From the e-mail bag: that homily sounds familiar

From the e-mail bag: that homily sounds familiar February 15, 2011

A reader writes:

I was directed to your blog, The Deacon’s Bench, by a link on The Anchoress’ blog.  As I began reading the homily posted for World Marriage Day, I was shocked to recognize it… because my own pastor had preached this homily almost verbatim during Mass on Sunday (and on Saturday evening also according to my husband).  He even attributed your wife’s quote about praying together and separately to his mother.

It bothers me IMMENSELY that your words were taken and presented as our pastor’s (though he never said they were specifically his, he also did not acknowledge that he read your homily nearly verbatim), and that your wife’s quote was attributed falsely to my pastor’s mother.  I am in a quandary how to handle this.  A part of me wants to “call my pastor” on this, to confront him with the knowledge that he took someone else’s work and presented it as his own.  To me, this is lying.  And part of me thinks that the message is more important than who says it.  On the other hand, this is the second time that I was directed to one of your homilies in recent weeks (the Anchoress is a big fan of yours) only to find it eerily familiar.

Perhaps you welcome others using your materials, I do not know, but I wanted to share that others are using your work without proper attribution.

Well.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and I should make clear up front: as the author of the homily in question, this really doesn’t bother me.  As far as I’m concerned, the Holy Spirit owns the copyright to my work, not me, and I’m glad others can make use of the material that I post.  In fact, one reason I try to publish my homilies on Saturday is so that people, if necessary, can use them on Sunday.   I’m happy to share.

However, what this pastor has done does seem to cross the line from “sharing” into the realm of “fraud.”   I can’t endorse what he did, but I don’t know what circumstances led him to parrot the homily verbatim, even to the point of attributing my wife’s words to his mother.  Maybe he just had a really bad week.  Maybe he ran out of time to prepare a homily.  I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I also have to assume that, when I post homilies, these things will happen.  My blog is just one of dozens of homily resources out there, and a lot of priests and deacons make use of them, for whatever reason, to help fill those seven or eight minutes following the gospel.

Ultimately, to my way of thinking, the message matters more than the messenger — but the messenger should probably be careful about how he attributes the message.

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12 responses to “From the e-mail bag: that homily sounds familiar”

  1. Could I submit as my weekly column on Catholic Spirituality one of Karl Rahner SJ’s columns for Die Presse, and not attribute it to the late Fr. Rahner? It’s been a busy week here, I have a sick kid, lots of grading to do and a grant due. The message is the same, we both write with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (at least in my case, I hope and pray I do). What’s the difference? Would you say something to the bishop in charge of the archdiocesan paper? I imagine so, and you would be right to do so.

    The way for the pastor to begin is to say, “I found this wonderful homily by Deacon Kandra – and was so moved by his words and thought them so valuable for this community that I wish to read them for you today.” or “This week was unexpectedly full, and I did not have time to prepare a homily – but I read this and it moved me and so I should Deacon Kandra’s homily with you today.”

    One should expect truth from the pulpit, and the edit of wife to mother is not unalloyed truth.

  2. We look at this whole area of intellectual property so differently in our western culture today. I wonder if people who have read Mark’s Gospel are shocked to hear the author of Matthew’s or Luke’s gospel copying whole passages from Mark’s without attribution. Your second sentence (starting: as far as I am concerned…) hits the nail on the head. Keep sharing and thank you for doing so.

  3. Deacon Greg,

    A big cheer for your attitude. The Holy Spirit likewise holds my copyrights. If someone wants to use them and not attribute, that is fine with me. If some from a distant parish gets something out of it, even better.


    Deacon Paul Augustin

  4. I often get inspiration from many of the blogs I read…and I have always found the authors to be very gracious in giving me permission to use their material-properly attributed. Deacon Greg, you have always been very prompt in giving permission for me to use your work. All it takes is a simple email to most authors…and in this day and age of instant access to the internet, you can never assume that someone isn’t reading the author’s blog! Thank you, Deacon Greg, for your generosity!

  5. Michele’s suggestion above is an excellent one!

    Some preachers use the texts from homily services week after week and never credit the source. Such practice might easily lead to lifting a homily from an online source without due attribution. Of course, attributing to your own mother words she never spoke crosses another line of authenticity! The problem I see here has less to do with plagiarism and more to do with taking personal responsibility for one the most important tasks a priest or deacon owns – preaching the Word of God.

  6. I’ve rarely turned to homily helps. My homilies range from pedestrian to, seemingly, something that touches people. Last week I had “writers block” and for one of the very first times I turned to an online source (not yours). I shortened the material considerably, changes some wording, added some of my own. Wouldn’t you know it, a woman asked if I’d e-mail it to her to use with a discussion group. When I sent it to her I acknowledged that the work was heavily dependent on a web site. The homily was actually part of an archive of past homilies, one offered the last time we were in the A cycle.

  7. There is nothing new about this. In my long-ago altar boy days I would occasionally be asked to bring a book of sermons into the pulpit for the celebrating priest.

  8. I agree with the first Michelle and shudder at the thought that someone could take our work, attribute it to the Holy Spirit instead of one of our writers or photographers, and then publish it without compensating us. The cold, hard facts of capitalism means that if I want to feed my family, I need to be paid for my toil. I’m as big a believer in the Holy Spirit as the rest of you, but last I checked He won’t write the checks that pay for my daughter’s college education.

    Jim Lackey
    Catholic News Service

  9. RP Burke – I don’t think there is anything wrong per se with reading a sermon by John Chrysostom (or Greg Kandra) as long as you acknowledge doing so and do so because you think it’s what your community needs to hear.

    I agree with Austin Fleming, it’s about taking responsibility for what has been entrusted to you – breaking open and holding up the word of God. Truth matters, even in the small things.

    Deacon Charlie – I am not shocked by Matthew and Luke’s practice, but these are not the Biblical times (and the Scriptures have a much more complex editorial history than what we are talking about here). My teen-aged sons were appalled – this would get them in serious hot water at school. But it’s ok for Father to do this?

    Homilies are not academic papers, and I don’t expect footnotes or MLA style references. I do expect that the person who has been ordained to preach in the person of Christ – He who is the Way, the Light and the Truth – be truthful. If it is not your homily and you preach it, say so.

    On many Saturdays the most common search terms that lands people at my blog (where my columns on spirituality are re-posted and eminently searchable by scripture text) is “homily”. What do you think I should do the day I hear my own words preached back at me without attribution?

  10. The pastor cut an ethical corner, and in doing so, a truly important part of the message was lost for his congregation.

    If all words of the Bible are from the Holy Spirit, why do we as people of the world continue to attribute readings of the apostles to Mark, Luke or Peter et al?

    The reason is simple: God in his wisdom realizes that faith is diverse in how it is manifested in every person.

    The entire faith is strengthened when attribution to a person, apostle, disciple, mentor, or teacher in the various religious faiths is included as the earthly source for the Divine words. Our word choices in language are our best attempt to transcribe or report as God’s news outlet in a tapestry of perspectives and then as listeners and readers have a responsibility to interpret that message. (No Fox or CNN comparisons, please)

    So spread the news, share the good word, but attribute the source so readers and listeners can fully appreciate the unique spiritual journey that led to those specific words.

  11. I would agree with what the pastor did in not attributing the homily. I often make use of something that Augustine or C.S. Lewis says in a homily and, unless there is a reason to attribute the idea, I think it is a needless distraction. For instance, if the pastor began by saying that the homily was taken from a blog, then people’s minds would move from the gospel to the internet. If it were something written, however, such as in the bulletin, proper attribution is very important.

    What is problematic is that it is very difficult to preach someone else’s homily as if it were your own. Even I do not preach my own homilies word for word. That is not preaching but reading. One time I tried do that with one of Pope Benedict’s homilies for the Spanish Mass. They said that they preferred my own halting, childish Spanish to even the best written homily.

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