Against Syrupy Sermons

A young man named Eutychus sat on a third-story windowsill, listening as St. Paul preached “on and on.” (Acts 20:9) Sinking into a deep sleep, Eutychus fell out the window and died. St. Paul resuscitated him.

That parishioners might suffer the fate of Eutychus, falling into sleep and out of their seats, is, evidently, the bane of many contemporary Catholic preachers who go to great lengths in sermons or homilies to amuse, regale, and otherwise entertain.

I once attended a Mass where the first reading told of the fire burning within the heart of Jeremiah. (20:9) The subsequent sermon concerned the success of the parish ice-cream social. “The fire of Jeremiah,” I whispered to the wife, “has just been extinguished by ice cream.”

Such anecdotes, I am afraid, can be easily multiplied. One priest told me, as his deacon, to be sure when I preached that people “left Mass happy.” Another referred to the collection as “a referendum on the sermon,” implicitly suggesting that my task as preacher was to charm people sufficiently to ensure a big take.

Nothing in this is consistent with the instruction found in Sacrosanctum Concilium that the sermon ought to address “the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life.” (52)

Eutychus, it seems, is safe today: he won’t have time to doze, and might miss some of the (presumably) jocular sermon if he did.

St. Paul asked the Romans and us: “How can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed?” (10:14) The genuine message, though, is increasingly an unpopular, counter-cultural, scorned, and unwelcome one.

On those rare occasions when Eutychus hears authentic preaching, he may not go to sleep; but also he may not like the sermon, for it will call him to convert, to center his life on Christ, and to challenge the culture by bearing witness in word and deed to the faith that comes from the Apostles.

Saint Paul Restoring Eutychus to Life by Taddeo Zuccaro, c. 1550 [The Met, New York]
Saint Paul Restoring Eutychus to Life by Taddeo Zuccaro, c. 1550 [The Met, New York]

Syrupy and sycophantic sermons are useless, because they ignore the spiritual crises of our times and lives. The Book of Lamentations excoriates such jejune homilies: “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (2:14).

C.S. Lewis made a similar point:   “A man who first tried to guess ‘what the public wants,’ and then preached that as Christianity because the public wants it, would be a pretty mixture of fool and knave.”

“Millions of Catholics do not know what their Church teaches . . . [and] they do not know the reasons for . . . Church teaching,” writes Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., in Doctrinal Sermons on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The homily is not a replacement for vibrant and orthodox parish programs in adult education, but supports and supplements more direct instruction.

Not every priest is St. John Chrysostom or Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, of course. Still, the priest’s first duty, after offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass, is preaching. That means hours of preparation.

In Brian J. Gail’s novel Fatherless, Father Sweeney, a good priest, constantly “pulls his punches” in his, well, entertaining homilies – until it finally dawns on him that his key preaching responsibility lies in the hard sayings, precisely about those matters which may make us uncomfortable. The prophets, after all, comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable.

Father Sweeney comes to the hard realization that he has not been preaching the hard things, “because I was afraid my parishioners would turn against me.” But he realized that if he continued to preach obsequiously, “God would hold me responsible for their sins. . . .He would also hold me accountable for every time one of my parishioners, after committing one of these serious sins, ate and drank unworthily – lacerating His Sacred Body all over again.”

No priest should ever love “the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43). This is exactly is what happens, however, in saccharine sermons full of entertainment, but empty of parrhesia (the NT term for “boldness in speaking”).

We live in a time of moral chaos. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are often influenced, if not governed, by confusion. We carelessly slip into the darkness rather than emerge into the light.

As Brian Gail points out, we all need fathers, but by “fathers,” he means preachers who speak the truth; he means priests – fathers – whose sermons are powerful witnesses to Christian truth in a society that rejects the Gospel because that Holy Gospel insists that we conform to it. (Rom 12:2). He means fathers who, with paternal patience, will “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort.” (2 Tim 4:2)

As, for example, in this superb homily.

Pope Benedict XV, in a brilliant 1917 encyclical (Humani Generis Redemptionem), wrote: “Therefore it is clear how unworthy of commendation are those preachers who are afraid to touch upon certain points of Christian doctrine lest they should give their hearers offense.”

In the midst of World War I, he blamed ineffective preaching for the decline in morals and civilization’s backsliding into paganism. Pope Benedict XV died in 1922. What might he say about contemporary paganism and the preaching that ought to be combatting but is, instead, too often infected by it?

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.