They’re so Short!
Something that was always strange to me as a Protestant attending Mass was how short Catholic sermons are. Well, technically we call what happens when the Priest speaks after the gospel reading a homily, but homily isn’t a word seen too often outside the Catholic realm.
The priests seemed to have varying degrees of preparation in their message, and it varied from a minute to about ten minutes at most. It varied greatly in level of depth. Sometimes it was more an encouraging word than a message at all.
I thought, what’s the deal with this?
At every single non-Lutheran Protestant Church I attended, there was a sermon. And the sermon was comparatively long. 20 minutes was normal. Some could go over 30. If the sermon was good, I left church feeling challenged and uplifted. If it was just okay, I might have been disappointed.
Expositional Preaching vs. The Homily Objective
There is a big movement right now in the non-liturgical Protestant realm towards expositional preaching. Where a pastor delves deep into a passage of scripture, often going through entire books of the Bible in an extensive sermon series. The pastor delves into the historical, cultural context, along with the original language and preaches on what he or she concludes after that extensive study.
This makes sense in the Protestant world because in Protestant churches, the sermon is the pinnacle of the service. Everything, the music, the offering, the reading (if there is one before the sermon itself), builds up to the sermon. The sermon is, structurally, the main event.
The homily, on the other hand, is meant to be an application of the readings for the day.
More in-depth study of the Bible is available to Catholics, (and should be used!), in a variety of different formats. There are Bible Studies, books, and video and online resources for in-depth delving into scripture. The readings for each day are thematically connected, and resources are readily available each day from a variety of different sources that delve into the readings. It’s been amazing to learn how connected the Old Testament is to the New via utilization of these resources. Here’s a link to one.
But the Mass isn’t ever going to be a place for lengthy, expositional study of Scripture.
Simply put, in a Protestant service, everything builds up to the sermon.
But in Catholic Mass, everything builds up to something else.
Christian Mass, and living the Christian faith, from the time of the earliest Christians, focused heavily on Holy Communion. Another word we use for that as Catholics is The Eucharist. The earliest Christians called it that too.
In many Protestant Churches, communion is served once a month, or twice a month in some instances, but this wasn’t always the case in the history of our faith.
As a Catholic, though we need to be in attendance on Sundays, there is actually Mass held every single day. And at every single Mass, the Eucharist is there.
The preparations for the Eucharist begin in concrete form after the prayers of the faithful.
Then, the liturgy of the Eucharist begins and takes us to the completion of the Mass.
Why is that important?
It’s important because Catholics, like the early Christians, believe Christ is truly present in Holy Communion. We believe we actually receive Jesus: body, blood, soul and divinity when we receive the Eucharist.
We believe this is one of the most intimate ways we can interact with our Creator while we walk on this earth. We believe there is grace there. We believe receiving the Eucharist on a regular basis helps strengthen our walk of faith, helps unite us to other Christians, and that, among other things, it helps us turn our hearts to God. We believe that just as Jesus took the form of a man, that he is with us still, in the form of bread and wine. That he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. That he meant what he said in John 6.
When we kneel before the Eucharist, we kneel before our Savior.
As someone who grew up in a Protestant world, the things I just wrote would have been weird and offensive.
Communion was merely a symbol in my Protestant realm. It was more casually passed out, and more casually received. I ultimately concluded that this Catholic practice was so weird to me because it was unfamiliar. But just because I had never heard of something before, didn’t mean it wasn’t true. Imagine someone living a Pagan existence in a remote location of the world. The Gospel would sound pretty strange to them at first. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
When deciding where my faith would land, I researched a lot of things extensively. Especially this. And I found only solid evidence that the earliest Christians, those closest to Jesus held that exact same belief as the Catholic Church about Holy Communion. That belief as Communion as a symbol was considered heresy. This may not be the case everywhere, but the churches we attended didn’t delve regularly into Church history. Especially not Church history on the Christian beliefs surrounding Communion.
I’ll probably dive more into this in another post, but if it was good enough for Jesus’ disciples, and their disciples after, and on and on through apostolic succession, then it was good enough for me.
So that’s why Catholic sermons, or homilies, are so short. Some are longer than others, and some Priests spend more time crafting them than others do. But Priests are really busy guys. They spend time visiting the sick, and being instruments of grace through the sacraments.
Besides, the sermon isn’t the main event. Jesus is. And, long homily or not, he meets us there, every single Mass, loving us and offering to us himself in the bread and the wine.
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12 thoughts on “Why Are Catholic Sermons So Short?”
JP and Lorelei,
After commenting on your Journey Home visit I figured I would see your last post.I see the fire in your two hearts through your writing. I have that same burning in mine.
Do you collaborate on these reflections?
I wish Jen and I did so more often.
Fr. James H. Flanagan, the founder of SOLT has passed to eternal life and hi s role is critical to my faith journey.
His ‘sermon’ at the baptism of our adopted daughter Gianna Rose is posted on YouTube.
It has been 9 years now and I sometimes listen to it in its entirety to remember him by.
The final blessing is at:
It can be heard at:
God bless you five, and know that we five (plus 6) are praying for you.
Mike and Jen
(John, Joe and Gianna)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello! Thank you so much for visiting our site! Typically I write most of the articles, but I do get JP’s feedback sometimes and I am able to occasionally wrangle him into contributing his own post :). He has a lot of great thoughts.
That’s so beautiful that you have these videos! Fr. James Flanagan is someone I’ve heard of but will now look into more thoroughly! I was able to watch some of the ‘sermon’ already and he seems so filled with the peace of God.
We will pray for your family as well, and please keep in touch!
The points of this article are well articulated and sound. I was received into the Church 4 years ago. The lack of preaching has been really jarring. Given the amount of training priests receive in theology, philosophy, and other subjects, I don’t think it’s fair to the laity to deprive them of sound preaching
someone is honest to say this. This article is unfair to the protestants. They are right in their idealism. Christ is present in communion spiritually, not physically
This is truly an informational blog. I loved reading it. Thanks for sharing it!
I came across your very well written article quite by accident and really enjoyed it. I am the pastor of a pre-Catholic non-denominational Christian church and am interested in the development and subsequent separation of Catholicism from the entire rest of the church in the world.
You made some pretty significant statements about the early church’s approach to communion that I can’t imagine verifiable outside of Catholic inner-history and dogma. Could you please show me where I can find any suggestion that early believers celebrated communion more than once a year, and that they ever believed that they were actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ?
I recently had a discussion with a member or our church who left the Catholic church after receiving communion on a Sunday when she was not feeling well. After the service she was unable to restrain her nausea and the imaginable result of that unrestraint made itself apparent on the pavement in the parking lot. Therein she saw grape juice and bread, not body and blood..
She never returned to a Catholic church, and will not. My response to here was quite easy as she only found agreement in me, but your suggestion that I might be wrong is so interesting that I just had to ask for some direction as I have never read anything that indicated any reality in what you have presented here.
Thanks very much,
Hi DeWayne! Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments! I think the first place I would point you is Brant Pitre’s video study called Lectio Eucharist. It traces the history of the Eucharist through the Old Testament and into the New Testament and was one of the best resources I’ve come across. I think even without looking outside the Bible, there is a strong enough case for the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist- I know personally as a protestant I never was taught to look at things through this lens, but if you are truly curious, that would be a wonderful place to start.
There are many early Church writings where early Christians explicitly state what we believe the Eucharist to be- the True Body and Blood. So much, in fact, that I sometimes wonder if the question is better asked to my protestant brothers and sisters on when that belief changed and why the original belief held by the early Christians was wrong. Here is one link to some quotes from early Christians: http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/father/a5.html
I think we see a pretty good pattern of frequent Communion in the New Testament- here’s a link that breaks that down well, and also shares early Church writings on the matter: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06278a.htm
And then finally, with regard to your friend, it’s possible she may have misunderstood the Catholic belief? We don’t believe the bread and wine change into body and blood inside our stomachs. So if someone were to be sick, it would still have the appearance of bread and wine as it does at the altar. He is there, but it is veiled.
In short, I haven’t struggled much with the idea of the Eucharist because for me it’s in the same ballpark as some other areas of our faith- like the fact that God became a zygote, or a virgin became pregnant, or someone rose from the dead. Jesus leaving us with a Sacrament of his body and blood in the form of bread and wine doesn’t seem too odd when paired with all of those other parts of our faith, and after researching all those things above and more, it would be tough for me at this point to say 1- that the early Church didn’t practice this belief or 2- that they did practice this belief, but the Christians closest to Christ himself got this matter (one that Jesus himself in John 6 offended people over) wrong and only later did the non-Catholic church get it right.
Hope that helps- I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel by saying things others have said better before me, but I do hope you’ll check out those links as well as Lectio Eucharist if you want the most complete answers to your questions.
Thank you Lorelei,
Those are all interesting, but they are also Catholic specific and essentially centrically focused on that one denomination and it’s internal recollection and opinion which are both quite small and dogma-centric.
They don’t use original languages, or any exegesis at all but rather old and poor English translations which have long sense been replaced by more accurate Biblical translations.
Please let me add that the suggestion that transubstantiation is anything other than the belief that the bread and wine literally become the body and the blood, for the vast majority of Catholics is just not true. You have seen beyond that nonsense quite because of your upbringing in the actual Universal church which taught you the value of symbolism.
Those with only Catholic heritages do not have the benefit of your wider view. They just believe it all, obey it all, and never discover anything else for themselves as you had done before you began to sit among them. In many ways you are above them all, including the “priests”. You simply know more because you came from a tradition that expects it.
Thank you for the response. Our church is serving communities all over the world and we are seeing an incredible influx of people who are leaving catholicism. We want to serve them well as they come to us. I am building a process to help them heal and move forward in a intellectual faith that is completely Jesus focuses. You have helped me with that, and I am grateful.
Thanks DeWayne for your thoughts- I think asking me to defend/explain Catholic doctrine, but then writing off my response because I am using Catholic sources for that defense puts me in a bit of a tricky position. I’m not sure what types of sources you would prefer me to use?
It reminds me of the time a pastor from our church came to our house and admitted he had never read about Catholicism from Catholics, but only through the lens of non-Catholics. I think the best way to understand what a faith or person believes is to read from that source. I wouldn’t expect to accurately understand Judaism if I refused to read anything written by Jews, for example. How can I possibly accurately understand a faith by refusing to learn from the people that practice it? The best way to learn about Catholic belief is from the people who believe it. If that’s something that you aren’t interested in doing, then we may be at an impasse there.
If you change your mind and decide to look at one thing- I’d recommend Lectio Eucharist. If not, that’s completely fine, but I’ll have to bow out of the conversation because it will be difficult to discuss this matter with someone intent on dismissing Catholic sources as a whole, and dismissing my resources with reasons that are inaccurate. Lectio Eucharist is basically all exegesis, and leans heavily on original languages as well as the culture and how people who lived in the Old and New Testament times would have interpreted things given the lens of their culture and age. Truly there isn’t reason for me to reinvent the wheel when the answers to the questions you asked are in that study. You could also read his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist as an alternative to the video study.
Also, prior to the Reformation, by far the main pracice of Christianity for Christians was within the Catholic Church. I really haven’t come across many Protestants who would disagree with that, so if you do you would be one of the first. After all, that fact is why my Protestant brothers and sisters believe we needed a reformation in the first place. So when we are looking at historical Christian sources prior to the Reformation, we are looking at vastly Catholic sources. There weren’t so many other, numerous widespread denominations like we see today, so to look at Catholic historical documents and Church Fathers is to look at the widespread Christian Early Church, which is not something small nor specific to a niche denomination. If you want history of verification of what the Early Church practiced or believed… you have historical Christian documents. St. Ignatius was a prominent person in the Early Church and we have his writings, along with the writings of others are historical documents that tell us what they practiced. So again, if I can’t use these, I’m in a spot wondering what other sources you imagine might exist to tell us what the Early Church believed and practiced, and where one would find them?
And I’m sorry for any miscommunication in how I described the Eucharist- what I intended is that we see bread and wine at the altar, we eat and drink and we taste bread and wine, but we believe it is Christ. Even in our bodies though it would still look like bread and wine. Catholics don’t believe that it tastes like blood or flesh, or that it changes to look like blood or flesh (except sometimes in Eucharistic miracles, which is a different topic). We believe by a miracle that it is His blood and flesh. But again, sometimes people ask questions and don’t actually want to do the research to get the answers, which is okay.
I’ve met many Catholics who understand their faith well, and am wary of stereotypes. Certainly there are people in all Christian churches who know more or less, understand more or less, believe more or less. I agree that my history gives me a unique perspective on things on both sides, but I’m not above anyone.
I now very much believe that those who leave the Catholic Church probably never understood it to begin with. “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” – Fulton Sheen
I wish you peace on your journey. If you ever watch the Lectio Eucharist study, I’d love to know your thoughts. I’ve watched it with Protestant family before and, while they didn’t become Catholic, they found it to increase their appreciation for Holy Communion.
Catholics are in an interesting position because if our belief on the Eucharist is wrong, then we are at best gravely mistaken, and at worst crazy. If our understanding of the Eucharist is correct, and it really is Christ, then I can’t imagine a more Jesus-centered faith. It’s a question that merits deep consideration, to be sure.
Thank you again. I know Grant and am quite familiar with “lectures on the Eucharist”. His take is interesting, if not comical. It is all that I’ve already described, and depends heavily on the apocrypha which of course is neither holy, nor scripture. Please let me caution you about labeling the church before Constantine and his mother as being “catholic”. That word only means universal as was the Roman emperor’s intent to bring the empire, not the faithful, together which it did, to some degree do. It was only a gathering of Europeans, and most of them Italian.
Christian factions began as early as the book of Acts in Luke’s record. Paul oversaw them. I could meander on, but I won’t.
You love Jesus which is what matters most. I doubt if the superstition, ceremony and liturgy will be enough to knock you out of your faith. Of course there are Catholics who are indeed Christians, but many, many are not. They are the group I’m after. Eternity is the issue and to that end the catholic tradition is failing as it’s numbers plummet along with most other liturgical traditions.
I just want people to go to heaven, and am discovering more and more why different denominations including Catholicism are not successfully helping people make that transition into that wonderful destination.
I think we would find that we have a lot of common ground in wanting people to love Jesus. As I mentioned above, my husband found Jesus during his time away from Catholicism, and I would never presume to know more about a person’s spiritual journey than God does. I appreciate your statement about me loving Jesus- I think I’ve loved Jesus since the moment I understood who Jesus was, and that was very early in my life. I think I’m sometimes a bit of a conundrum to some because becoming Catholic has made me fall even more in love with Jesus. I was on the verge of leaving Christianity altogether before before I became Catholic- I was living as a practical agnostic and was ready to officially leave. So how is it that Catholicism, if riddled with so many errors, has not only kept me in the faith, but made it stronger? The ceremony and the liturgy draw me near to God in a deep and meaningful way each week. Some of my protestant friends backed away from that question, so I’m not sure I’ll ever really know how they worked through it other than to say I was never really a Christian at all which was where at least some of them landed. I know you mentioned you know many people who have left Catholicism, and I know many people who have found the same thing as my by either returning to it or becoming Catholic later in life. I personally know a lot of people who love Jesus who aren’t Catholic too.
I do think we would both agree that religious affiliation as a whole is on the decline, though, and I don’t think one specific part of Christianity is to blame. Many people in many denominations are not brought up to understand the faith well, or never internalize it, and what church they were at may or may not make a difference. We would obviously also disagree on the deuterocanonical books, (I often flip the question and ask my protestant friends why their Bible is missing 7 books haha), but that’s probably adjacent to this conversation. So is probably the Catholicism of the early Church- though for me it’s not so much about if disputes arose, but it more comes down more to who had the authority to resolve disputes and determine doctrine and lead the Church.
And I actually do wonder if we are talking about the same study? His name is Brant, not Grant, and it’s Lectio Eucharist, not Lectures on the Eucharist. Most of the earlier videos study the events of Genesis, Exodus, and other events that happen to the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament in books common to all Christians. The later videos are all studies on the New Testament. It’s not dependent on the deuterocanonical books- if he mentions them I think you could skip those parts and still walk away with an incredibly solid Bible Study since the vast majority of the study is on books we have in common. He delves into the original languages from the perspective of a well-respected scholar in Biblical History and the Jewish roots of our faith…so it’s quite different from the association you’re making. I don’t think anyone, even someone who disagrees with him, who has watched his video studies or read his books would describe him as comical. My very anti-Catholic uncle watched it and found it inspired his faith. I’m curious if you do in fact mean the Lectio Eucharist study that I’m talking about, if you have personally watched it?
Finally, for now, you also used the word superstition when describing Catholicism. Before I was Catholic, I probably would have used that word too. I think, as a whole, if I could say one thing to my protestant brothers and sisters, it would be this, and it’s a bit similar to what I mentioned above too. If you lived in another country and wanted to learn about America, what would your best source of information be? How accurate would your understanding of America be if you only read about America from people who weren’t American? Or who had never been to America? Or who hated America? Wouldn’t it be best to get a well-rounded understanding, to read things people had written who lived here, in all the different states, throughout the history of the country? Wouldn’t it make sense to read the governing documents about our country and how it works?
If you sub out Catholic or Catholicism for America, then that’s it. That’s the one thing I wish more of my protestant brothers and sisters would invest in doing. So many misconceptions and miscommunications would be resolved with that one thing.
Just want to add at the end here, that while this is a matter of importance to me, and as a result I try to answer questions as directly as possible, I also consider myself an ecumenical person. Because of my journey, I understand that everyone is on their own unique journey. My husband was a cradle Catholic and did not understand his faith well. It took him leaving for a while and attending Evangelical churches with me in order for him to first truly encounter Jesus. When he returned to Catholicism, it made his faith all the richer. If someone is encountering Jesus, I rejoice with them, no matter where they are. I do believe the fullness of the Christian faith is in Catholicism, but I had quite a winding journey myself, so I hope to come alongside my Christian brothers and sisters, wherever they are at and grow in faith together.