Why I disagree with Pope Francis

Pope Francis is known to make off-the-cuff remarks. Many of these have left the Vatican press office scampering for cover. Recently he apologised for using an anti-gay slur during a meeting with Italian bishops. That comment in itself was illogical when weighed in with the many ‘pastoral’ overtures to the ‘least the last and the lost.’ But what has got my goat this time is his comments on the duration of homilies and more technically the breaking of ‘The Word.’

A few days ago, on June 12th the Holy Father at a general audience said, “Priests should keep their homilies short and speak for a maximum of eight minutes to prevent members of the congregation from nodding off.” If I am right, this is the fourth time he has made such a comment in public.

To my mind, such comments, introspective as they are, are demeaning and demoralising when made in public forums which do not have the faculty to bring about changes on this matter. This statement would be well received if Pope Francis was speaking to a group of clergymen. These comments are nothing short of playing to the gallery; one that leaves a poor taste in the mouth!

The consequences of such comments are scattered all over the media and the internet. Borderline and lapsed Catholics love to add their spice to the unfolding drama. I received a forward on the matter from a lapsed catholic who is also a dear friend. His message was meant to hit hard for he said to me, “You are warned!”

It is no hidden secret that the quality of homilies across the board is poor. But what should be fixed is not the length of the homily but the quality of the content. You don’t walk into a cinema and expect to be told a story in eight minutes, much less break the word of God. To think that the pulpit should compete with ‘Ted Talks’ is playing into the hands of those who want ‘God-talk’ silenced.

Clearly, the Holy Father is troubled by the feedback he gets on lengthy homilies. But there are thousands of excellent preachers of the Word who have held us riveted for hours. We don’t want less of them but rather more. It is not the length of the homily, Holy Father, but the content that you should be talking about. I can listen to Bishop Barron, Fr Michael Payyapilly and the late Archbishop, Fulton Sheen for hours on an end, not speaking of the many preachers of other denominations who hold their congregation captive; hanging on to every word that comes from the preacher’s lips.

The Holy Father sits in a position of authority that can bring about real change rather than cheap chatter.  If he so desires, he could summon the powers that be, to evaluate both seminary formation and how homiletics is taught.

In the Archdiocese of Bombay, we spend years studying philosophy and theology and yet the speech and homiletics class is held just once a week with a seminarian getting to practice his prepared homily perhaps once in three weeks. If the face of the priesthood is the Sunday homily, then should this class not be graded like any subject of theology or philosophy? The fact is that no one has ever ‘failed’ seminary formation (as they would do for other subjects and issues) for a poor homily because homiletics is not taken seriously in our seminaries.

If the Sunday homily is (ironically) the face of the priesthood, then we need reform. We must invite the best from the secular and the religious world to train and form our seminaries. The Redemptorists were known for homiletic content and style because they spent hours training their seminarians on what was their forte. Sadly, few of that generation live on.

Even more, if we admit, as we should, that the overall quality of homilies in the Church is dismal then why do we continue to teach a failed methodology in our seminaries? I can say with certainty that the methodology for teaching homiletics has not changed in more than 25 years and if that be so then why do we insist on using a failed methodology? Which organization in the world, knowing that a product has failed, does not work backwards to fix it?

While I don’t agree with the manner and mind of the Holy Father on this issue, I do believe that it is time that the Bishops of India and seminaries across the board put their minds together to churn out better preachers. If not, we will continue to talk through our hat Sunday after Sunday.

Fr Warner Dsouza

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