The Crisis of Fluffy American Homilies

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I’ve wanted to write a piece about strong preaching for a while, but needed a catalyst to get the ball rolling. Low and behold, this gem turned up on my news feed last week.

I’m Still Not Going Back to the Catholic Church by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher explains that while folks have been speculating that Pope Francis’s compassionate side will bring people back into the Church, it is precisely the pontiff’s lack of emphasis on the harder teachings of the Church that will keep Dreher in Orthodoxy and out of the RCC.  In his years as a Catholic, he never heard priests preach on the hard topics.  Though I never left the Catholic Church, I couldn’t help but agree with much of everything he argued.

fluffy-bunnyTwelve years ago I moved to a new city and naturally began attending the parish closest to my apartment. It was like every other parish I’d ever visited or been a parishioner of growing up. We sang “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Anthem” for a peppy recessional. The homilies were of the only variety I’d ever heard – the soft, love Jesus more and take care of the poor type. Upon the concluding rite, still high on, “We are called we are chosen, we are Christ for one another…” I’d leave through the narthex feeling good about myself – the message was, “I’m doing great already and all I need to do is more of what I’m doing to be even better – or I can just keep on keeping on, it’s cool, I’m a good person, and that’s what Christianity is about”. I never knew there was anything else to learn about at Mass, or even about Catholicism.

A handful of years ago the position of head pastor at our parish became and remained vacant until the diocese was finally able to fill it with someone right for the task of shepherding our 6,000 family parish with parochial school, two priests and several deacons. In came a man who would soon be elevated with the title Monsignor. I still remember the homily where he introduced himself to us as his six foot tall frame towered over the ambo. With his measured beat and dry cadence, he shared his story as a convert to the Catholic Church, and challenged us with, “If you have an issue with any teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, make an appointment to see me in my office, and you had better bring your Bible and your catechism.” This was a challenge I’d never heard a priest give before, furthermore, I’d never even heard a priest approach controversy in the least, and our new pastor was inviting it.

In the months to follow, his homilies received mixed reviews. Many parishioners were startled and even offended. Monsignor addressed abortion, contraception and same sex marriage right there in the middle of a Sunday or weekday Mass. And he didn’t just mention it in passing, as if we were supposed to know it was wrong by a one word topic drop. No, he spoke at length and in depth about each topic with solid arguments and reminded our parish why the Church taught these things were against the teachings of Christ – and that Christ’s teachings still matter. The offense entered when Monsignor would reach further still and assert that anyone sitting in our pews who did not see these issues as intrinsic evils worth standing up against were complying with evil themselves. Farewell to, “I can just keep on keeping on, I’m a good person.” I was surprised to be in the midst of a priest who had the courage to preach so boldly – he was risking people’s temporal happiness and even losing many to the neighboring parish which was still preaching love Jesus more and take care of the poor.

The preaching was a change to encompass the whole of Catholic teaching. As Dreher argued in his article, we need to be preached to about God’s mercy and God’s judgment. It is clear to me that Monsignor is out to evangelize the Catholics – to reteach us authentic and whole Catholic teaching. He boldly reminds us that hell is real and we can all attain that if we follow what the secular world both teaches and scolds us to believe. He also teaches boldly and thoroughly how merciful our Lord is, but that in order to be forgiven and to attain Heaven, we need to repent, not just keep on keepin’ on. Often priests truncate Christ’s message to something like all persons can all be forgiven because there is no sin. Yet, Christ’s message is that all persons can be forgiven, that there is no sin too great to be forgiven by a repentant soul. It’s no wonder the lines for confession are nonexistent – the congregations aren’t being taught what sin is and how they’re personally committing it. And it’s no wonder Catholics think being a Christian is just about being a good person – all they hear at Mass is that they are a good person.

Last Judgement, Michelangelo 1536-1541, Sistine Chapel

In addition to preaching about sin, Monsignor also makes sure to preach about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – reminding us that the very reason we attend Holy Mass is for Jesus in the Eucharist. And he also preaches about Confession, and corrects misunderstandings about Baptism. In a twenty minute homily every mass, we are instructed on the whole of Christian teaching, not just the easy on the ears and pride parts. Furthermore, our music made a dramatic shift as well. Out went the eagle and the anthem and anything modern and peppy. In came a large choir who sings beautiful, heavenly, old school hymns. Latin and Greek hymns have even made returns that we recite together. Mass has been restored to a formal and important Christian event, and the music reminds us that we are experiencing a unique uniting of Heaven and Earth in the Eucharist, not just getting together for preaching and a sing along.

Fluffy homilies have done a great disservice to American Catholics. I think of parents who, in moments of weakness, refuse to enforce what is right for their child because they don’t want to deal with a tantrum, and I believe this is where many priests find themselves. In a perpetual moment of weakness, priests know if they preach whole and authentic Catholic teaching, their parishioners will tantrum. I want to encourage our priests to be our parent, to be our shepherd, to be a “Father”. And I want to encourage parishioners who desire Catholic strength returned to their parishes to vocally support their priests in making the change. We’ve lost generations to cafeteria Catholicism, non-Catholic Christian traditions and even the secular world in this time of fluffy American preaching.

Though our parish did lose a good many of our parishioners to other churches when Monsignor persisted with his unapologetic homilies, our Mass attendance still remains high, if not higher than before. Catholics in our area are willing to drive up to an hour for strong preaching and a reverence in the music and liturgy. And I can see our strong pastor’s determination to evangelize Catholics even spreading down to our children as during the children’s liturgy dismissal the kids are gathered for their blessing wearing backpacks stuffed with their Bible and their Catechism. The world already has enough of itself and does a better job of being itself than our Catholic Mass could ever. Christ is made present to us at Holy Mass, so let us have the courage to demand that the human parts of the Mass, the homilies and the music, be what it is supposed to be best at being – Catholic.

The website Courageous Priests highlighted a homily of my pastor’s which can be found here:

15 Replies to “The Crisis of Fluffy American Homilies”

  1. Many years ago the Mnsgr that presided over my marriage would speak the hard truth to us parishioners. He was in his late 80’s, and very Irish. I’m sure you can imagine! 🙂 He came across as very hard sometimes, but he had such a love for our faith and spoke so passionately, and matter-of-factly, about those difficult subjects that my now pastor avoids and “fluffs” over. I miss it! I miss being educated. I believe our parish family is starving for that. Please pray for my priest and our parish!

    1. Celeste, thanks for your comment. I’ve never thought of what it is like to loose a strong pastor and have to transition back into softer teaching. If it weren’t for the Real Presence in the Eucharist Mass attendance would feel useless based upon the integrity of the homily. Whenever I travel I often get the reminder that the validity of the mass only depends on the validity of the Eucharist! not the preaching or music.

  2. You are blessed to have such a wonderful Shepard. I have taken to sharing you tube homilies with my family to impart church teaching. Let us always pray for our Priest’s

  3. With a 2,000 year history, the Church is riding a roller coaster with peaks and valleys. I believe we’re in a valley and see that there is a desire of many Catholics to push the coaster back up to a peak. There are three categories of folks in our parishes, 1) those who know and desire full strength Catholic preaching (and beautiful liturgy!) 2) those who don’t yet know full strength Catholic teaching but will learn it, respond and grow in it and lastly 3) those who will ultimately leave. Jesus didn’t water down his teachings for fear of those who would leave him (John 6 is a stellar example), so our parishes shouldn’t be run to save the third category from leaving the pews when their souls would walk away from Jesus anyway.

  4. Yes, Yes, Yes!!! We are cring out in a desert of “fluffy” homilies to be quenched by the Truths of the Church, discomfort and all. I think there is the worry that people will leave, but I really think more will come flocking or maybe at least not head to the Protestant church with a great band down the street. Or is that only happening in our parish? 🙂

  5. Agree! Ugh, my husband is a convert and I get so annoyed when we go to mass and the sermon is just so weak….I am always hoping my husband (and I!) can be enriched with new knowledge of our Faith and also given the facts and truths to help us understand why we believe what we believe and be able to defend it if necessary. I know I need to do more in educating myself so I can help my husband who is still learning, but as a cradle Catholic (including some middle/high school years attending SSPX masses when my mom started going to them….they are nutty, but wow, those sermons don’t play) it is hard….I just believe everything my faith says because it has always been a part of me. So, I really rely on good sermons to educate my husband more on topics of our Faith that were not necessarily covered in RCIA. Does that make sense or just make me sound like a lazy Catholic/wife? We were married in a church in South Carolina that had a priest similar to yours. We were actually terrified of him at first, but grew to love and respect him because everything he said from the pulpit was so insightful and intelligent and it just MADE SENSE….even if we did not want to hear it because it is not the views of the world around us. Same thing, the parish lost some members because of him in the past (his sermons during election periods always cause some waves), but it is still PACKED every Sunday with some of the most respectful parishioners I have seen at an archdiocese church. He also brought back traditional liturgical music and it is just a breathtakingly beautiful high mass to attend. We don’t live there anymore and I have yet to find a parish we love as much as that one ):

  6. Christina,

    Your former priest sounds like the one we have now. As I was writing this, I realized what a huge missed opportunity there has been in educating Catholics when the homilies they hear for decades, or even their whole lives, don’t teach all of the faith. Of all the Christian traditions, ours is naturally the most counter cultural, especially in respect to morality and the Real Presence. Our homilies need to rise to that occasion, but the reality of undereducated cradle Catholics tells the story of the average American homily. I was one of those undereducated Catholics and it took me years to gain even a basic catechetical education – and this was done just by my own investigation, so I happened to be ready for our new priest when he arrived, instead of being among those who were offended.

    You asked if you were lazy to depend on good homilies, and my answer is a resounding NO. You are right to expect to depend upon your teachers in the Catholic faith to teach you the whole of authentic Catholic teaching. If Christ intended for us to educate ourselves in matters of faith and morals he would have written a catechism himself and distributed copies like the loaves of bread and fish. Instead, he instructed the Apostles to go forth and teach those in all the nations. Thankfully, we live in an age now where we can use the internet to hear strong homilies when perhaps our own parish priest is underpreaching.

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. Katie, I had wanted to reply to your comment and didn’t. Yes, I think there is a big fear of people leaving. And, they will. People left Jesus, too. But Jesus didn’t change his teaching to keep those who would leave, and neither should we.

    As for the great music at the Protestant church down the street, yes, they do have pretty good music. And I would like to encourage our parishes NOT to try to imitate it, because we’ll never do that style of music even half as well as they do (I’ve heard it tried many, many times, it’s never been short of painful, but theirs is professional sounding). We need to stick with our traditional hymns, they were written for us to worship properly with. Besides, I think our ears and brains enjoy a break from Earthly sounding rock music. Voice only traditional choral music resounding in a high ceiling church is so captivating to the ears and soul. We are designed to be drawn to beauty, as it makes us think of God.

    And… I’m on a tangent.

  8. I don’t understand why you’re making the distinction between “good” homilies (those on contraception, homosexuality, etc.) and “weak” homilies (those on love, kindness, etc.). Aren’t both part of the faith? And don’t more of us struggle to be kind, day after day, than struggle against homosexuality?

    I know the argument, that so many Catholics deny Church teaching about contraception or gay marriage. But what you really mean is that so many *other* Catholics, who are not you, deny those teachings. Other people need those sermons — you don’t, because you already know about it. But you seem to take pleasure in hearing other people’s sins denounced from the pulpit, while yours (whatever they might be) aren’t mentioned.

    I deal with the opposite issue. I’m in a very conservative diocese. Every one of the conservative pet issues gets mentioned every Sunday. Pentecost? Time to talk about the health care mandate! Good Shepherd Sunday? Birth control! Every Sunday I hear the beautiful readings and think, “Maybe this time we’ll talk about the readings. Maybe this time we’ll hear something about Jesus.” I don’t struggle with the Church’s teachings on contraception; having a baby every other year suits me fine so far. I’m not gay; I don’t know anyone who is. So far as I know everyone in the parish knows and agrees with these conservative issues.

    But sure enough, every Sunday after these “hard-hitting” homilies that are supposedly so brave and controversial, there’s a line of people to tell the priest how wonderful he is for daring to talk about these issues. I don’t think it’s daring, because no one minds at all. If he talked about gossip, about giving generously to the poor, about how hating someone in your heart is the same in God’s eyes as killing them — well, then you’d get some people offended, because he’d be talking about sins they actually have!

    That leaves aside other objections, like the fact that sermons on homosexuality are emphatically NOT child-appropriate and Mass is for children too; or the fact that love is significantly more central to Christ’s message than natural family planning; or the fact that the priest is supposed to talk about the readings and those topics rarely have anything to do with them.

    I try to accept the sermons I’m given, because after all writing sermons isn’t my job but the priest’s, and perhaps God is inspiring him to say the things he does. But I do recollect Pope Francis saying in his apostolic exhortation that the sermon isn’t supposed to be the center of the Mass, and a long sermon is a sign that the priest thinks *he* is the focus of the Mass.

    You know what would be an amazing sign of humility on the part of a priest on Sunday? To omit the homily altogether once in awhile, which he is allowed to do. It would remind us we’re not there for amazing preaching. But, well, God did not choose me to be a priest, and I don’t see the benefit of me complaining about how the priest does his job, which is hard enough as it is.

    Anyway, if I can offer up the spiritual desert I’m in, desperate for some words that will directly help me in the spiritual life, advice on how to pray, reminders of how to love, and sit through sermon after sermon about pelvic issues and politics, I daresay the rest of you can offer up not getting to hear about your pet issues every Sunday too.

  9. Shelia,
    Both types of sermons need to be represented….it seems that it is either one or the other in most churches, unfortunately.

  10. Hi Sheila,
    I think you may have missed the point of the post. It’s not that Adrienne believes this is *all* that needs to be talked about from the pulpit, she never stated that at all, it’s that she sees in many places she has been that these topics are never talked about. It isn’t a matter of wanting to speak of “other people’s sins” but of wanting hard teachings talked about and shared, especially when we live in a society that is teaching us and our children things that are directly opposite of our church teachings.

    If you have ever read here at CatholicSistas you know that we are not like other sites who tear others down, not in our articles and not in our comments. No, we talk about the things that matter to our faith, to our communities, and within our own domestic churches and we try to do so with love and charity. Sometimes a piece hits hard because it is hard to accept the truth. The truth of the matter is that many parishes are not teaching the harder lessons. Christ didn’t back away from teaching the hard lessons, why should our priests? As faithful followers we must insist that our priests speak about these things as well as about the easier teachings. They are equally important but in this world that condones and encourages the “whatever makes me happy” attitude it’s imperative that our priests be strong and talk about the evils that surround us and tempt us each day.

    You will never find a Sista here willing to tear you down or speak without kindness to you. We hope and pray for the same respect from our readers and commenters… it’s what helps make us different. It is our way of practicing the love that Christ (and our priests!) both preach about and demonstrate to us.

  11. Hi Shiela,
    I grew up a military brat. The first dose of “hard core Catholicism” I remember. came from a visit to a new parish (non military) in Northern VA. My mom began to fall in love with our Faith all over again- namely because she started to understand it. Not just as a list of do’s and don’ts, but the WHY. She told me that before that, she simply prayed the Rosary “every now and again” and through the decades. She had no idea about the mysteries, other prayers, she had barely scratched the surface of understanding.
    I share because she was raised in Massachusetts throughout the 60 ‘ and 70’s. The time the feel good “fluffy” Homilies came about. She recalls the day the neighbor’s lined up at their front door to disagree with my Grandmother about the Church’s staunch position against contraception. If you recall, this is the same diocese that would later have a scandal to rock the Church. I digress.
    I spent my teen and young adult years at a Parish similar to what you have described. In late 2004, I moved up here to MA and was pleasantly surprised by the Homilies each week from the parish I was attending. I would later realize that is the only parish around here with preaching like that.
    We spent a great deal of our first years married “parish hopping.” I was looking for a place with the hard hitting truths closer to home than the one I just mentioned. Ten parishes close by and all of them are fluff. The numbers are also dwindling- so much so that most of our Churches around here are going into a collaboration with other parishes.
    The parish I mention above? They just built a new, larger Church building.
    I often wonder if our other Priests around here are aware of what the Pastor of that Parish is doing. He is preaching the hard truth, and sure, maybe it upset some of his congregation at first. But it gave them the understanding they need of our Faith to show up each week and practice it.
    There are plenty of places you can vacation to if you want to hear “Kumbaya, love one another (no depth to this), forgive one another, don’t judge, etc.”
    I would imagine you will have a greaterunderstandingofwhyyourparis does as it does

  12. What an enjoyable read! I just shared that one on Facebook. I love your fire! You are completely right, fluffy homilies need to be replaced with real catechesis. Perfect analogy with parenting kids, and how priests are avoiding a tantrum. Exactly!

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