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How to enjoy sermons

Christopher Howse offers some practical advice for daydreamers

By on Friday, 25 March 2011

Preachers are up against a general incapacity to listen                               (Photo: CNS)

Preachers are up against a general incapacity to listen (Photo: CNS)

What is the matter with us? Our grandparents, when they were children, on returning home on a Sunday morning might have been asked by their mothers, to check that they had been to Mass, what the sermon was about. Today, as soon as we have left the church porch, we’d hardly be able to answer that question.

I’ve heard of good Baptists who sit with lined paper, biros and highlighters, making notes during the sermon for future reference. But, since sermons are not lectures, I’m pretty sure that is not the solution.

Partly, to be sure, the trouble is that we don’t enjoy sermons, indeed the notion of doing so is laughable. “Preaching has become a by-word for long and dull conversation,” wrote the wit Sydney Smith two centuries ago, “and whoever wishes to imply, in any piece of writing, the absence of everything agreeable and inviting, calls it a sermon”.

Yet, at the back of our minds remains the objection that, if the sermon was better, we might remember it. A couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon in Bologna cathedral which was memorable because the preacher shouted quite a bit. I was vague about the details, because it was in Italian, but it certainly covered marriage, scandal, the teaching of the Church and politicians. Ah, I thought, Berlusconi (though the name was not mentioned). But priests can hardly shout all the time, and if they did, the effect would soon subside.

There are two obstacles to the Sunday sermon. One is that we are unused to listening to anything delivered at any length by a single voice. We are accustomed to television. Television is terrified of a talking head without a change of pictures. But the shifting pictures distract attention from what is being said. They suggest that the words alone are not worth listening to. The waves of speech that accompany the pictures lull the viewer into a state of mind like an inferior kind of sleep, a troubled doze.

Even when young people go to university, lectures might be designed to prevent the absorption of information. It is practically unknown for a lecture to lack a printed handout. Read the handout, and it is difficult to concentrate at the same time on the words trickling into the ears.

So that’s what the preacher at Mass is up against: a general incapacity to listen. It was quite different in the 1660s, when Samuel Pepys wrote down his impressions of Sunday sermons. He enjoyed hearing, reading and comparing them. “A good sermon, a fine church, and a great company of handsome women,” he noted in his Diary in 1661.

For all his sharpness of apprehension, Pepys is no model for imitation. We British Catholics today are fortunate that the standard of preaching is so low. Sermons are dreadful: embarrassing, accusatory, unstructured, unscriptural and meagre in doctrine. That does mean, though, that we are not tempted to compare the excellence of one sermon with another.

No, the second and biggest obstacle to the efficacy of the Sunday sermon is that the listener does not turn it into active worship. Active participation in the Mass does not stop when the congregation shuts up. That’s when it starts, because it is then that Mass-goers have to put in their own response.

Hearing a sermon is not a passive interlude. It is like receiving Communion. Of course, the fact itself of receiving God truly present in Communion is a transforming reality. But it is not one to which we respond with indifference. Adoration, thanks, contrition and petition are natural responses to Jesus Christ really with us.

God is also with us in the sermon because it is part of the Liturgy of the Word. This is rather more than a metaphor. The Word of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is present in the word of God that is Scripture. This is a presence of the Word which (as in the sacramental reception of Holy Communion) is not only an objective reality, but a personal approach by God which invites a response. God is saying something to me in the Scripture that is read out in church and in the sermon, the homily, which is somehow connected to the readings of the day.

If that merely makes us regret all the more thinking during the sermon about how to cook the lunch, then a consoling realisation is that the prime mover in our worship during the sermon is the Holy Spirit. “When the Holy Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but through the sacraments also makes present the ‘wonders’ of God which it proclaims,” says the Catechism. “The Spirit makes present and communicates the Father’s work, fulfilled by the beloved Son.”

It is possible to resist the Holy Spirit, by never reading the Gospel before or after Mass, by anaesthetising the dull horrors of the sermon by methodic daydreaming. But no Magic Marker or biro notes can bring home the work of the sermon. The letters of fire, with which the Holy Spirit brands the word of God on to our souls, make the difference. His work, even within us, is not always discernible. Why should it be – what colour or shape is faith? Yet just say Veni Sancte Spiritus at the beginning of the sermon, and you’ll be in danger of it changing your life.

Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph

  • Guest

    There are four extremely good, devout priests in my parish. Only one is a good preacher, and I cherish his sermons for good doctrinal common sense. The last sermon of his I heard (2 weeks ago!) was on truly trusting God, abandoning our will for His. The other priests try hard, but are repetitious, read their sermons, a little embarassed to dwell on God. They preach most eloquently by their devout saying of Mass! The sermon is a collaboration between priest and congregation; as a teacher, I know how hard it is to cope with an inattentive audience! But priests can at least reach the few who are listening!

  • Chrs_pak

    Some once told me a wonderful sermon was one which had a great begining and a great finish: and the shortest time between.

  • Jeremy Wilson

    There are so many factors which I think can make or break a sermon. One of the most powerful is oneself and our inability to concentrate and pick out the good bits as they fly past. I agree, sometimes, you’ve got to be quick – there aren’t too many Fulton Sheen’s in the world. It’s up to us to make the best of what we’ve got, except for those occasions when the Priest, from the altar, castigates those who aren’t at Mass. Don’t tell us, mate, we’re here! As for the rest of the time, it’s not as easy as it looks.

  • Lynda

    I’ve always loved a good sermon for as long as I can remember. If our parish Priest didn’t deliver I would surf and read or listen to a sermon which would preach on the meaning of the readings and the message for the people of God. But I remember a comment once from a faithful member of the congregation that she didn’t feel the same after a Bishops letter was read out. The comments that came back suggested that we didn’t go to Mass to rate the sermon but that we were together as the body, living, worshipping and praying together. Priests cant be expected to have gifts in all areas. I would like to thank all priests over the years for sharing their gifts whatever they are.

  • DBMcGinnity

    The Comedy of Terrors
    In chapter three of “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce, it was Father Arnall’s three fiery sermons about the torments of hell that changed Joyce’s life. The problem was that Joyce was intelligent and a deep rational thinker, and when he heard the sermons, the “Law of Reversed Effect” kicked in, insofar that it was too illogical to be credible, and Joyce deduced that no rational person could accept this; it was overkill. In the (Naxos) audio tape “Portrait of the Artist” the sermon is spoken by Jim Norton and in the Film (Arrow Films) it is spoken by Sir John Gielgud. Both presentations illustrate the pathology and illogicality of Catholic teaching about the concept of Hell.

    The sermon, was clearly a “Rote Learned Jesuit Lecture” because it was still in practice in 1958, when I heard it ‘word for word’ from Father Aloysius Pendergast, a Jesuit Missioner. He went on, and on for three consecutive evenings about the “fire and torments” of hell. Instead of it frightening the people, it had the opposite effect as it had done with James Joyce. It was just too silly for any intelligent person to accept. Some people just laughed and joked went to the pub for an extra tot of whiskey. Two months later Pius XII died and much of the psychotic ranting and raving of catholic missioners was exposed as dictatorial and autocratic nonsense. I suppose there are some Catholics today who still accept the teaching of the torments of hell, but I imagine they are very few. Well I hope so!

  • DBMcGinnity

    Catholic Sermons are not at all related to “The Sermon on the Mount”

    Recently in a church near Dublin, a priest was preaching about the compassion of God, and the intersession of the Virgin Mary through prayer. He elaborated that Mother church was always ready to help those in need.

    A woman stood up and shouted “ Where the “F” was mother church when I needed help. When I was raped by a priest, the priest in confession told me to lay my problems at the foot of the cross and let the blood of Christ heal me, well it F/N hasn’t, so ‘F’ you”. Then she threw a hefty hymn book at him, and missed him by inches.

    However, that was merely an incident that goes with the job, an occupational hazard. No! The real problem is that the congregation supported her and agreed with her action and some applauded her. The Catholic Church in Ireland has not just “shot it’s self in the foot”, it is “all shot to hell”, mortally so, and it refuses to lie down.

    The most appropriate sermon The Catholic Church should preach should be directed to The Vatican Machine: Matthew 19:21. “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”. Can anyone imagine the Vatican divesting itself of it’s billions and distributing it to the poor? Will the Vatican follow the message of Christ? Most unlikely!.

  • Anonymous

    Where the Church is dying, the Priests too are dead or dying spiritually; such cannot give the Word of God in an inspiring way, for they themselves are not inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. These can only give Sermons or Homilies where they reduce the Word of God into mere words of men. DON’T EXPECT THE YOUNG TO BE PRESENT IN THE CHURCH IN SUCH A SITUATION. We see many vegitating Bishops lementing the absence of the young in the Church.

    Let sensible Bishops send their trainees for Priesthood to POPULAR MISSION PREACHING FATHERS OF VINCENTIAN CONGREGATION in India and you will see the difference.

  • Anonymous

    Where the Church is dying, the Priests too are dead or dying spiritually; such cannot give the Word of God in an inspiring way, for they themselves are not inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. These can only give Sermons or Homilies where they reduce the Word of God into mere words of men. DON’T EXPECT THE YOUNG TO BE PRESENT IN THE CHURCH IN SUCH A SITUATION. We see many vegitating Bishops lementing the absence of the young in the Church.

    Let Bishops WHO WANT THINGS TO IMPROVE send their trainees for Priesthood to POPULAR MISSION PREACHING FATHERS OF VINCENTIAN CONGREGATION in India and you will see the difference.

  • Rich

    How many priests listen to others preach, how may pick up the notes of others and read them through, how many priests don’t make notes and just ‘wing it’ I wonder??

  • Memory-of-Forever

    the Catholic Church is the largest charity organization on earth, so please, enough with this “sell the Vatican” nonsense! ok, you sold it, you fed a bunch for 2 years, then what? the works of art in the Vatican are works of art. you CAN’T sell them! it is like saying, sell the mona lisa and feed the poor. if anyone wants to teach Vatican how to make charity, maybe they should outrank them first in being the greatest charity organization, then we’ll see!
    and what exactly did this woman expect the priest to do? treat her with some anti-depressants and give her therapy? that is the job of a certified psychologist. Stop expecting the church to heal the world and save it from the trouble the world has come to! there are pedophiles everywhere, my friend’s father is one. does that mean all fathers are? nope! just tell me what did she expect the priest to do for her? undo the rape? first of all she should have denounced the rapist at local authorities, then checked herself into therapy. you don’t go to a cardiologist to treat your vision problems!! and WHAT exactly can she do anyway?? put the pedo. in prison, and learn to heal. nothing else. The priest can’t do the first, he was trying to help her do the second in the way he knows, which is Christian-wise. enough with this nonsense accusations. you want to know where the Catholic Church is being like Christ? in the thousands of religious people, as well as laity, working their hearts out to feed children, save people everywhere, provide shelter, etc… yes, indeed the Church is helping the world, financially, spiritually, and even psychologically many times. so, what is your problem with it? or is it with the specific “buildings” of Vatican City? how exactly do you manage a church so huge? the protestants each has his own nice little pastor, with over 10,000 denominations, no leadership at all to unite them! Vatican takes care of Christians all over the world, with people working from sheltering refugees in Ivory Coast, to feeding the survivors of the Japan earthquake. oh yeah, I’m sure it is the Vatican Museum and the Archives that bother you!

  • Memory-of-Forever

    the concept of Hell is in the Bible, be you a Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, or Atheist.

  • DBMcGinnity

    With increasing antipathy towards Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and with the proliferation of Islam in Europe, and with the anticipation that the next pope will be an American it is only a matter of time until the Vatican moves to Washington DC

  • Memory-of-Forever

    with all you have mentioned above, it is only time before you’re hearing muslim calls to prayer, having your bars closed down, and you begging for the “evil vatican” to send more of missionaries and volunteers to help with the healing and the rebuilding!

  • Gsjones2011

    I think the biggest problem is that many sermons lack focus. Most start out well, but then the priest goes on off on a well-meaning tangent a loses the audience. I’m not complaining about length, but about focus. Pick one or two points and stick with them.

  • DBMcGinnity

    This Woman
    “what exactly did this woman expect the priest to do?” sums it all up. Long winded facile rhetoric resolves nothing. You would certainly drive people to sleep with this this sort of self-rightous, ice cold sermon.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Hell on Earth
    I am a practicing Catholic and I endeavour to emulate the teaching of Jesus whenever I can. The message of Jesus to his apostles at the last supper is very clear. The message was to give love and compassion and alleviate the suffering of everybody. My experience of the Catholic Church was that they caused most of the pain and suffering and sexual abuse.

    I do not accept the concept of life hereafter, or heaven and hell, because there is not one ounce of proof anywhere that such a concept is possible. The teaching is completely illogical. The idea of Angels and Saints and Holy Souls may have been credible in the middle ages and up until Vatican II in superstitious terms.

    No rational person can be expected to accept the notion of eternal damnation. If you are looking for hell, then dwell on what Aldous Huxley said: “This earth is probably another planet’s hell”. The idea of hell on earth, makes a great deal of metaphorical sense to me.

    That is why chapter three in “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce, the fiery sermons about the torments of hell by Father Arnall sound so ridiculous that they changed Joyce’s life, and in a way changed my life too