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Debate: Does it matter if a priest is a bad public speaker?

Is good oratory absolutely crucial or is it low down on the list of sought after priestly qualities?

By on Thursday, 10 November 2011

This week priests were urged to spice up “dull, flavourless” homilies by using colourful language and stories drawn from the Bible. The advice came from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He told delegates in Rome that homilies had to be compelling in order to engage worshippers used to the thrill of television and the internet.

Most people would agree that homilies should engage their listeners. But by encouraging clergy to compete with Facebook and The X Factor, isn’t there a danger of putting style over substance? A priest may resort to gimmicks in order to grab people’s attention. They may think their main duty is to entertain.

Pope Benedict XVI, in the book-length interview, God and the World, suggested that a talent for public speaking might not be such a crucial quality for clergy:

“Recently a parish priest in a large German city told me that he had come to his vocation by the particular agency of a priest who was actually bereft of all exterior gifts. He was a hopeless preacher, a dreadful singer, and so on, and yet under his care the parish really blossomed. In the end four or five priestly vocations were awakened in this city parish, something that happened neither under his predecessor nor under his successor, both of whom were far more capable. We can see here how the humble witness of someone who does not have the gift of persuasive speech can itself become a sermon, and how we should thank God for the variety of gifts.”

On the other hand, homilies delivered poorly, even if they are full of truth and wisdom, may leave Catholics uninspired and drifting away from their faith. If homilies were entertaining then they might engage those who are struggling to listen.

So, does it matter if a priest is a bad public speaker? Or is it far down the list of sought after priestly qualities?

  • Jacqueline

    Who would enjoy a bad speaker ? it’s important to be charismatic a sort of magnetism that inspires confidence
    Nothing wrong using networks it’s not a question of competition, life is changing

  • Fr Seán Finnegan

    In my opinion and experience, bad preaching is one significant cause of lapsation. It is to be regretted (again in my opinion) that a homily is obligatory at Sunday and Holy Day Masses.
    Far too many priests do not bother to prepare their homilies adequately, delivering them without notes and without a significant message.
    An MP once commented to me about how he wished he could have a captive audience for ten minutes once a week; he would certainly do his best to make good use of it.

  • Anonymous

    The Curé d’Ars was notoriously difficult to hear because of his weak voice, but people thronged to his preaching because, in a sense, *he* was the sermon. As the impious lawyer reportedly said, when he saw the Curé d’Ars he “saw God in a man”.
    I agree that many priests don’t bother to prepare their homilies adequately and this can be a trial and an embarrassment to those who hear them. But I have known poor preachers who, nevertheless, were persuasive because of what they *were*, rather than because of what they *said*.

  • Anonymous

    What exactly does one mean by a bad public speaker?

    Humble in self taking pride in the Lord?

    …well how about sincere, authentic and truthful?

    …believing in the stuff actually helps too.

    But what makes a good public speaker? Veuster got in before me with his comments about St Jean Vianney; When one listens to the gentle squeaky variable-speeded voice of His Holiness – words so gentle it should be Audrey Hepburn melifluously speaking them – words so powerful it should have Orson Welles booming them – words so intellectually acute one might expect a Leslie Howard or John Hurt narrating. Words so filled with authority and appeals to posterity that one might expect an Olivier or Richard Dimblebey….

    When it comes to the crunch?
    Unless the voice is completely dissociated from the content e.g. a monotone drone or narcolepsy-inducing indifference…

    What matters is the content – and the Speaker’s understanding of the content,

    Poor delivery = uninspiring?
    I wonder if that’s the case…?

    Anyone remember how Victor Meldrew cheered himself up?
    By listening to Dale Winton reciting “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan..” [and it is as funny as it sounds]

    Maybe it is more important than I presume?
    I do remember jumping up and down on on a CD of Michael Sheen’s bloody awful narration of “Crime & Punishment” until it was in pieces…
    …and there’s a vast difference between an English narration of a documentary and the same documentary with a US narration…

    NO – I’m not convinced – it seriously IS the content – and the priest’s understanding of the content – and the delivery requires sincerity, authenticity and integrity…but the style?

    Alway content over style…

    Hasn’t +Vin proved that to us?

  • chiaramonti

    It has to be said, that with a few notable exceptions, within which I would include Archbishop Nichols, the standard of preaching in Catholic churches is woeful.It is not only the obvious lack of preparation but the lack of content and the constant repetition, sometimes of the same sentence. My experience of Anglican preachers (many of them licensed Lay people) is quite different. I suggest a public speaking course for our clergy with input from the laity.

  • Anonymous

    Do some priests perhaps think that a sermon which is spontaneous is by that very fact inspired? Are they maybe misapplying the words addressed to persecuted Christians facing a court appearance: “do not prepare what you have to say…”?
    Isn’t prayerful preparation itself an occasion for the Holy Spirit to act?
    What we need is depth not superficial pyrotechnics, and that depth is found in prayer and listening to what other insightful Christians – the saints, especially the Fathers of the Church - have said, rather than by relying on one’s own meagre resources.
    Could I suggest the Catena Aurea as a good source of “nuggets”. It’s available on the internet.

  • Anonymous

    Its bad enough listening to anything to do with social justice week in week out without jazzing these homolies up.That would be like putting rap music to Rolf Harris’ lyrics. 
    There are far too many people who are already half demented because they have had to listen to same drivel for years. God forbid they actually preach anything pertaining to Catholicism, as that would be too reactionary and would probably cause heart failure in most if it were ever heard again. Best not to tinker with what’s already broken :¬)

  • Parasum

    The Curé d’Ars was what precious few priests are – a Saint. Ther are are about 400,000 priests just now (thanks to that marvellous “New Pentecost” John XXIII was so keen on; it is unlikely they are all fit for canonisation, even if the lax modern criteria are the ones applied.

    St. Paul said “We preach Christ, and not ourselves”. It appears that priests today should say “We preach ourselves, not Christ”. To judge by the current collapse of the Church into a sort of Anglicanism *minus* the Christianity, I can well believe it. The proverbial visitor from Mars would bnever guess that the mini sermons of todays preached by today’s mini-priests were the work of men who supposedly belong tothe sermon Church as St.Paul, St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, or Humbert of Romans O.P.

    Nor would the Martian understand the use of an Order of Preachers in a Church that thought preaching either consisted of bureaucratic pabulum garnished with a dash of something resembling Christianity, or was of no importance. One is reminded of the Mercedarians, who were founded for the admirable work of the redemption of captives. In a world full of hostage-taking, admirably suited to the end for which they were founded, they are conspicuous by their not redeeming captives. Rather like the Franciscans, whose embrace of Lady Poverty ended long ago. These bodies, and such as they, should either do the work they were founded for, or dissolve themselves, and let the money presently wasted on them go where it is needed & will do some good.

  • Anon : what a gift.

  • Anonymous

    You have GOT to be kidding!!

    Archbishop Nichols’s homilies and speeches are…well?
    Bloody awful!

    He has been graced with an affable, cordial, softly-spoken encouraging voice…

    …but what comes out?

    It’s known as Bishopese: [ See Damian Thompson's Telegraph blog if you wish any more details]

    A regular +Vin sermon invariably travels along certain lines in a very specific format:

    Take assorted Buzzwords like ‘gathered, glad, enriched, celebration, welcome, emboldened, greeting, fruition, development, rejoice, reflection, invited, opportunity, together, encouraged, journey, transformation’

    throw in a few ‘sincere’ adverbs like ‘deeply’,’intently’,’gratifyingly’,’worshipfully’,’especially’

    intersperse with a few reciprocal verbs – we are always giving and taking – offering and receiving – active and passive – in a +Vin homily.

    Combine accordingly: make this the first paragraph

    Interim [brief personal recollection sentence - indicating human - non-Stepford-cleric side] [all to the tune of a Spinners song on the mouth-organ]

    Next: Take the terms from the first paragraph – throw all these words up in the air like scrabble letters and allow them to fall where e’er they please
    This becomes the second paragraph – like the complementary part of a chaotic pericope. Everything said in the first paragraph is regurgitated in a different order in the second.

    It doesn’t matter what His Holiness has said – nor does it really need to relate to the issue; +Vin will reassure us by reminding us that the Pope has said something on the issue which agrees with what he’s saying.

    second interim – I know about the subject because I have done/I have
    visited/I know/I spoke with/I met with someone/some of them and shared
    their pain/joy/concerns/sorrow/loss/ etc

    Now for some reason ‘Heavenly Father’ and ‘In the Spirit’ are afforded only one relationship with us when mentioned – But wherever Our Lord and Saviour comes into play the dichotomy arises – we always do two things with Jesus

    - we always [and invariably it's "at this special time of year" or "season of.."]
    a] enter into a relationship with the [insert verb]-ing Christ
    b] ..and become ‘en-somethinged’ when we either encounter or engage with or walk boldly & humbly, or share in/ or celebrate the mysteries of [insert as applicable]

    Third interim – an invitation for all of us to become involved in – or be drawn in – or share in – or recogmise our responsibility for – or our duty in [insert as applicable]

    for final paragraph return to the content of first and second paragraphs – mix the predicates, descriptive nouns and adverbs up once again and arrive at a new way of saying the same inane meaningless thing for a third time…but in this last paragraph – we ALWAYS do this whatever we’re supposed to be doing – ‘in the spirit of’ [insert as applicable]

    So a Pattern merges.

    1] ABCD
    2] Me as a kiddie – teenager  – young priest
    3] BDCA
    4] The Pope reminds us…
    4] Me doing my job – name drop or accentuate that I know the job or I’m doing my part or I’ve spoken with experts or I’ve been on the front line
    5] a]We do something with Jesus
        b]We get something out of it
    6] We’re all doing this together
    7] CBAD in the spirit of [insert as applicable]

    …thus it becomes coma-inducing.

  • Anonymous

    What a destructively unkind comment.

  • EditorCT

    One of these days a Catholic journalist writing for a  Catholic newspaper will ask whether or not it matters that a priest is a heretic. And it may even dawn on them that priests writing errors and heresies really shouldn’t be writing in Catholic publications and be paid for their destructive efforts. That’s much more important than whether or not they are good public speakers. Christ told them to go and preach the Gospel – he said nothing about being a professional orator, although obviously that is a bonus. At a time of exceptional crisis in the Church, however, it is not a priority. Preaching the undiluted  Catholic  Faith (and giving us back our Mass) is THE priority.

  • LocutusOP

    I couldn’t possibly agree more.

    We need to cherish the fact that a Catholic priest is more than a Sunday performer – judged on the entertainment value he offers -, and that he’s called first and foremost to be a good shepherd. That there is space for the meek – i.e., soft-spoken – to spread the faith from the pulpit should be seen as a strength and not a weakness, and a sure sign that we can all respond to God’s calling regardless of our natural endowments.

  • Anonymous

    @Jacqueline  Another way of saying it might be: holiness is a good sermon. Mind you, I think a holy priest will try to make sure he is speaking according to the mind of the Church – hence the importance of the Fathers and of a good orthodox Bible commentary.

  • Anonymous

    Might be unkind – I’d go so far as to say it’s cruel – but regrettably it’s true – an Archbishop who consistently calls us to reflect on some ambiguous ‘appropriate faith paradigm’ which will allow us to enter into some relationship with Christ in the spirit of whatever buzz word’s appropriate.

    Don’t you think I would love to say something different?
    Unfortunately I can’t: I’m more sorry than anyone.

    Don’t you get angry when every +Vin sermon the Pope is dragged out to augment and substantiate some ineffable +Vin-invented quasi-principle which sounds coherent enough – until you actually think about what’s really being said – and invariably it’s little if next to nothing – it’s just nice-sounding garbled buzz-words.

    Don’t you get annoyed when we’re told about the ‘faith we share’ when that Faith’s never mentioned?

    Don’t you become frustrated when we’re told ‘we’re doing what is right and fitting’ in our celebration and ‘bearing witness as a community’ – but Morality – and what is and isn’t moral – just isn’t ever spoken of?

    How many sermons from Archbishops and Cardinals are mentioned on twitter and facebook and are reported by the Herald – especially US Bishops?

    Nothing would please me more than to praise my Archbishop’s homilies…but I abjectly refuse to endorse or keep silent when we’re proffered something which is wilfully counter-evangelical and more ” let’s pull the shutters down, say a few nice innocuous-as-possible things and convince ourselves that all’s right with the world”

  • David Corrigan

    I have a audio copy of “The Glasgow Bible”. It is spoken in a wonderful Glaswegian dialect with all the idioms. It makes Rab C Nesbitt sound more like Stephen Fry as Jeeves. The spoken word should be spoken colloquial dialect and the message should be easy to understand as Jesus intended. Who wants to listen to a ‘stuffed shirt’ spouting incompressible nonsense.

  • David Devinish

    Can you imagine him out on a stag night? He would put the mockers on any joviality, in fact, people who were teetotallers would take to drink just to get throught the evening. He is very nice really; he grows on you like dandruff.

  • Adam

    Cardinal Ravasi is spot on.  Absolutely correct and about time someone high up exhorted priests and bishops alike to up their sermon-performance.  When I was a teenager, I went and heard Rev Billy Graham preach at a huge rally.  I was 15 or 16 and was so impressed by the power, the conviction and the immense charisma of the man. Now 93 he is still an amazing Christian.  Finding great Catholic preachers is not easy.  One great Dominican has now left and got married.  But so many priests do not prepare well, spend time to make the effort to preach well and inspire.  They have about 19 minutes to make an impact on a congregation that gets bombarded by TV constantly in shows and ads. And we are supposed to have the greatest message of all, but sadly are badly let down.
    Not all priests are great preachers. It is not a requirement to be a priest to be a good public speaker. But it is incumbent that he preach the Word with conviction and enthusiasm.
    I know, as a fact, that it has not always been a high priority in seminary training for students. And many seminarians do not have the talent of a great voice or confident style  But God can work through all and make the priest an instrument for powerful preaching.
    John Paul II had it.  Cardinal Dolan of NY has it.  Many just don’t have it.
    But Ravasi’s exhortation ought be a wakeup call to many priests and bishops to ‘get their act together’ so to speak.

  • EditorCT


    With respect, what is truly regrettable is that you would dispense with the Sunday and Holyday homilies, whereas what we really need to dispense with is the decadent, faithless clergy who are blethering on about climate change and telling us to make the world a better place, week in and week out. 

    Any teacher will tell you that it can be like pulling teeth to get a pupil of a certain age to talk in a group situation.  However, give them the opportunity to talk about something that is important to them, and the problem is solved. When I asked one Muslim pupil once why she had no problem speaking out in class about her faith she replied, simply, “because I believe it.”

    It is a self-evident truth that if priests are full of faith themselves, they have no problem communicating that to others. Ten minutes wouldn’t cut it although I am not recommending the opposite extreme. Believe me.

    Roll on the day when priests are convinced themselves of the truths of our beautiful Catholic Faith.  Then there will be no need for them to attend courses in public speaking.

  • John

    “homilies had to be compelling in order to engage worshippers used to the thrill of television and the internet.”

    Once again the Church succumbs to worldly standards in order to be more “attractive,” “compelling,” “fascinating,” “thrilling” – you fill in the word. Yet, it is precisely these worldly standards that have brought the Church to ruin, to political correctness, to impotence, to chaos, to one grievous offense after another against Heaven. What was that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results?

    The most compelling story ever told is the Passion of Our Lord – a priest whose life expresses fidelity to that, fidelity to Tradition, love for the Sacred Humanity, devotion to our Lady, and a rejection of the world’s standards, shouldn’t have a bit of trouble keeping the faithful attentive.

    The crisis in the Church will not be resolved until the clergy embrace her sacred traditional patrimony and unequivocally reject the world. The crisis will only get worse as the very opposite continues: rejection of our patrimony, of Tradition, and an embrace of the world.

  • theroadmaster

    Fulton Sheen, perhaps one of the most charismatic homilists and preachers who ever lived was the supreme example of the commanding, stentorian voice combined with expertly crafted parables, based on firm biblical principles.  He had celebrity status in the US in the 50′s and 60′s and even had the ear of presidents.  But he never lost the core Christian message even when he  had weekly audience ratings of millions on radio and television screens.  Priests do not necessarily have to have mellifluous or compelling speaking voices, in order to be effective homilists.,   As long as they do not go off message and use distracting gimmicks or props to keep their congregations “entertained”, the content of their messages should get through in voices that are audible and plainly-spoken.

  • Adam

    Yes I forgot…How could I.  Fulton Sheen – what a marvellous preacher.  Still has replays on TV. That man had huge audience and how powwerful concise sermons – but delivered in a tv studio it must be remembered. But a force for great preaching from a priest who used pray for ONE HOUR every day of his priestly life before the blessed sacrament.  Never missed – his powerhouse like Blessed M Teresa

  • Aaron Saunderson-Cross

    I would like to think that a priest in love with the faith of Holy Mother Church would communicate his passion in his sermons; however, no: a priest is not there to preach with “eloquent wisdom” as St Paul remarks, his [a priest's] vocation is not dependent upon his ability to pull in the crowds with his words.

    I honestly think that a priests who is in love with Christ will more often than not communicate this in sermons.

  • Poppy Tupper

    Nevertheless Archbishop Nichols is much admired as a preacher in Anglican Evangelical circles!

  • Anonymous

    [sorry this is a Catholic site - could you please refrain from offensive pseudonyms]

    Given the incredulity-inducing inanities, namby-pamby pragmatisms, reality-repulsing relativisms, starry-eyed syncretisms,head-shrinking heterodoxies, milk-and-water meaningless meanderings within a +Vin sermon and speech?

    It hardly surprises me that Anglicans would appreciate them.
    Nevertheless – I don’t believe them; having never met anyone who has stayed awake through an entire +Vin homily.

  • AnimaChristi

    Absolutely brilliant!  I have to say that the Homilies delivered by my PP are mercifully not formulaic, always have a strong theological grounding and are presented engagingly.  That does not mean to say that the occasional personal anecdote is not used (after all we have to remember that priests ARE human.)

    In order to do this, a priest needs to be a competent orator, without losing sight of the fact that the last paragraph of the sermon should leave the congregation thinking deeply about both their faith and The Faith.

    I acknowledge that all humans are different, but it certainly helps of a priest is evidently committed to the Faith and preaches with just enough wit and humour to make him truly approachable.  I think that we need to turn the clock back a little and priests all need to ensure that the message of the gospels is proclaimed without fear, and without the political correctness which has crept in since the 70′s.

  • Karen

    I totally agree with our wonderful Pope Benedict on what he so beautifully describes above. Very true, I have noticed, on many occasions, that far from all priests with for ex a talent for speaking, giving good homilies etc, are as good or even as holy as they seem to give the impression of while speaking. Also, that seemingly ordinary, not very charismatic priests, can deliver poor speeches/homilies but drawing far more people to thejm that many skilled ones.Radiating warmth, genuine kindness, for ex.
    Having said this, I have been psychologically tortured for years, having had to attend masses where the readings by the laiety- to 99 % women- are so horrendous that one is just gasping; last week, I attended a great festivity mass, in honour of on of the ´greatest saints in the history of the church, where the bishop was celebrating mass. I saw how a priest, only 10 minutes before mass would start, went up to a young girl, asking her to read the first reading and the Psalms. The nice girl, apparently not one of those few gifted with the rare talent of being able to read a text unprepared excellently, but instead looked rather embarrassed, performing quite poorly. Besides, as someone pointed out, she was far from properly dressed for this very special occasion; blue jeans(of COURSE! This horrendous garment has achieved a holy status, not only in society, but in the church as well). Just try to discuss this one!!!
    In the Mediterranean country where we live, the text is usually always read(I would not even use that word) so poorly, so totally unprepared, with such weak voices, totally untrained, that one often does not understand the text, unless one has already read it earlier, at home.There is for ex not one second of pause before annnouncing the “The Word of the Lord”. Either the voices are very shrill, very monotone, very weak, broken and shaky, indifferent, or all of these attributes combined. One can SEE and HEAR that no preparation whatsoever has ever been made. Sometimes, the old lady can not even be seen, except a small part of her head, since nobody has cared to adjust the height. Or, the loudspeakers are of the same volume as in a disco, causing the sound to vibrate all over, with an echoing, resulting in a terrible noise; besides, not even all locals can hear what is being read and said, neither during the text reading nor during the homily, beacuse of very poorly used loud speakers, as well because of an accepted and perverted acceptance, apparently also among the clergy, that “the louder, the better”. Sometimes, or even rather frequently, children have been asked to say the prayers of the faithful, and they are just babbling along, nobody having heard for whom they have prayed. While children are adorabel and charming, not all they do is adorable and charming, except for their parents.
    Readers MUST be properly trained and they MUST be told that they have to practise/read the text 20 times at home, both in silence and aloud, meditating on it. Is this too much to ask for?! Then, you had better not read the text!
    Why is this incredible mediocrity allowed to dominate the church(although in some countries, the sit is better)?
    Did not our Pope said that neglecting the liturgy is a very serious matter? And adjusting sth as simple as this- this nis not hard or difficult science- would be the easiest thing to do. Or?
    The church/priests seem so paralysed and indifferent on this matter, just seeming to get along.


  • The Back Row Mick

    The Only scary aspect to this entire discussion, is that people perceive the need to “debate” the issue period!

    Any and Everyone who, in their calling, regularly steps up to a micro/pulpit to deliver an address should absolutely be a capable public speaker. To be a poor public speaker and a religious minister, is to really mock the message you are charged with delivering. Please point out to me, anywhere, in the Gospels where Christ enters a village (note, He went them them, He sort them out!) and mumbled His message, or droned on and on and on..and on – answer, NEVER! Christ kept His message short and relevant, because He knew (knows) that most often “less is more” when it comes to public speaking – you remember a 3min “good” sermon, not an 8min “poor” sermon.

    Just because someone becomes a “priest”, in no way removes from them the obligation to think about what they’re going to say, their method of delivery [including physical environment ie, background noise/microphone usage etc] and keep their message to a comfortable length – most people who attend Mass regularly do not need a “converting” style sermon, they need more “a supportive word” style sermon!

    In a nutshell, the day all priests are put through professional public speaking training and “refreshed” from time to time in the Critical Art, will be a Big Green Tick day for re-engaging with the hearts and minds of people, first within their own communities and over time, with the wider increasingly secular [hostile?] community!

    The fact this message confronts some people is just really sad and in fact rather disturbing – there is work to be done for sure and Great Public Speaking has/is/will be critical!

  • greybees

    One can’t but help wondering if seminarians take courses in mumbling. The state of public speaking in the Church is horrendous. Heads down, reading a script in a dull monotone is not the way to spread the Good News.