It helps to laugh at your problems sometimes. I don't know who wrote this hilarious satire or when it first appeared, but it hits the mark pretty well as to the poor level of preaching from our Catholic pulpits. Enjoy:
How to Give a Bad Homily
I'm not sure when Catholics became such terrible preachers.
You may object that this is a mere stereotype, but like many stereotypes about Catholics - we worship statues, we don't read the Bible, we run the world - this one is true. Yesterday, all over America, there were millions of Catholics who, if they were lucky, were merely bored by their priest's homily: there were many others who were alternately scandalized, horrified, grievously misinformed, or simply insulted.
It wasn't always this way. St. Francis of Assisi might have preached to the birds, but when he preached to people he helped establish himself as one of the pre-eminent Europeans of the Middle Ages. St. Bernard basically spent his life traveling around France, using his eloquent oratory to peacefully win back straying Christians who would occasionally convince themselves that Hey, maybe smelly Pierre from the hut next door is actually God. St. John Chrysostom was so good at preaching that we collectively decided his surname should be "Goldenmouth."
The days of John Goldenmouth are long behind us, though. Currently, Catholic preaching in general is about as robust as the St. John's University basketball program, although we don't have the luxury of blaming Mike Jarvis for the bad homilies.
Many Catholics have lamented this state of affairs, but I adopt a wait-and-see approach. As Karl Rahner wrote in Foundations of Christian Faith, the relationship of ordinary believers to the clergy is like that of the rest of the A-Team to Hannibal: we trust the plan will come together, even when that crazy fool Murdock does something that lands us in hot water.
In other words, there must be a method to the madness. Perhaps it's some kind of church-wide rope-a-dope strategy in which - just like Muhammad Ali - we'll lull our opponent into a false sense of security and then explode from the ropes in the 10th round with a flurry of devastating rhetorical right hands*.
With that hope fondly lodged in my heart, I therefore present this helpful guide for priests, deacons, and assorted talkers who are hoping to make their homilies just a little bit more awful.
Be Nervous and Easily Distracted
In any kind of public speaking, bearing is important, and to give a truly bad homily, your posture, mannerisms, and countenance should reflect this. Ideally, you should adopt the bearing of a nervous homeschooler sweating beneath the lights of a major spelling bee after getting stuck on the word "cthonic." Fidget. Hide behind the lectern. Speak directly into the Bible. Never, under any circumstances, look at the congregation.
A major boon to any bad homilist is distractions from the pews. Remember: a crying baby is a key ally in your effort to seem hopelessly outside your depth. At the first sound of a wailing youngster, you should freeze in place, as if the bishop has just entered the sanctuary tailed by the police, pointing at you and shouting, "Fraud!" Once this is done, it's important to lose your train of thought and mumble disconsolately for several moments, as if you have never seen an infant before, and the sight has left you terribly unsettled.
I was actually once at a Mass where the priest - who was nearing retirement, in fairness - responded to a crying baby by snarling, "Shut that kid up!" I doubt Chrysostom would have handled it that way, but in delivering a bad homily, that's kind of the point.
Inflection is a Tool of the Devil
When delivering a bad homily you will, like Phil Spector, want to go "back to mono" - monotone, that is. Your voice should be as calm and affectless as the Sargasso Sea; if at all possible, you should read the words of your homily the way 3rd graders read book reports when standing in front of the class. Never give any indication that one word or other should be emphasized in the endless gray slurry of diction you pour forth. Raymond Chandler once wrote that the American accent is "flat, toneless, and tiresome," and you should do your part to prove him right.
From God's Lips to Your Parish Bulletin
A homily is technically supposed to relate the message of Christ's salvation to a particular community, so why not spend the first 10 minutes announcing minutiae from that week's parish newsletter? Hey, salvation is important and all, but so is the fact that the Tuesday Teen Coffee Hour has been moved to 7:30 p.m. This approach has the double effect of making the homily unutterably dull and rendering the bulletin redundant, and is thus highly commended to bad homilists.
I once attended Mass at a parish in which the priest delivered a five-minute homily, four minutes of which were devoted to gripes about the difficulties of getting a zoning permit to install a new elevator. Then he ended with a variation of "God is good." Well said, Father!
Reach The Young People
Do popular songs on the radio remind you of Biblical passages? Is there some way a blockbuster summer movie can be said to show God's forgiveness? Is Jesus maybe a little bit like Spider-Man?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you're well on your way to developing one of the most popular techniques for delivering a bad homily: tailoring it to young worshipers by dumbing it down with a plethora of poorly thought out pop culture references.
When doing so, though, you'll want to remember to keep those references vaguely out of date, so that anyone in the pews who might possibly be reached by such a tactic will instead focus on their mirth at your use of "X-Files" terminology.
You'll also want to keep the metaphors as tortured as possible. Popular culture, like all Western culture, is indeed filled with allusions and references - sometimes self-aware, sometimes not - to Christianity. Instead of going for the obvious ones, though, you'll want to instead explain how Jesus is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the vampires are sins and they're not really being slain so much as forgiven, and of course Jesus is not a woman.
It's All About You
Many people think that worshipers come to church on Sunday to receive the sacraments, to be in the presence of God, or to learn about how Christ's salvific death changes their lives utterly. You, as the bad homilist, know the truth: People come to church to hear your funny anecdotes about bad drivers.
Ham it up! Play to the crowd. Test the material at the 7:00 a.m. Mass so you'll have a dynamite routine for the bigger 11:00 a.m. crowd. Why not? All the world's a stage, and everyone's paying attention to you. It must be because of your funny stories about waiting in line at the supermarket. Hey, that teaches us a Biblical lesson - wasn't Job supposed to be patient or something?
Don't Get Bogged Down in Scripture
Sure, the Church describes the homily as "an explanation either of some aspect of the readings from scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day," but have they ever tried to read some of that stuff? I mean, all the talk about vineyards and mustard seeds and fruit - you'd think this was 4-H Club, not the Catholic Church!
To give a bad homily, you'll want to seize on a single phrase in the Gospel reading to justify whatever subject on which you most feel like holding forth. For example: If Jesus warns against building a house on a foundation of sand, you can say, "And a foundation of sand is exactly what the makers of 'The Da Vinci Code' have erected," before launching into a tangent that quickly loses sight of any scripture, whether today's or otherwise.
But to give a genuinely awful homily, you'll want to ignore the Bible altogether, and just "shoot from the hip." Hey, maybe you'll want to quote from some other text: a half-remembered poem, perhaps, or a book by a conservative newspaper columnist. If you're really trying hard, you'll find a way to work in something from a Beatles song.
The goal is to make your homily "relevant." If you occasionally get worried about what may or may not be "relevant," try using this helpful rule of thumb: "Relevant" is just another way of saying "unrelated to the contents of the Bible."
It's Casual Sunday Around Here
Any homily that has a tone of solemnity is all wrong for what you want. You don't want people to see you as a priest ordained through God's grace to perform the Eucharistic miracle in which the faithful partake of the body and blood of Christ, you want them to see you as an easygoing dude around the office water cooler. Hey, just because none of St. Augustine's extant sermons include the phrase, "Boy, it's a real scorcher today, ain't it, folks?," doesn't mean you can't blaze new trails.
Dazzle Them With Jargon
Casual Sundays are great and all, but sometimes you have to remind the laity that you didn't go to priest school for eight years just to be called "Father Bob." In these instances, it's a good idea to reach for the theologian's favorite device: jargon. If you're feeling a little anxious about your role in the lives of the faithful, why not remind them why they need you by speaking Latin? A bad homily that relies on jargon will have all the qualities of a peer-reviewed article in an electrical engineering journal, and is designed to sail over the heads of anyone who thought the church might have something to tell them about bereavement, loneliness, anxiety, joy, or everyday life. But don't worry: somebody will appreciate your jargon, most likely the two or three intense young men scattered around the back occasionally wincing from the cilices around their thighs.
"WWJD" Means "What Would Jesus Disapprove Of?"
There's a popular impression that the Catholic Church's theology consists of little more than an endless series of arbitrary rules invented and enforced by isolated old men with precious little experience of everyday life. As a bad homilist, it's your job to confirm that suspicion.
One way you might go about this is by presenting every aspect of Catholic teaching as self-evidently revealed fact. Sure, the Church might have produced some of the finest thinkers in history, people who went to great lengths to demonstrate the truths of revelation using science, logic, and philosophy, but those methods have no place in a bad homily. Your answer to the question "Why?" should always be, "Because God - and, by extension, I - said so."
It also helps if, when presenting conclusions without explaining the reasoning behind them, you just focus on the things people aren't supposed to do. Premarital sex, abortion, contraception, women's ordination, voting for bishops, eating meat on Fridays in Lent - sure, there might be reasons behind the Church's stances on all these things. But why should your congregants know that? Let them go to seminary if they're so curious! Remember: If people come away from your homily with a picture of God as a distant, disapproving, headmaster-like figure always saying "No," you're doing your job.
Here You Stand, You Can Do No Other
Have you ever read the Catechism? It's so full of stuff: do this, don't do that, believe this, salvation that. There's way too much there for anyone to fully digest, so you can be excused for not knowing or not believing everything the church teaches. After all, you're just one person, right?
So when composing your homilies, don't worry if something you're going to say is "unclear" or "inaccurate" or "openly heretical." Who's keeping track, anyway? If you feel like maybe people who commit suicide are beyond God's ability to forgive, go ahead and say so. Alternately, if you think it's silly that Catholics can't receive Communion at Protestant churches, don't be shy about letting the congregation know. The catechism may disagree with you on both points, but this is a democracy, right?
As a follow-up, be wary of "dogma nuts" who will approach you after Mass with minor, nitpicking complaints like "I thought we offered veneration rather than worship to the saints" or "There aren't four Persons in the Trinity." These "laity lawyers" may, technically, be correct, but stick to your guns: remind them you're the one infused with ordination, that your fingers were anointed, and maybe say something about papal infallibility. That applies to priests, too, right? If you're a deacon, you'll have to take a different approach: quickly change the subject by reminding these complainers they haven't yet volunteered for a shift at the Interfaith Cot Shelter.
Always End With a Flourish
A lot of priests end their homilies with a simple, "May God bless you." The bad homilist has a word for these priests: "Boring." Here are a few sample lines you'll want to end with if you're interested in truly nailing the bad homily:
"Don't forget to pick up your raffle tickets after Mass."
"Okay, now let's do that Creed thing."
"Remember, as Jesus said: Keep on keepin' on."
"See you next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."
"The person who owns a green Buick LeSabre, license plate 489-HFC: your lights are on."
"Let's go Jesus, let's go! (clap)"
"And may God forgive the local zoning board for their obstructionist ways."
"Shut that kid up!"
*Admittedly, this metaphor is not perfect. For example, who are we supposed to be boxing? One possibility: Satan.
Also: a tip of the cap to Kurt Tucholsky, author of the fine, sadly out of print essay, "How to Give a Bad Speech."