Six sermons I could do without

In Giovanni Guareschi’s celebrated series of stories about a faithful but very human priest, the beleaguered Don Camillo once pitifully prays to Christ to help him blow his nose in a way that won’t be offensive to the congregation. He knows that he is under more public scrutiny than any other man in the village, and no matter what he does or how he does it, someone is going to complain.

I always keep this prayer in mind when a priest gets on my nerves, and I try very hard not to criticize him. Priests baptize our children. They bury our dead. They forgive our sins. They anoint and bless and guide us. And they give us Christ. The least we can do in return is give them some wiggle room.

And so, when we are at Mass, I try to expect really only the bare minimum from these men who are only human, but freighted with a superhuman responsibility. I expect my sacraments to be valid. I expect the liturgy to be licit. And I expect the sermons to be free of heresy.

That being said, I’m only human, too! I’ve been sitting in pews listening to sermons for almost five decades. I have boundless tolerance for boring sermons, weird sermons, silly sermons, scary sermons, tiresome sermons, corny sermons, uninspired sermons, irrelevant sermons, rambling sermons, goofy sermons, and sermons that make me wonder which will come first, the end of the homily or sweet, sweet death.

But I don’t complain! Most of the time. I do, however, have a short list of things I could do without, which I offer out of sheer, self-giving generosity, as your respectful daughter in the Faith.

And if my tone is a little bit lacking in patience, well . . . I’ll see you in the box next Saturday, Father. You know the drill.

Here’s what I’d love to never hear from the pulpit again:

1. The Catechetical Dump 

Alphonse Ratisbonne reportedly instantaneously received infused knowledge of the Faith when he picked up a miraculous medal, leading to his full conversion of heart. But, Father, we are no Alphonse Ratisbonne, and we need our catechesis in smaller bites. I know it’s tempting to take advantage of a captive audience, especially on Christmas or Easter or a funeral or wedding, when the church is full of folks whose butts rarely dust a pew; but please resist the urge to deliver a lifetime’s worth of exegesis during a single homily.  If you want all those unfamiliar faces to come back for more, be intriguing. Be eloquent and concise. Be selective. Please don’t try and convey the entire Faith in one fell swoop.

2. Yelling At the Choir

What’s worse than preaching to the choir? How about railing at the choir because the choir is so small? Dear Father, we already know it’s important to come. That’s why we’re here. If you’d like to see better numbers, encourage us to be courageous and invite our friends and family to come next week. Give us some encouragement; feed us some lines; challenge us to reach out. Remind us to evangelize. But please don’t take out your frustration on the folks who actually made it through the door.

3. Sit, Stand, Kneel, Bow AND BEYOND 

I don’t want to raise my hand if I have a Bible in my house. I don’t want to turn around in my seat and wave at my neighbor. I don’t want to be harangued into shouting “Amen” louder and louder and louder until you’re satisfied that we’re wide awake. I know that “audience participation” makes sermons more arresting and memorable, but we’re not actually an audience, and ad libbed hijinks are just not appropriate during the liturgy. We get to offer ourselves to the Father along with Jesus Christ crucified. We are here to participate in the divine mysteries. That’s the kind of participation we’re here for. You’re not gonna top that, so please don’t try by resorting to gimmicks.

4. Miracle debunkers.

Sweet fancy Moses, why? You just read us the story of the Red Sea parting, or the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, and now it’s our spiritual father’s chance to help us understand what these miracles meant in the context of salvation history and what they tell us about God’s omnipotence and bounty.  But no. Instead, you’re going to snark that probably the wind was just blowing really hard that day, and those primitive, gullible Israelites mistook it for a supernatural event.

Or maybe you’ll finish relating how Jesus lovingly fed the multitudes with such abundant food that there were twelve baskets full of leftovers, and this is actually a story about … people sharing? Because folks in those days routinely walked around with twelve baskets’ worth of fish fragments in their pockets?

You fathers, if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? If your congregation turns up looking for miracles, why give them something tedious and mundane, and insinuate this is the best God can do? It’s especially destructive for our kids to hear that the Bible is chock full of Nothing To See Here. God does miracles. Please don’t trim Him down to manageable size.

5. Political rallies 

There is certainly overlap between our life as citizens and our life as Catholics. We need to know what the Church teaches about matters up for public debate: Abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, immigration, and so on. But you can educate your flock on what the Church teaches, and encourage us to vote with our Faith foremost in our minds, without giving the impression that any political party is identical with our Faith. Please don’t imply that any politician will save us. That’s Jesus’ job, and it’s your job to help us remember that fact.

6. Baby shaming 

Want to make sure the pews will be empty in ten years? Try publicly humiliating parents for the high crime of bringing their children to visit the Lord. Maybe you’re just joking about that one unrepentant squawker, or maybe you’re genuinely irritated at an interruption; but either way, it can be searingly embarrassing for a parent to be singled out during the Mass. I know more than one mother who’s been driven in tears from the Church — not just from the building, but from the Faith itself, after a priest criticized her child from the pulpit. Being a priest isn’t easy; neither is being a parent.  Please never, ever be hostile to children. You need them as much as they need you.

And one more thing:

Thank you. Even if you don’t listen to me, thank you for being there, not only on Sundays, not only during normal working hours, but twenty-four hours a day, for your entire life. Thank you for your service to us and to God.


A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly in 2017.

Image: By BPL (originally posted to Flickr as Preaching) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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8 thoughts on “Six sermons I could do without”

  1. I have twice heard sermons equating the Immaculate Conception with the Incarnation.

    I suspect preachers who go 10 minutes or longer often have an inflated sense of themselves. I also think nobody’s listening after 6 minutes. Our new pastor is a real windbag and we’re thinking about switching parishes because of it. Sure, the extra six or seven minutes in driving might seem like switching would be a wash but at least driving extra is not the near occasion of sin that sitting through a long, stupid sermon is.

  2. I’ll never forget the smiling priest who, pausing for a few seconds as child who was screaming like a banshee was hustled out by mortified parents, told the congregation “Just think of it as the sound of the human soul crying out for God!” before continuing mass in perfect calm. He was at ease, so everyone was at ease. Thank you, Father!

  3. Priest here. Thank you. I don´t suffer less hearing those kind of sermons preached by my brothers, but I surely suffer less often than you. We really need this kind of feedback.

  4. I should clarify, in light of other comments about children at Mass, that I am the father of small children and my appreciation of short homilies is due to the fact that it is a mercy to the parents of small children if Mass runs a little shorter rather than a little longer.

  5. I hope lots of priests will read this column.

    After Mass, I had a woman greet me with, “I don’t know if my prayers did any good today or not sitting by your family.” My four daughters were not naughty or loud, but this woman managed to send one nasty message. Thankful my daughters didn’t hear her comment, but I did let the priest know about it.

  6. Good list! I especially liked “Be eloquent and concise.” The older I get, the more I appreciate the 5-minute Sunday homily, especially at the Sunday Mass full of young families.

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