Monday, 10 December 2012

Sermons: when a little plagiarism can be a good thing!

Cath News' blog watcher this week highlights a post by Ozheretic blogger David Timbs on the problem of poor sermons.  And for once there are actually are some things we can agree on.  But perhaps not on the solution to the problem!

The sermon problem...

There is a fair amount of evidence that sermons actually are very important.

The survey work done for the ACBC on Church attendance suggests sermon quality is an important factor in whether or not people to go to Mass (although you would hope more on whether they go to a particular Mass but...).

And for many (if not most) Catholics, they are their only regular source of catechesis.

Yet all too often they are very poor indeed.  Let me suggest some classifications...

Five types of sermons...

1.  The Ramble

Mr Timbs describes this all too common type of sermon very nicely indeed: "a droning series of clichés, non-sequiturs and free association."  He puts it down to poor preparation and failure to study the actual texts of Scripture.  I'd add poor original ecclesial education to that diagnosis.

2.  The Rant

An all too often encountered genre at many traditionalist masses, but certainly not unique to them.  Rants can sometimes be much needed, an appropriate reaction to something outrageous that has happened.

Too often though, they don't actually help the hearer by providing solid arguments as to why should we do something or be outraged about something; instead they are too often ill-judged, often ill-timed eccentric and emotive spouting about personal hobby-horses.

3.  The pseudo-academic modernist

One of personal pet hates, though, is the type of sermon I rather suspect Mr Timbs would actually advocate, namely the priest who insists on giving us a historico-critical analysis of the text of the day (usually replete with an erroneous rationalist slant).

You know the kind of thing I mean - this prophesy was clearly written down after the fall of Jerusalem (since prophesying the future is impossible; we need to pay attention to the cultural context of Jesus' words so we can discount the actual words and rewrite them as saying what the speaker would like him to have said on the grounds that it is more appropriate for 'our times'; and I could go on...).

Mr Timbs argues that the quality of what is coming from some younger priests coming out of the reformed 'JPII' seminaries is questionable.  I'm not sure I've really heard enough of a sample to make a judgment, but it wouldn't be surprising: the so-called 'reformed seminaries' generally feed their students a diet of second rate twentieth century theologians (including but by no means limited to Congar, Balthasar, Radner and the like) whose work is work is gradually being exposed for the erroneous tripe that it is.  Not, I have to say, that the theological formation offered by the traditionalist seminaries appears to be much better as far as I can see...

4.  The Joker

My other pet hate is the endless collection of anecdotes presented as humour.  Nothing wrong with a story or bit of humour to grab attention in the course of a sermon of course.  But some priests don't know where to draw the line, or worse, having spent most of a sermon on some story, fail to draw the actual point of it out.

5.  Solid, engaging and orthodox

The ideal sermon of course, is solid, engaging and orthodox.  A good sermon, I think, tries to teach us or remind us of a few key principles.  And it gives them a practical application for the here and now.


Mr Timbs decries what he claims is a rising trend towards plagiarism in sermons.  I disagree that this is a problem.

If the priest can produce a great sermon through his own original work that is wonderful.

But, let's face it, most can't.

So personally, I see nothing wrong with priests engaging in a little plagiarism and using sermon notes (though an acknowledgment on where they are getting the material from would be appropriate!).

No one has any problem with us using other people's words to express sentiments   captured in poems, plays, great speeches (such as Paul Keating's Redfern speech, being remembered and reread on its 20th anniversary today) or great pieces of literature.

Sermon notes

We can speak others people's words in away that is just as heartfelt and fervent as if they were our own; originality is not required to move hearts.  So what is the problem with sermons that are mainly rehashes of the Fathers, or other well-considered writers?

It isn't surprising then, that the Congregation for the Clergy, for example, regularly sends out sermon notes to help priests, and many other organisations do likewise (mostly for a price).  Indeed, I seem to recall that AB Coleridge (now of Brisbane) suggested at the Synod on Scripture that some kind of sermon handbook to guide priests through the texts be put together...

The only problem arises when the sermon notes being used are less than orthodox or engaging, and unfortunately that too is an all too common problem.  Please, forget Fr Rollheiser and his ilk and find something solid and orthodox...

Hmm, maybe I should go into the sermon notes business!


Joshua said...

In my experience, priests who offer the EF Mass are *usually* the best preachers (of course, I do recall that a certain priest of that ilk is dreadfully boring, but he's the exception that proves the rule). Why? because generally they are not out to make friends with the world, and are far less concerned with pleasing all and sundry; instead, they try to preach the Faith, especially the less happy, sappy bits.

I think every preacher has at base just one sermon: I applaud the priest whose basic theme is "how to get to heaven" - since that is vital information! - whereas too many have no idea beyond "be nice" and whose idea of preaching is to say, every time, "In the first reading [insert banal platitude]... in the second reading [ditto]... in the Gospel [ditto]..." before giving the "lettuce" ending ("so let us be nice/love one another/meh, whatever").

Joshua said...

Recall also what I call my corollary to Neuhaus' Law (though I'm sure it's not a thought original to me):

"Whatever is not preached is not believed."

- i.e. don't worry about salvation, let alone about believing anything, going to Sunday Mass, etc.; and feel free to commit most of the acts we used to call sins.