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Simcha Fisher: Does it matter if a priest makes up his own sermon?

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PHOTO: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

What’s important about a homily?

Would it bother you if your priest delivered ready-made sermons, written by someone else? A lot of Catholics say they wouldn’t mind in the slightest — especially if the alternative is sermons that are bland and uninspired, or rambling and incoherent, or heretical, or just plain weird.

I always felt sorry for parish priests who must, in addition to their insanely busy schedule, set aside time to come up with a sermon that is coherent, likely to speak to the congregation as he knows them, and is also tied into the readings we just heard or the day on the liturgical calendar. And some priests have great ideas to impart, but they’re just not good writers or speakers; and some aren’t fluent in the language their congregation speaks.

Many priests and deacons seemed to feel that it was actually central to their vocation to deliver a sermon they had devised themselves, either painstakingly beforehand, or off the cuff

There are services and publications designed to solve this very problem, either offering full-blown homilies or helpful prompts; and there are public priests whose sermons are available online, making it easy for less-famous priests to borrow liberally or simply repeat the whole thing. It seems like a no-brainer: If you’re a priest who’s already pulled in a thousand directions and running dry creatively, it just makes sense to take this one thing off your plate.

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That’s why I was a little surprised to learn how many priests have a visceral aversion to delivering a sermon written by someone else (even with attribution). When I asked on Twitter whether priests ever do this, only a few said they did.

Several said that, for special feast days or if their schedule is just impossible, they will borrow (with attribution) something from the office reading, or from a great, historic sermon from St John Chrystostom or some other church father (they may be hundreds of years old, but they haven’t stopped being relevant yet). And many priests said that, when they hear a story or a theme in another priest’s sermon that strikes them as especially powerful or pertinent, they will borrow and share portions of it (again, with attribution). Or an elderly and infirm priest may routinely choose to deliver a short, carefully selected message and go sit down again.

But many priests and deacons seemed to feel that it was actually central to their vocation to deliver a sermon they had devised themselves, either painstakingly beforehand, or off the cuff. Not that it would be sinful or against canon law to use a sermon they didn’t come up with themselves, but that to do it routinely would be a loss.

I didn’t get the sense that this was out of vanity, or because they wanted to be famous, or because they thought they were especially brilliant or original. Instead, I think it has something to do with personal presence — something to do with the importance of being physically and mentally and psychologically there, speaking the words that have come specifically to you as an individual, in case the Holy Spirit has something to impart.

Don’t misunderstand: The Holy Spirit can do what he wants. He can speak to us through a canned sermon, or through a radio, or through YouTube, or through a random scrap of paper with a few words printed on it that happen to say exactly the right thing at the right time to the person who happens to find it sticking to their pant leg while they wait for a bus. The Holy Spirit is not limited by medium.

Still, I get the feeling He prefers the medium to be a live, present, responsive, fallible human being who is working with what God has given him. That seems to be the pattern. It’s a pattern with the sacraments, wherein we must be physically present to give and receive a sacrament; and it’s a pattern in — well, salvation history. The Holy Spirit works person to person, through the individuals that God has put in a certain place at a certain time with certain other people. It’s always personal. God wants us to use our particularity, our individuality, and our presence in the moment.

It’s a messy system, and we all can surely think of times when it doesn’t go well! We’ve heard original sermons where the priest unwittingly offends and alienates half the congregation, or sermons where he does it on purpose, thinking he’s giving them a dose of strong medicine. We’ve heard sermons that make me crane my head to make eye contact with my children down the pew, and whisper in a stage voice, “THIS IS ACTUALLY HERESY.” And I’ve heard sermons that, if you gave me a million dollars to explain what they were about, I would have to go home empty handed.

But I’ve also heard brilliant sermons, inspired sermons, simple but profound sermons, heartbreakingly sweet and earnest and honest sermons, and sermons that are so basic and standard, I barely even remember them; all I remember is that it was exactly what I needed to hear at that particular moment on that particular Sunday. This happened to me last Sunday, in fact. I believe the theme was “trusting in God when times are hard”.

Not exactly earth-shattering, and yet I found myself blinking back tears when I heard it. The priest didn’t know I needed it, and he wasn’t consciously responding to my specific presence in that church. But nevertheless, he was there, saying what it occurred to him to say, and I was there, needing desperately to hear that very thing. And the Holy Spirit was there, doing what he does, which includes teaching us about himself through each other.
What do you think? If you’re a priest, am I on the right track? If you’re a layman, does it matter to you either way?


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