With all the talk about ChatGPT, and Pope Francis’ ongoing criticism of bad preaching, a dark question crossed my mind: What if the homilies we heard at Mass were composed by artificial intelligence? Would they be better than what the average Catholic hears in the average parish every Sunday, or worse?
Opening the ChatGPT window, I typed in my request: “Write a seven-minute Catholic homily on John 6, emphasizing ‘I am the Bread of Life.’”
Strangely, clicking the send button made me feel like I was doing something subversive. In only a few seconds, the reflection appeared – complete with title and subheadings.
To be honest, it wasn’t bad. From a purely content point of view, it was in the B to B+ range. Unlike some examples of standard parish fare, the homily was well organized, accessible, relevant to daily life and brief.
And a little scary. While we’d all like to hear inspiring homilies at Mass, there’s more to effective preaching than skill with words. As a professional writer and editor, it’s hard for me to say that content isn’t everything and style is even less. But as a Catholic, I’m grateful that’s the case.
An experience I had in Boston some years ago clued me in to this fact. In the late 1960s, Redemptorist Father Edward McDonough became interested in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and ended up holding monthly healing services at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Roxbury for more than 30 years. Known as a “healing priest,” he produced local television and radio programs, and he was sought out by people with every kind of illness imaginable. Numerous healings were attributed to his ministry, but Father McDonough was a quiet and extraordinarily humble man who never took credit for anything.
He was also one of the most boring homilists I have ever heard.
It didn’t matter. People flocked to Father McDonough from all corners – even from other countries. Why? Because it was evident that God was using him as an instrument of compassion. Father always made time to pray for and with people. And people listened to him because he was a holy priest. The words he spoke weren’t memorable, but his loving life of service was.
This is not unlike St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata’s attraction. A Nobel laureate, no one would have ever proposed giving her a prize for public speaking. She had a few very quotable gems, but Mother wasn’t known for magnetic speeches dripping with inspiration. She was recognized for the kind of gritty fidelity to Christ’s call that drew her out of the classroom and into the slums. She was famous for bringing God’s mercy to the poorest of the poor by choosing to share their poverty. Her life witness spoke more eloquently than words ever could.
That was why people listened to whatever she had to say.
Artificial intelligence may draft a good sermon, one that keeps a congregation interested and engaged. The words may be well chosen and inspiring, but they will also be like the program that creates them – sufficient but empty. Real preaching is more about the person and the lived life behind the words, than the words themselves.
Which is why spiritual integrity is so important.
It is impossible for any of us to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ without putting our lives behind the message, just as he himself did. Though valuable tools, computers will never be more than soulless machines.
These days, Pope St. Paul VI’s observations have never rung truer: “The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life,” he wrote in “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (41), adding, “The witness of life has become more than ever an essential condition for real effectiveness in preaching” (76).
His words are worth remembering: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (67).
In an increasingly “virtual” world, the Church will not survive without genuine faith and authentic virtue. Facsimiles will not do. That’s why I’d rather listen to a lackluster homily offered by a true but struggling disciple than anything a lifeless silicon chip can devise.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.