How to Survive the Sermon


January 26, 2013 by lucieromarin

My earliest memory of a sermon dates from around the age of four. I distinctly remember the priest saying, “There’s a leopard in all of us.” I thought this was amazing, and I remained amazed until whatever age it was at which I first read the word ‘leper.’

I’ve just applied a pencil to the back of a yellow envelope and tried to work out how many sermons I’ve ever heard, barring the first few years of my life. Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (plus a now-mysterious ’34’ and ’54’ that I’ve added to the calculations for a reason that I cannot remember) take me to around 1808, assuming I know how many weeks there are in a year. Averaging two extra Masses a week for 20 years (not including First Fridays and Saturdays) takes me to 3888. Add sermons preached on retreats, sermons preached at conferences, sermons preached at weddings, baptisms and funerals, sermons preached on First Fridays and Saturdays, sermons heard on cassette and sermons heard during my brief time as an Audio Sancto consumer, and we’re looking at a minimum of 4,000 sermons heard in a single lifetime.

This has taught me one very important lesson, and that is that it is absolutely impossible for any given sermon to be liked by everyone who hears it. It is unfair to expect a priest, week after week, to produce something which will meet the exact needs of every individual in crowds of fifty to two hundred souls. Sermons cannot be understood as entertainment – or even, really, as education. They’re more like the sort of community service announcements that appear on television from time to time. Not everyone needs to hear “Wear sunscreen!” or “Get more exercise!” at the same time. This is not the fault of the ones doing the announcing. Instead of resenting a sermon for its complete irrelevance to your life, it’s best to file it away in the back of your head for another day.

Other hints for a lifetime in the pew would include the following:

1) Keep your expectations low. I’m not even going to bother elaborating on that one. Experience can teach you!

2) Make no assumptions. There are interesting sermons preached all over the place, but you can never tell where you’re going to hear them. While it’s true that I’ve never heard a modernist preach a good sermon, it’s also true that neither doctrinal orthodoxy nor liturgical traditionalism is  guarantee of good preaching, and neo-con culture, whatever its faults, can deliver some really happy surprises in this respect. I think the attitude of the intrepid traveller is best. Sermons are like foreign street-food; if you can accept that a certain amount of it will make you sick and press on regardless, you’ll end up at that little cart selling that deep-fried thing on a stick that was the best thing you ever ate in your whole life.

3) Pace yourself when listening. Don’t invest intellectually or emotionally straight away, because if it’s going to last for 35 minutes, you’ll be worn out before he’s even half-way.

4) Yelling priests and priests who extemporise? You just have to forgive them. Some yell because they’re over-compensating for being nervous, and they shouldn’t be classed with priests who yell because they think  it strengthens a weak argument. It’s also good to remember the community service announcement analogy here; you don’t have to like what you’re hearing and you don’t have to tell yourself that you need it.

5) I have no suggestions about how to endure the sermon which is simply a badly-reworded retelling of the day’s Gospel. These sermons fill me with something more than annoyance and something less than rage. At this point you just have to think about all the persecuted Catholics in the world and be grateful for the fact that, rather than having to endure soldiers busting into your church during Mass to arrest or kill you, all you have to endure is a handful of poorly-delivered words.

One other thing; I’ve noticed that sermons in conservative-land tend more towards denunciation than recommendation. I’ve heard feminism, communism and immorality denounced repeatedly. I’ve heard about what we should not think, what we should not wear, what we should not watch, what we should not read, what we should not listen to, where we should not go, who we should not speak to, and what we should not do on a Sunday, and I’ve heard it over and over.

In all that time, amongst all of those 4000+ sermons, I’ve heard one sermon, just one, specifically denouncing domestic violence.

Think about that for a moment.

Thank God for that priest!

2 thoughts on “How to Survive the Sermon

  1. Io says:

    I think I got pretty lucky with the priest I went to for the first two decades of my life–his sermons were always interesting and informative. After that when I started parish hopping it was kind of touch and go. In highschool we had priests visit and give talks, which sort of count, so I wonder how high my sermon count is. Their talks were also pretty good and it was a welcome break from the routine of class. In general I have to say that my direct, personal experience with traditional priests has been mostly positive, although in retrospect I don’t agree with some of the things that were actually said, and a lot of what I read or had parroted back to me from lay people was certainly in the “denunciation of everything” category. (Leaving aside the scruples that came out of how I was taught the Faith. I just mean they seemed thoughtful and kind.) Your last comment makes me realize, though, that I have NEVER heard a sermon that even mentioned domestic. Not. Once.

    • lucieromarin says:

      I have some good sermons-at-high-school memories, too; I’m grateful for them because those chaplains were not only doing their own work, but making up for what was lacking in my parish at the time. And would you believe that twice now that a priest has delivered a sermon which sustained me through a really difficult time…and both of those men have since left the priesthood? (I guess that means I have to pray for them for the rest of my life?).

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