Have a hot topic to preach about? Keep it to yourself

That seems to be the unfortunate thinking among many priests (and, supposedly, deacons), according to this observer from the United Kingdom:

I once asked an old faithful Catholic why so few people went to confession these days, and he replied at once: “Because we are never exhorted to do so from the pulpit.” This set me thinking, and as a result I made a resolution that I would from then on exhort people, from the pulpit, to go to confession. Imagine my horror when someone who heard me preach on the necessity of sacramental confession some time later published an article in a theological journal to the effect that I was completely wrong to do so! The article is not online, but you can see the edition of the journal here.

It all goes to show that if you do pick the sort of topics that people want you to preach about, there will be another group that will very much not want you to preach about those subjects.

On another occasion I ventured to show up what I considered to be some of the deficiencies in Professor Dawkins’s position. This provoked a furious and borderline rude correspondence which claimed that I was denigrating science and discouraging children from wanting to learn science. I considered this to be untrue, but it was clear to me that my correspondent saw any criticism of Dawkins as a criticism of the whole scientific community, on the grounds that Dawkins was a poor representative of scientific method.

Again, woe betide the preacher who ever strays into the territory of saying anything less than complimentary about other religions. Our present Pope has had the courage to speak his mind, both in the Regensberg address, and back in 1997, when he made somecomments on Buddhism that upset a few people. I am not for a moment suggesting that we go round hurting the sensibilities of other believers just for the sake of it, and neither would the Pope want us to do that; what I am saying is that when teaching Catholic truth we will have to use terms that others do not accept. Any real dialogue will depend on the Catholic side being true to Catholic tradition. But this riles some people. Quite often I am asked whether I believe in the ordination of women. My answer is always the same. I do not. If I did, I would be an Anglican. I cannot truthfully answer in any other way, but I see the eyes of the people who have asked the question clouding over with disapproval as I give them my answer.

So, let us be clear about this. You may not have heard a sermon recently on whatever subject is dear to your heart because the priest in the pulpit knows that certain subjects are best avoided, for the sake of a quiet life.

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18 responses to “Have a hot topic to preach about? Keep it to yourself”

  1. A few weeks ago I used the recent headlines from my home diocese involving grand juries and sex abuse. ( I an currently serving in another diocese). I thought I would get beaten up for attacking Holy Mother Church. As it turned out nobody said anything except for one parishioner who thanked me for my hope and faith that the good guys win in the end. You just never know.

  2. This is so sad, and I don’t know for which reason – that’s it’s become fashionable to kick against the goad when challenged to grow in faith and faithful practice, or that it’s become so fashionable to do it in England.

  3. Hi Deacon Don, Do you truly want to upset the apple cart, preach on the down side of the culture of clericalism?

    have fun.

  4. oh yes! And what if you preach against contraception (because many people will say ‘the priest never told us…’)—the firestorms you will cause and mass-exodus from the church!

  5. I am proud to say NOTHING is off limits with my pastor. The truth is NOT popular and it sometimes hurts.
    The truth is the truth whether we like it or not. I pray that those who preach will forever preach the truth. Amen? AMEN.

    Peace to all

  6. I think there’s a path through the middle; on one side there are homilists who avoid any touchy subject, and on the other there are those for whom every homily is a harrangue. I remember two homilies which were intended to get more people to go to confession. One priest started with the assumption that his listeners were reasonable people, and laid out the case why reasonable people should make more frequent use of that sacrament. The other started with the assumption that we lazy pew potatoes, that he had to yell to get our attention, and we were on the road to hell unless we changed our ways. One of these homilies actually moved me to make more frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance. Guess which one it was; and also guess which priest I chose as a confessor.
    I think a homilist can tell a hard truth, but whether it is received has a lot to do with respect being a two-way street.

  7. Melody, I genuinely appreciate your honesty, but when it comes to the matter of salvation, people really need to check their fragile egos at the door. Put in corprately oriented language, “This isn’t personal; it’s business.”

    Indeed, there simply IS no more serious business than eternity, and I for one would prefer to avoid having to rely on telling St. Peter that I died in a state of mortal sin because my pastor was a meany.

  8. Irish Spectre — I think you missed Melody’s point. So let me try it like this. Parishioner X needs to go to confession for the sake of his eternal salvation. Sermon A will get him there. Sermon B won’t. Which do we want him to hear?

    In Melody’s case the sermon A was not fire and brimstone, but sweet reason. Woe betide the pastor who is more desirous of telling his congregation off than in leading them back to the Lord.

  9. In one of our new Vicar’s first Sunday homilies, he reminded everyone that had failed to fulfill their obligation to attend Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that they should not receive Holy Communion unless or until they had first gone to confession. Several Sunday’s alter he extolled the virtues of chastity – using our Lord as model and standard. The public announcement of his reassignment followed within a few months thereafter.

  10. naturgesetz – I think you missed Irish Spectre’s point. So let me try it like this. Parishioners A through Z need to go to confession for the sake of their eternal salvation. As individuals, they bring to the party a plethora of sensitivities that collectively exist in all manner of shapes and sizes, such that there’s not a particular style of sermon that can possibly grab all of them; and yes, sadly, we’re talking about style, not the actual message.

    What about the parishoner who’s actually motivated by fire and brimstone, yet is put to sleep in the pew by sweet reason? Surely his soul’s no less worthy of salvation.

    I assume that that man in the pulpit is not “telling off” the congregation out of disrespect or sadism; folks just need to grow up, frankly, and assume an obligation for being attentive to the message, irrespective of the packaging, and I won’t find fault with the sincere priest whose tone isn’t “right.”

  11. I guess Americans do not want to feel uncomfortable in the pews, so they don’t want to hear about serious discipleship, about abortion, divorce, confession, hell, heaven, purgatory, holiness, and the doctrines of the Church. We want a vanilla Church, were warm fuzzies, platitudes and with go with the flow sermons that do not rankle feathers. Mostly this rejection goes, unfortunately to orthodoxy (what some would call “the right”). If you teach unorthodox doctrine such as ordination of women, reproductive “choice”, “spirituality” against religion, etc., most likely you will be called “courageous” and receive accolades.

  12. There are priests who love and then there are priests who want to be loved. Priests who love tell the truth. Priests who want to be loved steer clear of “difficult” topics in the hopes of coasting along and not alienating donors. Guess which type is in the majority?

  13. Honestly, I do understand that a homily isn’t supposed to be entertainment; that sometimes difficult topics have to be addressed. And I think one can learn something and derive something of benefit even from a poorly done homily. It isn’t just a Catholic problem; my husband grew up in an evangelical church. He said that there were those in the congregation who were uncomfortable if a pastor always “preached salvation”; and there were others who thought he ought to do it every Sunday. He sometimes suspected that many in the latter group enjoyed hearing the pastor sock it to the slackers (which of course did not include them!). I still maintain that a balance is best; somewhere between vanilla and cayenne; a constant stream of negativity is disheartening. Also a homilist shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a homily is supposed to open up the scriptures which are the readings of the Mass.

  14. It’s an “all things to all men” thing. Homily-delivering clergy should try to appeal to people from various directions and with various takes on the subject. Same thing as if you were teaching a class full of kids, and you were trying to get each of them to get it. Some you’d have to show it to them visually, some would get it by hearing, some by moving things around. Some you’d have to be gentle and encouraging; some you’d have to be stern with. If you read the great homilists, they’re not shy about adopting multiple approaches even inside the same paragraph. They address people’s common objections while they’re speaking, so they don’t have people ignoring the homily for their own huff. It’s like herding cats, admittedly.

    There are a number of textbooks and courses on rhetoric, these days. Professor Drout, the Tolkien guy, also has an audiobook course on rhetoric as part of his Modern Scholar: A Way with Words series on literature studies, where he teaches rhetoric principles and dissects famous speeches from a rhetoric perspective.

  15. As a Catholic who went to parochial school in the 60s I have heard a number of fire and brimstone sermons, both in church and in the classroom under the nun’s tutelage. All that approach taught me (yes I’m also at blame here) was to fear God and to be “good” so I wouldn’t end up in hell.

    What I hear from my pastor now is why I should want to love and desire union with God and how I can invite God in and turn my will over to Him. He rarely preaches on specific sins, but rather focuses on how we can turn our hearts to God.

    I liken liken the hell-fire approach to giving me a fish (a kick in the butt) and the second to teaching me how to fish (how to love God in all things). I’ll take the second any day.

    Which approach do you think God prefers? Obedience to His Word out of fear or out of a love relationship?

  16. In my above post part of a sentence was left out:

    He rarely preaches on specific sins, but rather focuses on how we can turn our hearts to God……and in doing so, teaches that sin will fall away as we choose not to hurt our love.

  17. momor — I like your pastor’s “Caritas Christi urget nos” (the love of Christ impels us) approach. I’d add that there are moral questions where the answer isn’t obvious on the surface to people of good will: matters such as embryonic stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, contraception. In these areas, your pastor’s rare preaching on specific sins is important. Another sin which IMO is too little preached about is rash judgment.

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