Belfast Telegraph

Catholic priest cuts sermons to five minutes to pack pews but not everyone in the clergy agrees

By Donna Deeney

A Catholic priest's plan to stop worshippers nodding off in the pews by cutting his weekly sermons to around five minutes would leave Presbyterians feeling short-changed, a minister has said.

Fr Paddy O'Kane, who is parish priest at the Holy Family Church in the Ballymagroarty area of Londonderry, decided to cut the length of his sermons in order to encourage parents to bring their children to Mass on a Sunday and to keep his congregation fully engaged.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Fr O'Kane said: "When you are up on the alter preaching, you can be under the false impression you are being more interesting than you actually are.

"I have just come back from a sabbatical in Texas where we were told as far as possible to sit in the pews beside the congregation to get a lay person's perspective on what was going on.

"I found the sermons were quite long and I found my attention began to wander after around five minutes no matter how interesting the person was.

"There were some sermons I heard that were short, sharp and to the point and I found those very uplifting.

"A parent of a child recently asked me why he should bring her to Mass when all she does is yawn with boredom while a priest goes on for around 15 minutes talking about things they didn't understand.

"What that parent said really struck a chord with me and made me think maybe having sermons, shorter, to the point and child-friendly would be the start of getting more families to come back to church.

"It is easier to write a longer sermon so my decision to keep my sermons to around five minutes is not a matter of me taking it easy. It is difficult but my congregation seem to be on board with this. In fact one wag said: 'Could you not make it four minutes Father'?"

While the sermon is not the main focus for the Catholic faithful at Mass, it is the central part of a Sunday Service for other Christian denominations.

Rev Steve Stockman from Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast said a sermon of five minutes would leave his congregation wanting more.

He said: "There are different theologies and I know that for Catholics the Communion part of the Mass is the most important part - but for Presbyterians the teaching of the word of God is the central thing.

"I know that there is one Presbyterian minister who used to have an eight-minute sermon but that is very radical for Presbyterians.

"My sermon is around 25 minutes and if I shortened it to five minutes, I would lose my congregation - no question about it, no one would come. The truth of the matter is if you are interesting, people will listen to you for an hour."

Rev Adrian Dorrian, a Church of Ireland Minister at Seaforde, Downpatrick, thinks the length of a sermon should be taken in context.

"Personally, I will preach for about 10 or 15 minutes but there are times when I will try to trim that down, for example if we have a lot of visitors in the church or it is a service focused on children and young people," he said.

"If you take a default of an hour for a Sunday service, for the Church of Ireland as well as the Catholic Church the Liturgy would fill a good chunk of that so that means you have less time for the sermon.

"I think what matters more is the quality of the content and it is hard to get a lot of depth into a five minute sermon which is why I rarely would do that. But if it is five minutes of good stuff, that is better than 15 minutes of bad stuff."

The argument of quality over quantity also resonated with retired Methodist minister, Rev Roy Cooper, who said: "If a person is a really good preacher, they will hold your attention for a long time.

"The average sermon in a Methodist Church might be around 15 to 20 minutes, but the important thing is if you are going to preach for five minutes it needs to be really good and maybe stick to just one point so people go away thinking, 'I learnt something this morning'."

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