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For the sake of a quiet life, some priests will avoid tricky subjects in homilies

Even preaching about the necessity of confession caused me trouble

By on Monday, 6 June 2011

A priest hears a confession at the hippodrome in Zagreb, Croatia (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

A priest hears a confession at the hippodrome in Zagreb, Croatia (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

If you trawl through blog comments, you may notice that one phrase crops up rather often, namely: “When did you last hear a sermon about… X?” where X is some vital point of Catholic doctrine. I must say I rather sympathise with the question’s implied point of view.

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 some comments 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. It takes a courageous pastor to tackle head on subjects that may encounter dissent. Moreover, as the reaction to the Regensberg address proved, many of those who disagree with what you say may not play fair. It was remarkable how few non-Catholics (and even Catholics) stuck up for the Pope during that largely manufactured furore. So priests may avoid certain subjects, not because they are cowards, but because they know that they will be misrepresented and misinterpreted, sometimes deliberately so.

Incidentally, while not claiming to be a brave pastor, I still do point out what is wrong with Dawkins from the pulpit, because I think people want to hear it and need to hear it (and need to argue these points with their neighbours); and I still preach about the necessity of regular and frequent confession, despite being rebutted in print from on high.

  • Christopher F Bezzina

    In a way I see positive things when people react: they are thinking. Is this not better then have people swallow whatever a priest says? Is this not what being Christian means to dialogue? I would feel stupid if I always agreed with the Priest’s sermon every Sunday. Dialogue brings fruit, exhortations and fear brings violence. Thank you.

  • Uhogb

    It is very difficult subject nowadays I’d say.But didn’t Jesus preaching ” If your right eye causes you to sin pluck it out and if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off ” ? I don’t mean exactly to do so but the truth always is and will be difficult.We are meant to be hated by the world not loved, that what Jesus also said.To be a priest is to be fighter for the human souls to save them.We have two great examples of St.John Vianney and Padre Pio.
    To get to Padre’s Pio confessional you had to queue for days and He even could slap you in your face for being bad christian. All priests nowadays Must and I mean MUST preach about Sin, Hell and necessity of confession,being in the state of grace and of sacrilegious communions so often taken nowadays, modesty everywhere.People must restore the fear of sin, God and judgement.Without this we are all lukewarm catholics.

  • Anonymous

    At the risk of conveying the impression that I’ve missed the substantial point of your piece, Father (I haven’t), and without wishing to get into a debate about how one would measure the empirical evidence concerning how well/poorly the Regensburg Address was defended by Catholics, I think you have to consider the pace and growth of the Catholic blogosphere (and yes, I appreciate that Catholics did have voices prior to then and the cyber-world is but one means of Catholic witness) in the five years since the Pope’s lecture.
    I think it’s generally accepted that the Catholic blogosphere dates back to only 2000. It was still very nascent, though, in the first half of last decade. The ensuing exponential rise has been since the widescale proliferation of high-speed access in the home, wireless devices and off-the-peg blog templates. Pin a dart on a board at 2005/06. For example, I know that I didn’t discover the Catholic blogosphere until 2006. Damian Thompson’s ground-breaking blog Holy Smoke began in spring 2007. It all seems so very long ago, yet it’s so very recent.My point: I suspect that if Regensburg happened now you would be heartened by, and left in no doubt as to the extent of, the defence of the Holy Father.Be assured of prayers.

  • Metzenite

    God Bless You Father.

  • Ikedi

    If people are hating on what you’re saying because you’re preaching the truth revealed through the church then you must be doing a good job. If you’re lucky a group of people may even try to hurl you down a cliff.

  • mholt210

    In the last five years I have only once heard hell explicity mentioned in a homily. Mortal sin also only once. The Real Presence and the need for confession very rarely. It is also very rare in my experience for a priest to explain the Church’s teaching in a particular area and what this means in practice is expected of ordinary Catholics. Well done Father Lucie-Smith.  

  • Petrus

    I think we have to say that any priest who fails to preach the Truth because he wants an easy life is failing in his duty.  Similarly, a priest how wants to protect his reputation (ie. Fr. So and So is nice, he doesn’t preach about Hell) is failing in his duty.  Of course, we must admit that many priests simply don’t believe in the great Catholic Truths.  I’ve heard a priest tell his parishoners not to ask him about contraception because he doesn’t care “what people get up to in their bedroom.” 

    We need fearless priests who will preach the pure Catholic Faith.  Not wimps who are frightened of upsetting people.

  • Martin Smay

    Right, I remember the verse where Christ told His disciples that if they were going to be persecuted for their teaching to not teach it, if the peace of the world would be taken from them for it, to not teach it, if the world would misrepresent you, not to teach the Truth, if you make too many people upset because they are cafeteria Catholics and don’t believe as the Church teaches, don’t say anything about it because you wouldn’t want to make anyone (including yourself) uncomfortable.  Wait, that’s right Christ said almost the exact opposite of all that (take up your cross and follow me etc.)

    Before Vatican II you heard hell (yes, it exists, yes, people go there), fire and brimstone from the pulpit, and the churches were packed and the lines to confession were long, after VII we stared hearing love and the churches are empty, and no few go to confession anymore (because we don’t need it, right? we can just confess our sins to God directly like our protestant friends, besides there’s no such thing as a mortal sin or hell anyway, right?).

  • Christopher F Bezzina

    Come to Malta you get that every sermon. The truth has to be expressed but by compassion not with a militant way because like that people will answer back in militant ways… and who will lose? – the people/church

  • Mendezjb

    Its a strange world where you can’t point out the un scientific absurdity of Dawkins without hurting peoples feelings. next we’ll hear from the creative math crowd who thinks 2+2=5 is just as correct as 2+2=4.

  • Jeannine

    Fr Alexander,
    Being a priest nowadays requires him to be an apologist, a spiritual leader in tune with God, & a man willing to read various opinions on everything. A St John Vianney aptitude would never make it in a typical parish of today although his spirituality is most needed. 

    A typical priest must take the Sun Tzu approach: know your enemy’s strengths & weaknesses. There is no reason why you can not charitably refute any nutty theory associated with bad science. As a matter of fact Catholic doctrine does not contradict good science. 

    It seems to me you need to start quoting some reputable scientists, theologians, & Scripture to your uninformed parishioners. But please be kind! You want them to come back & listen further to the logic that is used for all of Church doctrine. You might even bring a few souls back to God. 

  • Ratbag

    Oh, for crying out loud!  Denigrating and discouraging children from learning science because you spoke about the shortcomings of that dangerous no-mark Dawkins?????  Stop, you’re killing me… with mirth!

    Why not read about Catholic/Christian/Jewish etc. scientists who have made major contributions to the world of medicine, physics and science and intersperse them into your homilies in future? That’ll shut them up! Actually, the children in the pews – and adults - might learn something new…

    And a theologian wasting time and energy saying you shouldn’t have preached about confession???? I’m near death with mirth, now…

    As far as Confession is concerned, it cannot be preached about ENOUGH! Make your language accessible to the faithful, backed up with research, research, research etc. ad infinitum.

    You cannot put a value on research, research, research etc. ad infinitum. Take heart from the wealth of holy men and women, saints and scholars, popes, preachers we have at our fingertips and in our dusty bookcases.

    Christ said ‘Do not be afraid’. Blessed Pope John Paul II emphasised this.

    You should take heart and take no rubbish from anyone.

  • Ratbag

    The trouble with Dawkins is, like President Obama, those who bill and coo about him fail to see that he is also an emperor with no clothes…

  • Peter

    While I have heard priests rightly criticise evolutionism – the idea that evolution is Godless – I have yet to hear a priest criticise creationism, especially the belief that the world is 6000 years old, which brings Christianity into disrepute among rational people, as St Augustine said 1600 years ago.

    In fact in all my years I have never heard a priest courageously expound from the pulpit the Thomist postition of continuous creation which puts paid to both evolutionist and creationist fantasies.  It is time, I think, that the Catholic Church retake the philosophical high ground regarding the source of our existence, and undertake to impart that knowledge in layman’s terms to Sunday congregations.

  • Cicestrian

    Well Jeannine having heard Fr A deliver many a homily and a talk or two, I can assure you that he does know his ‘stuff’. His homilies were a refreshing, nay, a challenging experience and often needed.
    Finally I know that Fr. A has spent much time with those about to go to their God and warmly welcomed those of any or no faith who happen to come along to our church for family occasions.

  • The GF

    Dr Lucie-Smith is one of the best preachers and priests I have ever known. To hear him and see him working is a true inspiration. If only they were all like him, we would conquer all the world. Seriously.

  • Jeannine

    So glad you have commented positively on Fr Alexander since I have never heard any of his homilies. Our priests need to always be encouraged to take steps of moral leadership. (To me the article came across as him being bit wobbly in matters of homily content.)   

  • Joseph J. Pippet

    JMJ  Having read father Alexander Lucie-smith article (and most of these comments I come to the conclusion that he is a Coward because he is more concerned about what People  think than what Jesus teaches. Proclaim the Faith, The Truth, Etc (it is Difficult, But so is Omission of the Truth, more difficult because it’s Sinfull see how simple that is.) Because he Fears scorn, Ridicule, insults, he Denies Jesus! The Pharisies, etc. ridiculed Him Denied Him, Cursed Him, He suffered all that But, He went on Teaching the words of His/Our Father in heaven. He didn’t come hear to make us feel good about ourselves (being Catholic is about suffering even when we speak Honestly, not to worry about hurt feelings, Better to hurt feelings than to Damn some one to Hell because of our Priests and Bishops Negligence to properly Teach about sin) In our parrish their thousands who recieve Communion each sunday yet a Very few who go to Confession. In Fifteen years since I’ve been back to the Jesus (Catholic Church) I can count on one hand how many times the priests have mention Sin. I know a Number of Catholics who didn’t know how to make a Good Confession. Confession is Not simple it is Complicated unless Taught Properly, even than it Takes a Good Examination of Conscience which it seems some Priests and Bishops have a problem with as they Confessional lines are minimal because Sin is not being Preach against. When we Love we Must be Totally Honest, that’s Love, Not Fearfull! Jesus Have mercy on Us All! Respectfully with Love, Joseph J. Pippet

  • Dominic

    This is hilarious! Among Protestant preachers it is understood that the Gospel challenges people in ways they don’t want to be challenged – they are sinners after all! Therefore, it is also understood that on occasion they will go bananas when a Bible topic covered hits home and critiques them personally. But Protestant preachers don’t then avoid subjects as a result – that would be daft, because God sets the agenda in Scripture – and all of that needs to be preached on.

  • SOSJ

    Fr Lucie-Smith, I followed up your link to the journal which published the criticism of your preaching the necessity of sacramental confession, Though not able to view the article in question, I managed to find links to a small amount of material written by the same person, a theologian no less!. I hope I am a person of some intelligence and am familiar with scientific research. I found the written material at first sight reasonably presented but further reading led to confusion. There seems to be a tendency to justify his own beliefs when in conflict with those of the tradition of the Church. He constantly contrasts the teaching function of the Church with that of authority. I believe that we should respect both: the teaching of one who is an authority in his field and  guidance from such authority to help us make the right decisions in our spiritual life. From this critical theologian we do not get it, rather we get academic debating points on reconciling the Church and the modern world. The Church is there to help us to salvation, it is not just an academic debating institution. Yes, I believe in reason but in the end we need all the help the Church can give us to live our lives properly. A good homily should give guidance, which we need more than ever in this age of unbelief and “self expression”. So please continue with your teaching from the pulpit Father and let us hope more priests have the courage to follow.

  • Ralph Warth

    Judge not lest you be judged, for you will be judged by the same severity as you judge others.

  • Joseph J. Pippet

    JMJ  Mr. Ralph Warth,I read Father A.L. Smith’s Article, I than made a statement about what he wrote, His Words. Their can be no other Judgement about his Words accept what I read as He wrote, I’m not making a False Judgement. Bishops, Priests, and Yes, We the Laity (Pew Sutters?) are Cowardly when They/We don’t teach the Truth!!!  The Truth hurts our Feelings, Good, Maybe they’ll Listen to it and Avoid Hell! Better to have one’s Feelings hurt than to Burn in Hell because some teachers didn’t want to hurt Our Feelings.Respectfully with Love, Joseph J. Pippet

  • Luis Marasigan

    Let us follow our Master who was “a sign of contradiction.”

  • Anonymous

    What is worse than enternal suffering in hell? Nothing.
    A just, loving and mercyful and all-powerful God could not let hell exist. If God has allowed hell to exist then we would/should be morally compelled to show hatred and disgust and to preach of the evil of such a God. To be subservient in this situation might be pragmatic – in order for the chance of eternal life, but would be entirely immoral.

    Therefore hell cannot exist, unless God is evil – which I do not believe. 

  • Anonymous

    I see the flaws I’m afraid… 

  • Joseph J. Pippet

    JMJ  Mr. paulsays. J. P .Pippet informs you that Hell is mentioned in the Bible about (not sure Exactly) 15 times (if I recall rightly Jesus mentioned Hell those 15 times, maybe 17 times) where as Heaven a lot less I forgot the number, Must be a reason, Must be a Warning their is a Hell. God Condemns No one to Hell, Those who are in Hell are their because they Choose to be their through their Disobedience to God’s Law, those through their Obedience! I Pray that when you die you will not be among those who are Weeping, Grinding their teeth and Cursing/Blaming  God  because of where they are through their Denial of God’s Justice. (No Sin, sinners will be permitted in Heaven, those who did not Repent are Sinners, Sin is the Act commited by Those who Deny Heaven, Hell and God’s Justice) Because the Priests, Bishops, etc. don’t Teach about Hell doesn’t mean it has ceased as a place of Punishment for denying god’s Teachings, Woe unto them for they Will find themselves in Hell, (Unless they Repent) Than they like you paulsays will know Hell exists! You paulsays Will Believe!  Respectfully with Love, Joseph J. Pippet

  • Roy Banes

    As Father Pio said to a person who once said to him, “he didn’t believe in hell” Father Pio’s reply to that person was, “you will believe it when you get there”.

  • Sockrbl

    Bada Bing it is so easy to get lost these days because the world itself has pulled itself far from the truth. I like the Kung Fu approach at least when the show was popular. Grasshopper asked about ways people live that were not the shoalin way and the master answered “always respect the ways of others, but first respect your ways”. In other words respect every persons right to relate to God in the faith they choose, but if your Catholic respect what the Catholic Church teaches first. Then convert them.

  • Jacques

    …..”So priests may avoid certain subjects, not because they are cowards, but because they know that they will be misrepresented and misinterpreted, sometimes deliberately so”….
    I much disagree. In my opinion this looks like cowardice. You, priests and us laymen have to tell the Truth. Declining to do so is somehow like veiling the Truth and allowing those who are skilful in distorting it to look all right and therefore succeed in introducing a fake truth that ignorant or weak faithfuls will accept as if it was the Gospel.
    I myself am looked with a bit of contempt by from some good friends because I cannot prevent myself to reaffirm some teachings that are seldom addressed in the homilies regarding:
    - Hell
    - Purgatory
    - Confession
    - Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus
    - Fatima’s apparitions
    - Relativism and Modernism
    - Freemasonry and the Church
    - Abortion and contraception
    - False ecumenism
    - Etc…

    John 15:18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own”

  • Jacques

    God is Love, yes. But God is Justice too.

    “Those who decline to go through the door of my Mercy will have to go through the door of my Justice” (Sr Faustina)
    You are free not to believe in Hell, but you are very imprudent in doing so: Hell exists. The kids of Fatima were shown the Hell by our Lady. This was awfully scaring. They could see some sinner’s souls tormented in it.

  • Jacques

    Those priests, bishops and cardinals who decline to speak the Truth regarding Hell will be held accountable of the souls that were lost by their cowardice.
    God’s Mercy may apply to ignorant people but not to those who are taught about the Truth and decline to teach it bcs they fear the world’s opinion.

  • Jacques

    I remember having confessed once that in some occasions I fell asleep during homilies.
    The priest smiled and said “and so do I” He agreed that homilies are wishy washy and boring.
    The faithfuls (and the priests too) must read the homilies of the Saint Curé d’Ars, St John Mary Vianney. 
    True, the Salt has lost its taste

  • Jacques

    When the Salvation of souls is at stake it is the utmost necessity to point the finger to the bad sheperds who are afraid to do the duty they were entrusted to do.
    Salvation bears no excuses

  • St Donatus

    I have heard Hell mentioned many times in the last month but I go to a FSSP parish. Very holy priests who don’t care who they offend. We have a very faithful group of about 400 parishioners of whom 95% are there every Sunday. I thank God for this holy parish which has helped me come back to the faith after 30 years and give me the needed spiritual food to keep me faithful and blessed.