Brendan Hoban: It’s time to get rid of the Sunday sermon

It’s time to get rid of the Sunday sermon          Western People 21.6.2022

There’s little doubt now about the steep decline in attendance at weekend Masses. It has been evident for some years but two obvious factors have fuelled a significant decline in recent times. One, the child sexual abuse scandals and the inadequate response to them; and, two, the Covid lockdown. The first had a devastating effect on the trust that for so long so many had invested in the Catholic Church and its authority. The second, the Covid pandemic, had the same effect on many, up to then, still attending Mass.

The result is a present level of attendance that bears little or no comparison to the past. It is hard to credit now that just a few decades ago, surveys were indicating weekly Mass attendances at 90% or even more. Before Covid, a recent spot survey in Killala diocese, indicated an overall figure of 29%, but that has declined significantly since and in some parishes in Dublin the figure is now as low as 3%.

Religious practice for Catholics in Ireland has become a moveable feast. Catholics are much less likely to attend weekend Mass. ‘Practice’, as we have known it, is often more occasional now with a focus, not on weekly attendance at a mandatory Mass, but more on a sporadic presence at funerals (as well as weddings and baptisms), at family and socially obligatory occasions like Month’s Mind and anniversary Masses and a ritual presence at Christmas and Easter (though not at Holy Week ceremonies).

Sunday morning in Ireland now is marked more by a plethora of local sporting occasions (matches and training) as well as other pastimes like cycling. Sunday morning is a good time, someone pointedly explained to me recently, ‘because there’s nothing on at that time’.

The reason for the decline in Mass attendance is sometimes explained – especially by church personnel – as a result of a loss of faith but that simplification is not shared by many of those no longer in attendance. Ask them why they no longer attend weekend Mass and they will respond with some version of ‘because I don’t get anything out of it’. Push them a bit further and they will complain about the dire quality of sermons – not something those of us who have spent most of half a century preparing are anxious to hear!

Whatever about the specifics, the general point is crucial. So many are getting so little out of what has become for them a tired and boring routine. Of course, repetition dulls, no matter how exotic the fare so it’s no surprise if people find themselves giving it a miss. So what can be done?

In the surveys taken up in the listening process that has been part of the preparation for the global synod in Rome and the national synod in Ireland in a few years’ time, Sunday Mass is one of the designated problem areas. While there will be no going back to the way we were – at least not in the same numbers – in deference at least to the faithful remnant still there, we need to respond to the issues around Mass that have surfaced in the surveys.

One is the language we use at Mass. Take the readings. Many, particularly those  from the Old Testament, are difficult and sometimes impossible to understand. The choice is usually made by scripture scholars but many of the readings don’t translate well into a parish setting. Clarity, meaning and simplicity are absolute requirements if we are to understand a text that is being read to us.

Two, music is a key component of worship. Irish people can sing in pubs, at football matches and in the bath/shower but they won’t sing in church. Choirs do their best but they can end up singing too much and colonising spaces in Mass that are meant to optimise not just the participation of the people but opportunities for reflection and prayer. Even the Our Father is now sometimes usurped and the voice of the congregation silenced. It’s why so many opt for ‘a quiet Mass’. Just as there can be too many words, there can be too many hymns.

Three, we need to put a stop to sermons. Not just shorten them but abolish them, in their present format. The same priest giving more-or-less the same sermon (as we do) to the same people for over (in some cases) twenty-plus years has reached a point of no return, in every sense. Why is it that in Children’s Masses every effort is made to make everything child-friendly, yet adults are expected to be theologians and scripture scholars? We need to listen to the cry of the persecuted! Like choirs, preachers can aim too high.

Four, recently I met someone who was delighted with their new priest because (I was told) he wasn’t afraid of silence. After the last man who never stopped talking, the new man allowed people to pray at Mass. It was a welcome relief to all concerned, not least I suspect, to the priest.

The wider point is that Sunday Mass is in crisis, not least because the rituals have become repetitive and stale. We need a root and branch reform that needs to start with the views of the real experts – not the liturgists, theologians or scripture scholars – but those in the pews. They need to be listened to very attentively and change approached on a what-needs-to-be-done rather than on a you-can’t-do-that basis.

The important questions are: What is it about Mass that you find difficult? What is it about Mass that you like? What do we need to do now? What do we need to stop doing?

The important people we need to address them to are the people in the pews, including those who used to be in the pews. And the $60,000 questions are: Are we able to hear what they will say? Are we prepared/able to respond?

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  1. Lee Cahill says:

    Brendan Hoban: It’s time to get rid of the Sunday sermon

    Brendan, thank you, once again, for a truly pastoral and prophetic reflection. You have brought the context of discussion/reflection/debate on the issue of the homily right down to the level of earth/dust from where it has been missing for so long… I hope one of the fruits of this article will see the over-full theological context of our homily discussions becoming more rooted in the earth/dust/smelly sheep…for which the homily is meant, and in which it is authentically incarnated. In the new Church (and, even in the doldrums of the present time, Christ’s Spirit is continually making all things new) we will see anew “the Word becoming Flesh and Living among us”.

  2. Brian Eyre says:

    Brendan Hoban: It’s time to get rid of the Sunday sermon

    I would suggest that after the reading of the Gospel people could be left to quietly meditate on the words of the Gospel and not be obliged to listen to a sermon by the priest.
    So someone or two or three people could go to the microphone and say a few words about a word or a phrase that called their attention in the Gospel.
    However, these spontaneous sharings should not be an occasion for the person speaking to live a lecture but simply share with the congregation a thought or two on a word or phrase that called his or her attention.

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