What the Sunday sermons said


As the Catholic Church experiences one of its most turbulent periods, 10 'Irish Times' journalists attended Roman Catholic Mass last Sunday to assess the Lenten sermons. Did the homilies deliver a relevant message, did they connect with congregations, and did they follow recent Vatican guidelines on sermons?

GUIDELINES WRITTEN by a senior Vatican figure, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, recommend that priests apply strict criteria in the preparation and delivery of sermons. In a book called The Word of God, Archbishop Eterovic, who is general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, writes that sermons should be no longer than eight minutes to cater for people with short attention spans.

Priests should keep a watchful eye on current affairs to ensure their homilies address issues of local or national concern, he writes. And they should work from notes, not an exact script, to avoid the impression that they are reading. He also advises priests to follow Pope Benedict’s example, and spend up to a week preparing a homily.

So are the guidelines being followed, and are Catholic priests connecting with their congregations? Last Sunday, we sent 10 Irish Times journalists to Masses around Ireland and abroad, to make their assessments.

The controversy over Cardinal Brady and Fr Brendan Smyth was only emerging when these sermons were delivered.

St Patrick’s Church Lwr Glanmire Rd, Cork

The message: The sermon followed a reading from the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus retold the story of the prodigal son.

In his sermon, Canon Liam Leader offered a more accessible précis of the parable. The focus was on how Mass was in itself like the party thrown for the prodigal son and how important it was to the practice of faith.

Many of those who chose not to attend Mass in recent years were perhaps like the older brother of the prodigal son, resentful of the love shown by his father towards his wayward brother, Canon Leader said.

The timing: The sermon began at 12.15pm and ended six minutes later.

The delivery: It was obvious that Canon Leader was reading from an already prepared script. He did attempt to make eye contact regularly. He was also quite good at using his hands to illustrate a point, and his gentle accent did his delivery no harm.

Did it feel like a week’s work?It may have been a week’s work at some point to write the sermon, but there was a strong sense that this sermon had been written or recited several times over the years. There was little reference to current events, either within the church or the country.

Was I enlightened?There was nothing revelatory in the sermon that hadn’t already been delivered in the Gospel. There was no attempt to make it current or relevant to the concerns and struggles of those in attendance. It was a story most in the church were already familiar with, so the sermon offered the chance for a commentary on how it related to present-day life and religion. Instead, it was something of a missed opportunity.


Holy Cross Parish Church, M

The message: Last Sunday’s Gospel was the story of the prodigal son. It was a family Mass, so Fr Kieran McDermott began by asking the children to hold up their hands if they liked reading books. Hands shot up, so he told them that a famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote a short story about something very similar to the prodigal son.

A Spanish man fell out with his son. After years, the father put an advertisement in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven, Papa.” On that Tuesday, 800 young men called Paco turned up.

The priest then talked about how deep the need for forgiveness is in all of us, but made a further point – that we also need to learn how to accept a sincere apology. He ended on a humorous note, that we should not forget to turn up at Hotel Montana on Tuesday, because God is waiting for all of us. Given the vengeful mood Irish people are in, for all sorts of reasons, it was relevant and current.

The timing: About seven minutes.

The delivery: One of the reasons I attend Mass in Dundrum is that the homilies range from good to excellent. While he used a script, it was only for reference. There was lots of eye contact, and even participation by the children.

Did it feel like a week’s work?It sounded like something that had been mulled over for days, gathering ideas that would speak to a variety of age groups.

Was I enlightened?The homily was thought-provoking and helpful. Also, at the end of the Mass, as it was Mothers’ Day, all the mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, single mothers, godmothers and Reverend Mothers, as the priest put it, received chocolates. Hard to beat that.


Westminster Cathedral, Francis St, London

The message: Clearly uncomfortable with the task before him, Canon Christopher Tuckwell used the lesson of the prodigal son, to encourage his congregation and visitors to help with the Cathedral’s urgent need to raise almost £500,000, though he apologised to first-time visitors for talking about money.

“The prodigal son wasted his inheritance on a life of debauchery. Our problem is not with debauchery.” Conscious of the difficulties caused by the recession that face many of his congregation, he said he understood that many families and elderly parishioners would find it difficult to increase their donations.

“We have no-one to turn to – not the Vatican, not the diocese, not the parish. And we have no hidden reserves. The prodigal son with God’s help was able to turn his life around. With God’s help, and yours, I am sure that we can turn this around, and that we can keep this cathedral as a house of prayer.”

The timing: Exactly eight minutes.

The delivery: He used notes, but not a full script, and made eye contact with those in the front pews.

Did it feel like a week’s work?If anything, it felt like the Canon had been unable to think about much else, faced as he is with the job of raising £5,000 each day to maintain the Byzantine-style cathedral.

Was I enlightened?Spiritually, no, but the sermon did highlight the financial difficulties now faced by a church in England and Wales that is suffering from declining congregations.


St Theresa of the Child Jesus, Donore Avenue, Dublin 8

The message:Fr Sean McArdle spoke about forgiveness. “Jesus is all-merciful. He not only forgives us our sins but welcomes us back.” He also spoke of “the gift of confession”.

The timing: 2.5 minutes.

The delivery: The priest delivered his sermon with the same slow pace as he read the Gospel about the prodigal son.

Did it feel like a week’s work?It felt like it was scribbled on the back of a matchbox. To be fair to the priest: after Mass he stepped down into the congregation and spent quite a while smiling and chatting with parishioners.

Was I enlightened?I left feeling disappointed. The priest didn’t share any insights, nor did he make the sermon relevant to current affairs.


St Patrick's Church, Donegall St, Belfast

The message: Fr Michael Sheehan offered a soothing meditation on the classic parable of the prodigal son, in which a father welcomes back the black sheep of the family. After musing on the psychological motivations of each of the main characters, Fr Sheehan smoothly segued to the central point of his homily: the all-embracing, unconditional love of God. Fr Sheehan chose not to include any references to issues of local or national concern.

The timing: Exactly eight minutes.

The delivery: Referring to his script, but with frequent eye contact and the odd dramatic pause, Fr Sheehan resembled an experienced actor at a rehearsed reading. His pleasant, well-modulated tones kept the congregation (some of whom evidently regarded this as a good time to catch up on the week’s gossip) in a state of comfortable inattention. He was not distracted by the constant wailing of a hungry baby. There were a few lyrical touches, such as referring to the elder son’s “stone-cold heart”.

Did it feel like a week’s work?I’d be surprised. It gave the impression of being neatly yet briskly crafted.

Was I enlightened?You couldn’t get a better-known parable than that of the prodigal son, but Fr Sheehan made a decent stab at teasing out the nuances.

He did try to connect it with the congregation’s own experiences – “maybe you have to have lost something you love and found it again to truly understand”. Nothing to test the soul here either: it was the spiritual equivalent of being tucked up in a lovely soft duvet. Very pleasant on a chilly Sunday evening.


Sacred Heart Church, Donnybrook Village, Dublin 4

The message: Political in only the broadest sense, Fr Martin Clarke’s sermon made a breezy segue from the Gospel reading, the parable of the prodigal son, into a discussion of the role of forgiveness in the Christian faith. In a Catholic tradition so historically steeped in guilt, he said, here was the antidote; the inextinguishable possibility of reconciliation with God and each other.

The timing: An attention-commanding, Vatican-approved, seven and a half minutes.

The delivery: Not only was Fr Clarke’s delivery impeccable, maintaining eye contact, deploying sonorous intonation and rarely glancing at his notes, but his speech-making had the warm construction of a seasoned pro. Opening with a pleasantry borrowed from Mark Twain and extending his theme to an amusing (presumably apocryphal) anecdote about 500 estranged Spanish sons responding to the same newspaper advertisement of paternal absolution, Fr Clarke riffed gently on father-son relationships, indulged in some textual and character analysis and steered carefully towards his payoff, the endless font of forgiveness.

Did it feel like a week’s work?The sermon’s tidiness in structure, together with light references to literary, liturgical and anecdotal sources, signalled some planning and forethought.

Fr Clarke retained the human warmth of an extempore speaker, even while the meaning of the parable – which really ought to be self-evident – felt that it had been wrung for all it was worth.

Was I enlightened?Much as I admired Fr Clarke’s performance, this agnostic is not convinced personal forgiveness is ever simple, nor that there’s much more to the prodigal son than a patch to cover a moral loophole: if it’s so easy to be absolved, what’s the point of being good? That much, though, accompanied by the unravelling history of clerical scandals, prompted further consideration about how the Church and its teachings might ever be reconciled with society. Can you ever have meaningful forgiveness unless it is accompanied by justice?


Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, Rathmines, Dublin 6

The message: Fr Joe McDonnell is a missionary priest who was in the parish to discuss his work with the Columban order. He recounted a tale from his work in the Philippines in the early 1970s, not long after becoming a priest, when civil strife under Marcos saw some military attacks on communities in which he was working. On one occasion, the home of a local Catholic organiser was shot at, and the woman lost her arm. But rather than wallow in self-pity, he told us, she took strength from the fact that her sacrifice was as nothing compared to the sacrifice made by Jesus, a stirring display of Christian belief.

The timing: The Columban spent just under 10 minutes talking to the congregation, but the final two minutes were about subscribing to Far Eastmagazine and making donations to the order. Fr McDonnell is a more natural storyteller than salesman, in that this appeal was less polished and assured than his sermon.

The delivery: Fr McDonnell obviously has a lot of practice engaging crowds with stories of his missionary work, and this particular story, with its personal details and exotic locale, quickly forged a personal connection with the congregation.

Did it feel like a week’s work?It was evidently well crafted from years of repetition, and rather than a week, it did seem like a lifetime’s work condensed into a short story.

Was I enlightened?It was certainly a gripping tale, though the Christian message at its conclusion, that this woman took solace in that fact that Jesus had sacrificed more than she did, wasn’t an entirely convincing justification for the Catholic missionary project. However, it evoked effectively the radically different worlds missionaries work in, as well as putting our own current woes into perspective.


Church of the Holy Family, Aughrim St, Dublin 7

The message: The sermon, which was delivered on Mothers’ Day, opened with a tribute to mothers, with Fr Martin Ryan emphasising the debt of gratitude owed to mothers for all they teach about love. This was linked to the messages about parenting noted in the day’s Gospel, which related the story of the prodigal son.

Fr Ryan focused his sermon on the forgiving father from this parable, who he said was mirrored in the Catholic God, “a God of open arms”. He preached the importance of reflecting on human tendencies to react as the older brother did, with bitterness and with judgment, stressing the need to withhold judgment of others to avoid personal isolation.

The timing: Five minutes and 15 seconds.

The delivery: Fr Ryan’s delivery was direct and unscripted. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and addressed all his words directly to the congregation with whom he made constant eye contact. He eschewed formality in favour of a more personable, direct delivery and though he veered occasionally into monotone, he was clear and audible throughout.

Did it feel like a week’s work?The sermon was simple, and though this may have been the planned effect, the whole did not appear to have necessitated seven days of preparation.

Was I enlightened?It’s hard to spin an old, familiar story in a way that will wake up a Sunday morning congregation, yet Fr Ryan’s interpretation of what might have happened after the story ended was an interesting approach to looking at the potential consequences of judging others. A little more intellectual rigour and some contemporary context might have helped punch the message home.


Notre Dame de Paris, Place Jean Paul II, Paris

The message: An homage to the classic tropes and themes of the Lenten sermon: a reworking of the parable of the prodigal son and a riff on the idea of original sin before we reach the business end of things with the call to reconcile with God. The priest, Père Pierre-Marie Hombert, likened the son’s desire to cash in his inheritance, fly the nest and blow it all on some riotous living in far-off lands to our modern “desire for radical autonomy”. Too often, our attitude is: “Thanks for giving us the world and this life, but now leave us alone to get on with it. The world is mine . . . My body is my own.” Conversion consists of renouncing the vacuous and superficial, then discovering the goodness of God.

The timing: Just over 15 minutes.

The delivery: Fluent and engaging, if repetitive in parts. The priest used notes to prompt him at times, but he never read the sermon and managed to maintain eye contact.

Did it feel like a week’s work?Maybe a week where he had a lot on. It was short on modern allusions, but coherent and confidently delivered. That self-assurance could mean he had spent quite a while crafting it. It could also mean he has given the same sermon once or twice before.

Was I enlightened?A journalist with a notebook and an eye on the clock isn’t exactly the core audience here, but while the sermon was insightful in parts, I kept thinking he could do much more with the material. There were some fascinating philosophical conundrums hidden beneath the text. I underlined that passing reference to our “desire for radical autonomy”, thinking it would lend itself to a reflection on any one of the Big Debates of the day. None came. Afterwards, another priest came to the altar to encourage us to vote later that day, and it came as a jolt to be thrust back into the present.


St John's Lane Church, Thomas St, Dublin 8

The message: The celebrant spoke in very abstract terms on the topic of forgiveness. To believe in sin, he argued, one must believe in God. A non-believer has a conscience. But while a believer can ask and receive the Lord's forgiveness, a non-believer must live with his guilt for the rest of his life. This, he speculated, must be a great source of pain and unhappiness to the non-believer.

The timing: At three minutes and thirty seconds, it was actually well within the eight minute time limited suggested by Archbishop Etervoic.

The delivery: The celebrant spoke without notes and maintained eye contact with the congregation throughout. His delivery was faltering, however. Seated in the middle of the church, I could not decipher all of what was said.

Did it feel like a weeks work?Frankly, no. The gospel was the parable of the Prodigal Son. If the celebrant had wished to reference contemporary social issues, there was much to work with. Instead, he confined himself to generic observations on a perennial theme. His sermon referenced no contemporary social issue or even that days gospel.