Fr Kevin Hegarty
The Beatles once had a hit with a song entitled ‘All the Lonely People’. Among those mentioned in it was Fr McKenzie ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’.
Many priests will empathise with his experiences. Sermons are the bane of their lives. It is difficult to find something interesting and relevant to say on 52 weekends of the year.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence that church-goers find sermons tortuous and inaccessible or trite or boring. Sermons may inspire, inform or console, but they are the exceptions.
It is not as if most of us do not prepare our sermons. From my observations we approach our task diligently, though with a sense of foreboding. Every new attempt seems to result in a new kind of failure.
Sales of books and magazines that provide hints for sermons are high.
The reality is that few priests are natural orators. Being an accomplished public speaker is, rightly, not an essential requirement for priesthood.
Preaching is only a small part of the spiritual service of a community. Through the media people are now accustomed to polished performances. Few of us can reach this standard.
A baseline for a sermon is that it should be brief and sincere. Pope Francis recently advised that it should not exceed eight minutes in length. He is right, though I note he does not always adhere to this limit himself.
Most importantly sermons should radiate understanding and compassion. We all know of preachers who have made harsh headlines in peoples’ hearts. Phrases can make painful history.
Some years ago, Fr Raphael Gallagher, a moral theologian, wrote of a young woman who came to see him after she had an abortion.
She was now distraught and felt condemned. Her life had been so emotionally complicated at the time she made the decision that she felt she had no other way out.
He tried to comfort her. As she had made her decision under extreme turmoil, he told her that her responsibility for her action was diminished. He explained to her that the God whom Christians worship is a loving and forgiving deity. As she had not practised her faith for some time, he encouraged her to return to church so that she might experience this compassion.
Some weeks later she returned to him, even more distraught and now angry. She had been at a Mass where she claimed to have heard the priest say that abortion was an unforgivable sin. Anyone who had one was cut off eternally from the mercy of God.
That sermon was utterly out of kilter with the message of Jesus Christ. He always sought out those who were broken or humiliated or vulnerable or in despair. He lifted emotional burdens.
For me the most moving story in scripture is the one in John’s Gospel of the woman caught committing adultery. The scribes and the Pharisees humiliated her. They made her stand ‘in full view of everybody’.
They brought her to Jesus, reminding him that, according to the law of Moses, such women should be condemned to death by stoning.
They wondered what he would say. Jesus said nothing at first. He started to write on the ground with his finger.
Under the spate of their persistent questioning he then uttered the phrase that has resonated through Christian history: “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”