The Ten-Minute Homily

Pope Francis
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According to the Western press, the main takeaway from Pope Francis’ address to the bishops of Slovakia was: limit your homilies to ten minutes! We know that the advice’s “theological note” (the degree of how authoritatively binding a teaching is) is de fide definita because (a) he’s said it before and (b) it was accompanied by a joke. Speaking to nuns who clapped after his remarks, the Pope quipped “it was the nuns who applauded most because they are the victims of our homilies.”

I would not have clapped.  

Catholic homilists are sometimes unfairly compared to their Protestant counterparts because the latter are generally more practiced in that art. That’s not surprising, given that most Protestant denominations quickly displaced the centrality of the Eucharist in Sunday worship by a Word service. Discard the Eucharist and you have to fill in the time.

Nor do Catholics lack an accomplished homiletic tradition. The Pope made his recommendation about ten-minute homilies on the memorial of St. John Chrysostom. “Chrysostom”—like “Christ”—is not a last name. It’s an appellation—“the golden-tongued”—John acquired because of his preaching. Today we honor St. Robert Bellarmine, likewise no slouch in the pulpit. But John and Robert didn’t wrap it up in ten minutes.

(I’ll add that another Chrysostom, the great leader of the Church in Slovakia after its recovery of freedom in the 1990s—Ján Chryzostom Korec, a Jesuit like Pope Francis—was the author of over 80 works in his Knižica Viery (Library of Faith), a vigorous effort to rebuild the faith after its brutal oppression in communist Czechoslovakia.) 

Indeed, we should not forget that the Gospels themselves were first preached. When the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles at Pentecost, they didn’t rush to their separate rooms, grab quills, and start writing. They preached. I’ll also wager they did it for more than ten minutes.

Taken seriously, the Christian message should be mind-boggling: God became man to give us eternal life out of love, if only we love Him in return. That’s worth talking about!

Just look at last Sunday’s readings. Isaiah spoke of setting his face “like flint” in defense of the right, despite persecution. The Psalmist sang of “walking in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.” Jesus made clear that walking in God’s presence means being accompanied by the cross. James pointed out that faith cannot remain a head thing but must accomplish things in the real world. And it was all driven by the central question: “Who do you say I AM?”

Want to pack all that—and its application to modern life—in ten minutes? Should we?

Why should the Church acquiesce in the attenuation of the modern attention span? Should somebody spend more time in a week pondering with whom the “Bachelor in Paradise” might fornicate than the kinds of issues about life mentioned above? The sorry fact is that we spend more time on vapid shows than we do on the Word of God.

Fr. Don Haggerty, in his book Contemplative Enigmas, notes that people today avoid silence in part because our technologies have made white noise and blue screens so ubiquitous that we cannot imagine “functioning” without them. The truth is we “function” at a very superficial level, in large measure driven by sensory stimuli—not unlike a Pavlovian dog.  

 “Silence” is not just the lack of sound, just as the Sabbath rest is not just catching up on weekend sleep. It is about resting in and contemplating the Word. That necessitates talking about it, especially as it applies to today. That is what homilies should be about.

Is that something we want to do by skating through reflection on the Word? Do we do God’s Word justice in that way? Do we not have a counter-cultural role to play in helping modern people recover the human power of intellect, one dulled by so many other influences in today’s world?

Let’s also be honest. Considering that many people’s religious education ended at Confirmation, and that education was likely rather anemic given the past half century, when does Pope Francis expect people to be exposed to the meaning and application of their faith?

Preaching in the Church in Eastern Europe has generally not yet succumbed to the diet of pabulum and a joke served up most Sundays in the West as “spiritual” fast food. Hopefully, the Slovak bishops will engage this recommendation with some critical discernment.

After all, do you really think the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28) was over in ten minutes?

[Photo: Pope Francis speaking in Kosice, Slovakia (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)]

By

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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