholic.

  • bonaventure

    Unfortunately, too many lectors are not qualified to read the Scriptures. Now that’s a real problem, considering that a homily is optional, while reading the Scriptures is not.

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