It’s happened to all of us. Anyone who, by choice or by force, happens to be a regular churchgoer, has heard a bad sermon. I’m not talking about a priest who is a poor public speaker. And I’m not talking about sermons that are too long.
I’m talking about the bad ones: the theologically questionable, the offensive, the hateful. The ones that make you question why you keep coming back to this archaic religion anyway. The ones that make you thank God you didn’t choose this mass to introduce your friend to your faith.
I’ve heard some pretty nasty sermons over the past 27 years. The worst by far was at a church in Florida where the priest informed his shocked congregation that “domestic abuse is terrible, but at least these women have husbands.” (I assume no causal connection between the state of Florida and this man’s warped view of family life.) Last Sunday, I heard about half of a bad sermon. The priest started out with a one-sided history of Islam that got my inner porcupine quills standing on edge. Fortunately, he managed to (mostly) turn it around and make an important point about the rosary. (It’s not a good luck charm. You have to actually pray it.) But, by the time he got around to that, I had already pretty much shut him out. I’m not proud of this,but I’ve heard enough bad sermons to know I don’t want to be angry in church. If I were more emotionally mature, I would do a better job of disagreeing without becoming angry.
I’ll admit, I’m tired of being offended at mass. I’m exhausted with men telling me about my “feminine nature.” (I haven’t figured that who I am, so how on Earth do they know?) I’m tired of hearing other religions being put down, especially faiths that have been historically persecuted by Christians. We’re supposed to know better now- we have several beams in our eyes. More than anything, I’m fed up with hearing hate preached in the name of God. I’m not saying every sermon needs to be a fluffy, feel-good, pat-on-the back. And I’m not saying I have to agree politically with everything a priest says, especially if I’m in disagreement with the Church. But I am saying that a sermon has to reflect what our religion actually teaches. I want theologically sound sermons. I want to be challenged and spoken to as someone who has a critical mind, has studied history, knows the Catechism, and has a basic understanding of theology. In other words, preach to me as if you think I can read. Because I can and will fact check you when I get home.
I know I am not perfect, and I know that priests aren’t perfect. I also know that most of the time I need to eat a humble sandwich. (I’m always right, of course. They’re always wrong.) But I’m concerned about the generations-old pattern of mindlessly nodding along when a man with no particular claim to holiness says something outrageous. The sad truth is, many Catholics don’t really know what their religion teaches; they know what their parish priest teaches. If the parish priest regularly misinterprets the faith, his parish is going to be left with a warped view of their own religion, and this leads to grave problems.
Take, for example, the Church’s stance on divorce. It is true that the Church teaches marriage is insoluble, but it is not true that the Church wants abused women to stay in their relationships. (This isn’t the place to get into the technical differences between an annulment and a divorce.) Whatever its shortcomings, the Church teaches that woman have dignity. They have a right to safety and respect. Full stop. If a woman in that Florida congregation was in an abusive marriage, and she heard that severely misguided sermon from a trusted priest, she might leave with the belief that the Catholic Church thinks she should stay with her abuser. If she does find the strength to leave, it is extremely likely that she will also leave the Church. Because of her experience, she will see the Church as contributing to her abuse. Naturally, she will share this experience with others, cementing the perception that Catholicism is backwards, anti-woman, and morally bankrupt. All because of a poor teacher.
So what do we do? My natural reaction of getting angry and ranting about it has never proven effective. I’ve also never felt comfortable discussing the issue of a questionable sermon with the priest in question. (Fortunately, I’ve never heard an ugly sermon from the pastor at my own parish.)
The good news for Catholics is it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the Eucharist. You don’t come to mass to hear some guy talk. You come to witness and partake in a miracle, and the beautiful thing is it happens whether or not you have a great priest. Because it’s God, not the man, who makes the miracle.
The bad news for Catholics is… it doesn’t really matter. This can lead to a sense of complacency, a lack of caring about what is happening in our parishes and in our hearts. Plus, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for non-Catholics who want to know why we keep going back to a place where nastiness is spewed on the alter. In that sense, it matters a great deal, because it affects the spiritual health of our community. People have left the faith over misconceptions born in the homily, and bringing them back can be difficult. Even in my own heart, after a particularly bitter sermon, there is an emptiness, a sadness, that the Church I love so much is so broken. And this is only one small part of it.
So, aside from ranting and raving, here is a short list of possible responses to a bad sermon.
- After calming down, discuss the elements of the homily that troubled you with your family and friends. It’s important to listen to their perspective, rather than trying to teach. (This is extremely difficult for me.)
- If the priest is someone you are comfortable with, send an email or drop by the office to talk about what you heard. It’s possible you misunderstood.
- If you’re not comfortable, or the priest won’t listen to you, bring the sermon up with another priest. It’s likely he’ll have an entirely different take.
- If the problem persists, switch parishes.
- Pray about it.
What about you? What do you do when you hear a bad sermon? If you no longer attend church, was this a factor in your leaving?
Let’s talk about it.