This is the first of a series of 6 posts.

In my analysis of homilies, I will follow a very simple method: summarizing the various topics and measuring the length of time dedicated to each topic. In order to compare homilies, topics must be classified into broad categories like doctrine, spiritual teaching, recommendation, or prayer. This method can be applied to printed material, sermons or letters.

Here is my analyze the 100 homilies delivered at the liturgies described in 100 LITURGIES posted previously. I will first present the 50 American homilies and next the 50 from Guatemala. Combining the two, I will be able to compare them with other sets of homilies, spiritual talks, and sermons. Here is the quantitative analysis of the 50 U.S. homilies.

    General comments. . . . . . . . .  . . . . . .46 %

    Spiritual teachings. . . . . . . .  . . . . . . .20%

    Exhortations & invitations . . . . .  . . .11.5%

    Church doctrine or catechism  .  .  .  . 5.5%

    Dispensable comments  . . . . . . . . .  . . 7%

    Various: sharing, relating, inaudible. 10%

Let us define a few of the concepts used above. General comments are any comments or commentaries about the readings of the day; they are usually general, as the term will be defined below. Church doctrine or theology refers to the intellectual content of the Christian faith, while spiritual teaching refer to Christian attitudes and values; in the first, the intent is to instruct the mind, in the second to change the heart. Exhortations are distinguishable by their hortatory style and the use of “should” “do” or “don’t;” recommendations are always specific. Moral doctrines refer to rules of conduct and behaviors; they are not recommendations, but teachings about what is right and wrong. As seen above, there is practically no moral teaching in the American homilies. More concepts will be defined as they emerge from the analysis.

Forty-six percent of the total time of the homilies was dedicated to comments related to the readings of the day. The average length of homilies being slightly over 10 minutes, the total time is equal to ten times fifty or about 500 minutes; 46% of this total time consisted of comments related to the readings. Fourteen homilists spent the whole homily on comments; eighteen did not deal at all with the readings; the remaining eighteen dedicated some time to the readings, from a low of 10% (about one minute) to a high of 90% of their time. Let us consider the content of these various groups.

1. Comments about the readings (46% of homily time). Jesus’ teaching on love of God and neighbors from Matthew 22:34-40 is the reading of the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Here are comments about the reading. “Love summarizes the law and the prophets. Why then is the world in such mess? There are two reasons: the concept of love has been cheapened, and second, it is difficult to love; there is no love without sacrifice.” To illustrate his point, the homilist referred to “a movie from the 1970s, Love Story, with the famous quotation, ‘Love means never having to say I am sorry!’ This is stupid! This is selfishness, vanity, egotism. We have taken the true meaning out of love.” Summary and conclusion: “love requires sacrifice.” This is pretty general.

Here is another homily on love. “Today is the gospel of John. [John 14:15-21 on the promise of the Holy Spirit.] In contrast to other religions, we believe in the Father of Jesus Christ. Other religions have myths or stories invented by men. Our religion is to love God and one another, especially the family. If someone loves me, I will send you the Holy Spirit.” This was a long homily of eleven and a half minutes. I had the impression that the homilist was not prepared as he repeated endless generalities, trying to find a conclusion.

At another church, addressing the students to be confirmed the following day, the priest asked, “To break one single Commandment is considered what kind of sin?” - Long silence. Then one feeble voice whispered: “A mortal sin.” Parental applause. Continuing in dialogue form, “Give me two of the Ten Commandments.” Reply, “Do not steel; do not kill.” New questions: “Which one is most important?” Answer by the priest, “They tricked Jesus with this question. The answer is, if you love God and neighbor, will you kill? No! These are the commandments, love of God and neighbor.” Conclusion, “At confirmation [tomorrow] you get all these gifts because God loves you.”

The parable of the talents (Luke 21:5-19) of the thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time was thus explained to the small children gathered around the altar. “Each of us has a different talent, like sports or math. Our job is to love God, and everybody has the talent to love. To love God is to come to church, and later when you’re grown up to receive communion.” Then pointing to the cross behind the altar he said, “You know what? The biggest love is up there. Every time you come to church Jesus is there... Now stand up and face the tabernacle, and say, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ Now go back to your seats.” This homily was obviously elementary; there was little which adults may have gained from it.

Here is a homily with comments clearly related to trust in God (Matthew 6:24-34 of the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time). “Seek first the kingdom of God. Don’t worry: the bottom line of this gospel message is divine Providence. Many couples experience stress and worries about jobs and other things. Jesus said, don’t worry. Have faith in yourself. Those who survive have faith. Only God has total control. If we trust in God, we will worry less, otherwise we worry too much. This is the message of today.” This short message took only three minutes, besides a general introduction and a general conclusion of one minute each. The median family income in this town was $164,500 in 2007. People probably liked to hear that “the bottom line” is “don’t worry.” Yet their educational and professional levels may have made them expect something of a higher caliber. Moreover, as can be seen from these examples, the priests' comments on the readings are rather general.

Several homilies raise exegetical questions. Here is one in this group of homilies-as-comments, in reference to the parable of a king inviting guests to the wedding feast: Matthew 22: 1-14, on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time). “The servants killed the son. Would you do that? Probably not. The servants wanted to take over the ownership of the vineyard. We do not own our body; we are the temples of God. Your family does not belong to you. The church does not belong to you, but to Christ. The land does not belong to you but to God, but we have taken God out of the country. God expects us to bear fruit: purity, honesty...” As seen in this example, a homilist may touch any topic, but can these comments be taken to be an exegesis of the biblical text? Is the parable of the wedding feast about ownership? Another homily given the same day did not deal with exegesis but psychological generalities. “The kingdom of God is a wedding party that requires one to wear the right outfit: be yourself! Go back to your inner definition of yourself: life is being yourself. Sin is not being yourself.” Conclusion: “The kingdom of God is a party. Be yourself!” What does it mean to be oneself? No explanation was given. Moreover, are some of these comments even related to the reading of the day?

2. Homilies not related to the readings. Among the eighteen homilies that do not refer to the readings, eight are totally dedicated to either spiritual generalities (five of them), spiritual exhortation (two of them), and one on theological catechism. I will consider the two exhortations in the next section on mystagogy.

Here is the one on theological catechism. The homily was directed to a group of twenty to twenty-five boys (no girls) who were to be given a bible. The priest taught through acronyms. The first summarized the seven sacraments. The second, GAP, stand for “God is Always Present.” The third, BIBLE, stands for “Basic Information [of Jesus] Before Leaving this Earth.” Among the “basic information” the following were mentioned: “Put your faith in God;” “faith made this nation great thanks to the bible,” and the rhetorical question “Why should God bless American if we do not recognize God?” After having explained the acronyms, the priest proceeded to test the boys, asking the meaning of each of the three acronyms. As they answered correctly each of the three, the parents applauded after each one. Each boy was then given a bible. Followed a prayer of blessing (inaudible). Based on this information, the bible recipients are likely to search for Jesus’ basic instructions before leaving the earth; not finding them they are likely to give up bible reading.

The first homily on spiritual generalities was dedicated to two topics, Mary and abortion. “Mary is the most admired women in the world, especially among Christians. She was a woman of faith. She appeared to many people, especially in Medjugorje and Ireland [the priest spoke with an Irish accent]. You may not have the time to say the rosary; just say a few decades.” The topic of abortion was occasioned by the pro-life march in Washington which the faithful were encouraged to join. “Bernardin’s seamless garment includes war, abortion, and racism. Those who follow Jesus take these issues to heart. We live in a time of extreme violence with an attitude of ‘I don’t care.’ Young kids today have no respect for others.” The section of Mary lasted less than two minutes, the one on abortion about three. In the rest of this thirteen minute homily, the priest introduced many other topics, each time in the form of “and... and.” In the last six minutes, he tried painfully to arrive at a conclusion.

Another general homily was directed to first and second graders. This homily started with small talk on homework. “Do you get homework? Is it easy to do homework? Jesus teaches us to be responsible. God blesses those who are generous.” The rest of the homily proceeded in the form of questions and answers, the priest usually providing both. “Behind the altar is the special place of God; what is it called? The tabernacle. On both sides of the altar there are two flags. Of what country is the one on the left? America. How many stars?” Reply from a student, “Fifty.” “Good. You won a dollar. On the other side of the altar is the flag of? The Vatican, the pope. The pledge of allegiance of the church is called? The profession of faith. Jesus wants you to be strong... Give to your country what it deserves, and to God what belongs to God.” In this homily there was no main idea: was it homework, or the tabernacle, or the flags? There was no reference to the readings of the day.

The next general homily preached about rules in general. “Little children thrive when the rules are very clear, while older children want to be free of rules. Most people think there are no objective rules; everything, they say, is relative, and nothing is objective except the financial bottom line. To love God and neighbor is not a suggestion but a mandate. The homily ended with, “Our holy Mass is not about rules; it’s not entertainment; it’s worship.” Is this a satisfactory conclusion about rules in general?

The last two general homilies had no main idea. The first mentioned Jesus, his resurrection, and the upper room, then travel memories and comments on father’s day. The other homily was mainly inaudible. The priest of a certain age spoke in a monotonous voice without body language of face and hands. I was seated only about thirty feet away from him, but could not follow. His main theme was about the God Shepherd who takes care of his sheep. He told a few anecdotal and colloquial stories, but there was little to understand and nothing to remember.

3. Various topics. Some sections of homilies were classified as dispensable, that is, they could be dropped without loss, or rather it would be beneficial to drop them. Here are examples by order of importance in length. What does it mean to build on sand? The homilist spent 46% of his time explaining the devastating effect of hurricanes on the shoreline. Another sermon about the end times spent 52% on “What does heaven look like? For Mark Twain, if there are no cigars, I am not going. Other may say: it must have ice-cream and a golf course. For Oprah Winfrey: a huge backed potato and someone to share it with. For Muslims, a heaven geared to men’s point of view.” Another priest felt it his duty to cheer up and entertain the small children he had invited to come to the front of the church. Here are some of his words, “Smile! The world is not coming to an end” (two minutes). “What is your favorite food?” (two-and-a half minutes). “Are you afraid of darkness?” (two-and-a-half minutes). “In India, at home, it was my duty to prepare the oil lamp” (one minute). “Do you like stories?” He told the story of a mistaken arrest (in three minutes). In another church, the priest began his homily with jokes, as he explained, “This is the rule: you must laugh at the jokes, whether they are funny or not.” He proceeded by telling several – not very funny ones. His special one for Valentine’s Day went as follows, “One volcano say to another volcano, ‘Do you lava me as much as I lava you?’” These jokes took forty-seven percent of his homily time. In another church, if one subtracts the general introduction, the dispensable comments, and the repetitious conclusion from the total time, one only has two-and-a-half minutes left for the message of the day.

What are the topics most covered by these fifty homilies? No single topic received more than one vote, except the Mass. Three homilies spent all or most of their time on the Mass, and several others mentioned in passing the Eucharist or the obligation of Mass attendance. “Do not leave at communion: stay until the end; the Mass is not over at communion. If you go to a movie, you stay until the end.” - “Christ is really present on the altar; the bread and wine are being changed into his body; they look the same but they are not;” transubstantiation explains how “they look the same but they are not.” Quite a few homilies emphasize the “real” or physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “If you don’t come to the feast [of communion] and miss Mass, then God misses you; the angels and the saints miss you; your family that passed on will miss you, too.” If you miss Mass, God and the angels miss you because they inhabit the church building. Moreover, the Eucharist is real food: “You are what you eat. When I eat a stake, the protein builds up in my muscles. Fish? Well, fish is brain food... Christ comes to us as real food.”

4. Exhortations and mystagogy. Exhortations account for 11.5% of all preaching time. Let us consider the two homilies that are mainly hortatory. The reading of the Fifth Sunday of Easter began with the words “Do not let your heart to be troubled” (John 14:1). Instead of using this verse to digress into various comments, the celebrant (or presider) repeated this exhortation throughout the Mass, at the beginning, middle and end, and throughout his homily. “We don’t know the future, but we know why we come here today, we know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and life.” The whole homily was about “we” and “let not our hearts be troubled.” Now the question became that of Thomas,” How can we know the way? How are we going to survive e.g. the death of a loved one, divorce, debts piling up, being out of work for several years, living a life that is not going anywhere, - we can’t see the way.” The answer was not simple catechism but, “Jesus is directional, connecting the Father in one direction, and us in the other direction. Each discovery we make of him is a discovery of ourselves and one another.” This is an unusual insight: knowledge of God brings knowledge of self and community. This homily can be seen as truly mystagogical. The homilist moved the whole assembly as he identified with it as “we.” He did not speak down in the form, “the bottom line is... don’t worry.” He appealed to the possible inner awareness or intuition that the divine must be relatedness: true knowledge of God is also relatedness or knowledge of self and community. By repeating “Don’t let our hearts be troubled” through the liturgy, the celebrant bound together Word and Eucharist. The homily was followed by a few minutes of reflective silence.

The second hortatory homily was given on the day of Christ King. The priest began by presenting to the assembly a banner with the words, “Love your enemies. I am coming soon.” His “love your enemies” and the maranatha of the Second Coming were clearly a cut above baby-talk theology that is not uncommon. How can Christ be king in our hearts if not by following the examples of famous mystagogues like Mother Teresa? “She said, ‘To me Jesus is my God, spouse, life, my only love, my everything.’ Hers was a life of faith: for many years she lived in spiritual darkness, but she never rejected God. Christ wants to strengthen us. Will we give him permission?” In reference to the Last Judgment of the gospel reading, “To those on the right, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you, because when I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty... Whatever you do to the least, you do onto me.’” At that point I noticed a religious silence in the assembly: for a few seconds, no more coughing, no tossing, no moving, no baby crying. The homily was followed by a long silence (30 seconds).

Exhortations can be identified by the tone of the voice or expressions like “let us...” There is a milder form of exhortation which I call invitational. A homily becomes invitational when it suggests a model to follow or a principle to apply. One example is the homily given on the day of the beatification of John Paul II when the homilist described the three encounters he had with the late pontiff. His first encounter was at a Mass in Yankee Stadium in 1979. “His homily was ‘Turn to Christ.’ This is also the Gospel of today: Jesus breaks in, in spite of locked doors. Turn to Christ in spite of our locked hearts.” The second encounter in Central Park in 1995 was more emotional. “It was raining and I was all wet, and then the sun came out. John Paul’s message was ‘Don’t be afraid.’ This is the message of Jesus today. He did not say, ‘Be courageous’ or ‘Be brave,’ because to be brave is relying on oneself.” The last encounter was in the pope’s private chapel with six other priests.” His message was ‘Mercy! Recognizing God’s mercy in our brokenness.’ And today is also the Sunday of divine Mercy.” The homily ended with the invitation “We don’t have to be brave, only to have trust.” Short invitations are found in quite a few homilies, accounting for 6% of all the homily time, as opposed to 5% for the exhortations.

To sum up, most homily time (66%) was dedicated to general comments somewhat related to readings or generalities unrelated to the scripture of the day; a few (11%) included exhortations of a mystagogical quality.

DISCUSSION: 1. Analyze the content of last Sunday’s homily in terms of theological doctrine, spiritual teachings, biblical comments, exhortations and invitations, etc. and indicate what percent (e.g. one third, or half, or one tenth) is dedicated to the various parts (see guidelines below).
2. Discuss the content: what was left out of the above homily (or the homilies at your parish)? What did you always wanted to hear about in homilies and seldom found?


Classify the content of last Sunday’s homily or parts of it into one of the following .

-  COMMENTS and COMMENTARIES about the readings of the day
- CHURCH  or THEOLOGICAL teaching: the intent is to enlighten the mind; the doctrine is taken from theological church teachings (rare in my sample)
- BIBLICAL teaching: doctrine based on the biblical text, without reference to church teachings (common in Protestant sermons but absent in my sample)
- SPIRITUAL: the intent is to transform one’s heart and values (common in my sample in the form of “spiritual generalities”).
- MORAL teaching: about rules of behavior, about right and wrong (not found in my sample)

What was the TOPIC developed in a given section of the homily? The content may be the Trinity, sin, salvation, Sunday attendance, trust in God, or whatever main topic or topics were covered in the homily.
I classified as GENERAL:
- any section that lasted less than one minute,
- any section showing no research (no biblical references besides those of the day), no personal reading,
- any comments or teaching that could have been made by a good religious education teacher without a theology degree,
- any biblical commentary of the pattern “Repeat and Comment” without global message, that is,  unrelated comments on the various readings of the day.
I found that there were as many topics as there were homilies in my sample, yet the most common was the Eucharist and Mass attendance.

Finally, looking at the homilies of the last few weeks or months, indicate what percent of the homily time was dedicated to the various categories in the form of simple proportion, like a third to biblical commentaries, half to spiritual generalities, 10% to theological teaching, and the rest to various categories.

Combining the American and Guatemalan samples, I found that 49% of the preaching time was dedicated to biblical comments (mostly general), 16% to spiritual generalities, 12% to exhortations, and only 4% by theological teaching.