TREATISE ON PREACHING
THE QUALITIES NECESSARY FOR PREACHING
We shall now consider the necessary qualities of a preacher. Some pertain to his life; others to his knowledge, his language, his merit, or to his person.
VII. The Preacher’s life
He ought to live a truly good life. St. Gregory says, “Before preaching the word of God, he must examine his own life.” There are certain conditions essential to a good life, and, consequently, these conditions are necessary for a preacher. His life ought to be in harmony with his conscience, for a troubled conscience will prevent him from lifting up his voice fearlessly. St. Gregory rightly says, “No one can have confidence in preaching good doctrine, if his tongue is paralyzed by a bad conscience.”
His life ought to be irreproachable; for how can he reproach others with what he himself is guilty of? That is why the Apostle wrote to the Phillipians, “Without blemish in the midst of a depraved and perverse generation . . . holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:15,16), in order to preach it to others.
His life ought to be as austere as John the Baptist’s, the preacher of penitence, or St. Paul’s who said, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected” (I Cor. 9:27).
Elevated to a lofty plane by the very nature of the office, the life of God’s minister must be without blemish, since his conduct ought to measure up to the dignity of this sacred work. Isaias exhorted this when he wrote: “Get thee up upon a high mountain, though that bringest good tidings to Sion” (Isai. 40:9).
Notice, however, that it does not suffice that the preacher’s conduct be simply inoffensive. His life ought to be a shining light to all men and he should preach to them by word of mouth and, above all, by good example, in the manner described by St. Paul: “ . . . Among these you shine like stars in the world, holding fast the word of life . . .” (Phil. 2:15-16). We have noticed in a previous passage that this remark of the Apostle is appropriately applied to those engaged in preaching the Divine Word.
Nor should the preacher’s own life be out of harmony with his words. “Do not let you actions betray your words, lest, while you speak to the Faithful, they say within themselves: ‘Why don’t you yourself do the things that you preach?’” is the admonition of St. Jerome.
His life ought to diffuse, round about him, the perfume of good example. He must be like the Apostle, the favorite of Christ, in order to draw others to himself. “The renown of Judas Machabee extended even to the ends of the world” (I Mach. 3:9), declares the sacred text, which the gloss applies to the good preacher, charged with defending God’s cause and His law.
VIII. Knowledge Required by a Preacher
We must not overlook the high degree of learning that is necessary for preachers, who are commissioned to instruct others. St. Paul justly reproached certain ministers of the word for their deficiency in this respect. Her are some of his words: “ . . . desiring to be teachers of the Law, when they understand neither what they say, nor the things about which they make assertion” (I Tim. 1:7).
This knowledge should be very extensive. First of all, it should include a firm grasp of Holy Scripture, since in that there is substantially contained the doctrines that the preacher is bound to preach. “From the midst of the rocks they shall give forth their voices” (Ps. 103:12), wrote the Psalmist; or to bring out the point, they must draw from the Old and New Testaments as from an inexhaustible quarry, which they evidently cannot do if they do not have the requisite knowledge.
It is a fact worth noting that the Saviour, in choosing unlearned men as preachers, endowed them Himself with a knowledge of the Scriptures; hence, we see in their writing frequent references to the texts of the Old Testament. And St. Jerome adds that learning, which ordinary men seek by study and daily meditation on the Law of God, was granted directly by the Holy Ghost to these chosen disciples. That is why it has been written: “And they shall all be taught of God” (John 6:45).
After the study of the Holy Books, should follow the study of creatures, for the Creator has placed in these many profound lessons. St. Anthony, the hermit, observes that they are like a book, containing many edifying thoughts for those who take the trouble to read. The Redeemer often had recourse to this type of knowledge in His discourses, as, for instance, when He said: “Look at the birds of the air. . . . See how the lilies of the field grow. . . .” (Matt. 6:26-28).
Next there should follow a knowledge of history for this science, dealing with both the faithful and infidels, abounds in examples which furnish the preacher with valuable lessons. Our Lord used this branch of learning when, to confound the blindness of those who despised His words, He said: “The queen of the South will rise up in the judgement with the men of this generation and will condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31). And, for the benefit of those who would not do penance, He added: “The men of Ninive will rise up in the judgement with this generation and will condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a greater than Jonas here” (Luke 11:32).
The preacher must also know the laws of the Church for many men are ignorant of them; and it is his duty to instruct these. It was with this intention that St. Paul “. . .traveled through Syria and Cilicia and strengthened the churches, and commanded them to keep the precepts of the Apostles and presbyters” (Acts 15:41).
It is equally necessary that the minister of the word by familiar with the mysteries of religion, upon which subject the Apostle noted: “And if I know all mysteries . . .” (I Cor. 13:2). Religion is, indeed, full of mysterious figures and lessons, the recounting of which can be most edifying. Consequently, the preacher should be cognizant of them.
Then there will be applied to him the words: “And in the midst of the Church she shall open his mouth, and she shall fill him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Ecclus. 15:5). The Spirit of understanding spoken of is exactly He Who aids us in penetrating the meaning hidden in words and figures, and “understanding” signifies “to read within” something.
On the other hand, the preacher should not neglect knowledge gained by experience, for those who have attained a wide experience in the care of souls are able to speak more competently about interesting subjects: “A man that hath much experience shall think of many things: and he shall show forth understanding” (Ecclus. 34:9)..
In addition the preacher must be able to judge souls, which means that he should: firstly, know those whom he should not preach the word of God, for it is not intended for dogs and swine; secondly, realize when it is convenient to preach and when to keep silence, as “there is a time for speaking, and a time for silence” (Eccles. 3:7); thirdly, preach according to the needs of his hearers, as St. Gregory advises in his Pastoral, where he enumerates thirty-six varied subject that a preacher may use; fourthly, guard against verbosity, loudness, unbecoming gestures, lack of order in the development of thoughts, and other defects which are disastrous to preaching. Speaking of this subject, St. Gregory explains the words of Ezechiel: “The sole of their foot was like the sole of a calf” (Ezech 1:7), by noting that the soles of the feet of a saintly preacher resemble those of the calf because of their form and that they symbolize (the sole of the foot being divided in two parts) the proper division of the subject under treatment. Finally, the preacher should be aware that the skill he possesses results from knowledge communicated by the Holy Ghost. This was the type of learning possessed by the Apostles, who grasped all things by the power of the Holy Ghost from Whom the inspiration for all their sermons came, as is observed in the Acts: “They began to speak foreign tongues, even as the Holy Spirit prompted them to speak” (Acts 2:4). Happy are those who are provided with this knowledge which makes up for the imperfections of all other kinds of learning!
IX. The Language of the Preacher
In reference to language, it is essential that the preacher have clear diction, lest a defect of speech make his words unintelligible. Thus Moses, having such a defect, excused himself from accepting the mission which God confided in him; and his brother, Aaron, who was eloquent, was entrusted instead with the task of carrying the word of God to the people. The account in Exodus is as follows: “Aaron the Levite is thy brother, I know that he is eloquent. . . . He shall speak in thy stead to the people and shall be thy mouth; but thou shall be to him in those things that pertain to God” (Exod. 4:14-16).
Furthermore, it is imperative that God’s representative know the intricacies and the resources of language. If in the primitive Church God gave the gift of tongues to His ministers in order that they might speak to all men indiscriminately, would it not be improper for a preacher to be defective in speech, either because of a weak memory, or an ignorance of Latin, or an inability to express himself well in the vulgar tongue, or any other fault of this kind? The Apocalypse states: “And his voice was like the voice of many waters” (Apoc. 1:15). The preacher is actually the voice of Christ in this world and he ought to have in his words a fullness proportionate to the subjects that he will treat.
It is equally desirable that the preacher have a voice with a definite resonance, otherwise he will lose much of the fruit of his sermons, for the weakness of his voice will prevent his words from being clearly heard. Scripture even compares the voice of a preacher to the sound of trumpets, for it should be heard at a distance with force and clarity. And then it is that we can apply to the preacher the words of the Prophet Osee: “Let there be a trumpet in thy throat. . . .” (Osee 8:1).
In regard to style, it should be so clear that the listener can easily understand, and not be of the type that St. Augustine decries: “Those who cannot be understood without difficulty should never be commissioned to instruct the people; or at least only in rare instances and in cases of urgent necessity.” The Book of Proverbs has practically the same advice: “. . . the learning of the wise is easy” (Prov. 14:6).
The manner of delivery should be neither fast or slow, for the one becomes burdensome and difficult to follow, the other occasions weariness. “A genuine philosopher,” remarked Seneca, “should take as much care of his diction as of his life.” Nothing is in order where haste prevails, therefore the discourse should flow smoothly without tiring of overtaxing the listener. If this is demanded of a philosopher, who merely desires the esteem of men, how much more should it be of a preacher who labors for the salvation of souls!
Also, the delivery should be succinct, according to the advice of Horace: “Be brief in your speech so that the docile may understand and the faithful keep your words.” That is why the Book of Canticles says: “Thy lips are as a scarlet ribbon (Cant. 4:3) – a reference to preachers who, as the gloss holds, are the lips of the Church. And as a ribbon binds the hair of the head to prevent it from falling into disorder, so the lips of preachers should restrain the profusion of words.
A sermon should be simple, and devoid of all the empty ornaments of rhetoric, after the example of those Asiatic nations who went to battle armed only with a plowshare. “Guard against multiplying the solemn Divine words lest you thereby overburden your speech,” is the advice of St. Augustine. At the same time the Bishop of Hippo describes in detail the metre, the length of syllables, and the oratorical figures which may be properly used. There is nothing astonishing about the fact that a saintly doctor concerned himself with such minor points, when we realize that the philosophers also considered them. Seneca, for example, declared: “Any discourse having Truth for its object should be simple and unaffected.” Leave the ingenious style to art; here it is a question of souls. A sick man does not look for eloquence in his doctor; and a doctor who gives his prescriptions in flowery language is like a ruler who cares more for elegance than practicality.
The preacher should, moreover, exercise prudence, varying his sermons according to the type of his hearer. Let your word, says St. Gregory, be a sweet melody for the good, a rebuke for the wicked; let it encourage the timid and moderate the restless; let it arouse the slothful and stimulate the negligent; let it persuade the obstinate, calm the hot-headed, and finally, let it console those who are losing hope. This is exactly what the text of Isaias teaches, “The Lord hath given me a learned tongue” (Isai. 50:4).
But all of this will be of little use to the preacher if his speech is not pleasant, “for a man without grace is as a vain fable” (Ecclus. 20:21). He should have a graciousness and sweetness of speech like that which was written of the Master of all Preachers, “Grace is poured abroad on they lips” (Ps. 44:3).
X. Of the Merit of the Preacher
Let us observe here that besides the merit attached to every good work, the preacher acquires a considerable increase of merit by acquitting himself worthily in his ministry; for it is written in St. Matthew: “Whoever carries them (the commandments) out and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
But this merit may be lessened or even destroyed by diverse ways: firstly, when a person, for example, preaches without having received a mission for it. “And how are men to preach,” St. Paul asks, “unless they be sent?” (Rom. 10:15.) Secondly, when the preacher is a notorious sinner. “To the sinner God hath said,” and especially to the public sinner, “why dost thou declare my justices and take my covenant in thy mouth?” (Ps 49:16.) Thirdly, if for any motive whatsoever the preacher swerves from the truth in his speech like those whom Ezechiel censured: “And they violated me among my people for a handful of barley and a piece of bread to kill souls which should not die and to same sols alive which should not live, telling lies to my people who believe lies” (Ezech. 13:19). “It is worth far more,” St. Augustine says, “to be less understandable, less pleasing, less moving, than to say what is not true and what is not just.” Fourthly, when the preacher does not practice what he preaches, and his works are not in accord with his words; for he who exhorts others to lead a good life is obliged to set the example, as the gloss observes of these words from the Book of Proverbs: “Let not mercy and truth leave. Put them around they neck” (Prov. 3:3). St. Paul speaks likewise in his Epistle to the Romans: “Thou therefore who teachest another, dost thou not teach thyself? Thou who preachest that men should not steal, dost thou steal>” (Rom 2:21.) Fifthly, when the preacher prefers his own material gain rather than the spiritual profit of his hearers, contrary to the practice of the Apostle who did not seek presents or material goods for himself, but desired only as the fruit of his labor, the souls of those whom he preached to. “Virtuous preachers do not preach,” St. Gregory says, “In order to gain a living, but it is because they preach that they have a right to a livelihood; and when they receive the necessities of life from their hearers, they rejoice in the reward assured to the giver rather than in any personal benefit they themselves receive.” Sixthly, when the preacher seeks his own interests and not God’s, preaching not Jesus Christ but himself, contrary to the teaching of St. Paul. To preach thus, St. Gregory says, for the sake of short-lived praise is to exchange the most precious of treasures for a bauble. Seventhly, when the preacher intends to humiliate his audience rather than show them the good that he wishes them. “Some indeed,” St. Paul says, “preach Christ even out of envy and contentiousness, but some also out of good will” (Phil. 1:15). Or when by the harshness of his words, he gives scandal; for “a placable tongue is a tree of life,” heavy with good fruit, “but that which is immoderate shall crush the spirit” of those who hear it (Prov. 15:4). Eighthly, when, through lack of discernment, the preacher is so opposed to one disorder that he occasions the contrary disorder. He must preach, St. Gregory says, humility to the proud without awaking in the timid a pusillanimous fear; the desirability of goods to the lazy without arousing undue desires in the dissipated; calm to those who are overly active without condoning the torpor of the inactive; patience to the hotheaded without encouraging the carelessness of men already thoughtless and lax; zeal to those who are gently and patient without provoking the violent to anger; generosity to the avaricious without loosening the reins of the spendthrifts; reason in the lavishness of the extravagant without inspiring in the thrifty an excessive attachment to the goods of the earth; the esteem of their conjugal duty to the married without having the married disregard the object of marriage. In a word, he must preach good works, without seeming to sanction the contrary vices; praise the perfect without discouraging the less perfect, and encourage the latter to advance in virtue and not to be satisfied with their present imperfect state. Ninthly, when the preacher does not prepare himself by works of penance. Is it not shameful and ignominious, says St. Jerome, to preach Jesus, model of the poor and hungry, with a body stuffed with food? To teach the law of fast with an exquisite manner of living, and a mouth gorged with food? If we are successors of the Apostles, let us not content ourselves with imitating their discourse, but let us also imitate their life and their abstinence. Tenthly, when the preacher is not inspired with charity: “In vain,” St. Paul says, “do I speak with the tongues of men and angels, if I do not have charity” (I Cor. 13:1). In fact, such a preacher, even if he were useful to others, would be fatal to himself.
To sum up, in order that preaching be of profit to the preacher as well as to his listeners, it is necessary that he does not preach unless he has a mission for preaching; that he be not in a state of open sin, or depart from the truth, or contradict his words with his deeds, or seek temporal rather than spiritual goods, or work for his own interests and not for the glory of God; or discourage or scandalize his listener, or provoke him to sin; or neglect works of penance, or not have charity as his motive for preaching.
XI. The Person of the Preacher
The qualities requisite for a preacher in regard to his person are first of all, that he be of the male sex, for St. Paul “does not want women to be permitted to speak” (I Tim. 2:12). He gives four reasons for this: Firstly, a lack of intelligence, for in this woman is thought to be inferior to man; secondly, her natural state of dependency (the preacher should not occupy an inferior place); thirdly, the concupiscence which her very presence may arouse; fourthly, the remembrance of her first error, which led St. Bernard to say, “She spoke but once and threw the world into disorder.”
Next the preacher must not have an exterior deformity which is offensive to the sight, for as the Lord, in the old law, rejected as ministers those who were deformed, so, too, the Church excludes them from solemn functions because of the derision they might engender and which would scandalize the people.
The preacher must also have sufficient strength for long hours of study, for the expenditure of voice necessary in preaching, for the fatigues of travel, and to put up with the lack of even the necessities of life. For so the Apostles inured themselves to suffering that they might announce the holy word.
They must also be of a suitable age. The Redeemer, says St. Gregory, although in heaven He had the omnipotence of the Creator, and was the teacher of the Angels, yet He did not begin His mission of teaching until He was thirty years old. This He did in order to inspire the over eager with a healthy caution, showing them how He Who was sinless did not preaching the perfect life until He had reached the perfection of maturity.
The preacher must also be superior to others in his state of life, in literature, in religion, and in other things, unless he only preaches occasionally and that before the learned, in order to exercise his art. From this it follows that the layman, occupying the last place, has not the quality for preaching. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and that preacheth peace” (Isai. 52:7). That is to say that the preacher ought to have a certain pre-eminence. And finally, he must not be an object of men’s scorn, lest this scorn fall on his preaching. “He,” St. Gregory says, “whose life merits blame, must expect scorn for his word.”
XII. Some Figures of the Preacher
It has been noted that the Holy Scriptures multiply with a prodigal lavishness figures which represent preachers. The gloss gives this reason for it: it is because preachers must learn well what they ought to do and what fruits they ought to produce, each in his own way, according to the signification of these different similitudes.
“Thou shalt be,” says Jeremias, “as the mouth of the Lord, if thou wilt separate the precious from the vile” (Jer. 15:19). It is exactly this that preachers do: they, then, are the mouth of the Lord. “The light of my countenance,” Job says, “fell not upon the earth” (Job 29:24); which the gloss says, means that the Church does not preach the divine mysteries in all their brightness to earthly men. Thus the preacher, to whom it belongs to make this brightness shine out, is justly called the countenance of the Lord. “I will glorify the place of my feet” (Isai. 60:13), says Isaias, to which the gloss adds that these feet are the preachers. Being then, at once, the voice, the countenance, and the feet of the Lord, every minister of His Word should allow nothing to appear on his face which is not on the face of God; and finally, he should carry God wherever he goes, as the feet carry the body.
Preachers are likened to Angels. “The seven angels prepared themselves to sound the trumpets” (Apoc. 8:6); and according to the gloss, these angels represent the army of preachers. Preachers, then, must take care that there is in them nothing of the devil or of the beast, but on the contrary they must be above the common run of men, like unto Angels.
Preachers are also called, the “eyes, teeth, neck, or breasts of the Church” and such-like things, as are found in the Canticle of Canticles (Cant. 4). To these titles are attached diverse obligations. Preachers are the eyes of the Church, of they watch over souls in His name; they are the teeth for they grind the wicked and make them enter into the bowels of the Church; they are the neck, because they have as their mission, to recount the eternal joys, to maintain the breath of life, and to transmit the bread of sound doctrine; they are the breasts, for they give milk to those who, in Christ, are still little children. Again, as Job puts it, preachers are “heavens.” “The divine Spirit has adorned the heavens” (Job 26:13), that is, has adorned preachers. It behooves them, therefore, to shine forth as the heavens, with the brilliance of their many virtues.
They are “stars” he says at another time: “God shutteth up the stars as it were under a seal” (Job 9:7); preachers according to the gloss ought to illuminate the earth in the night of this world.
They are called the “gates of heaven.” “He had opened the doors of heaven,” says the book of Psalms (Ps. 77:23); and these doors, according to the gloss, are preachers. It belongs to them to open a passageway to heaven, so that men may enter, and also to pass on the graces of heaven in order that they may flow over the face of the earth.
Preachers are also likened to clouds; for like clouds in the sky, they should encompass the whole world; “The clouds,” says Job, “go round about all things (Job 37:12), as preachers do, says the gloss, when the traverse the world, casting their light upon the very ends of the earth. In the same vein, they are compared to the snow that “God commandeth to go down upon the earth” (Jer. 37:6). In fact, water accumulates in the heavens, the gloss tells us, to form snow, and in falling upon the earth, the snow turns again to water spreading over all the land. In like manner, the “snow” gathered in the sublime hearts of the Saints in contemplation falls upon the earth where it is melted by the charity of the preachers, and in the form of his humble words flows into the hearts of the people.
They are also called the “thunder” – “When the seven thunders,” it is written in the Apocalypse, “spoke out their voices” (Apoc. 10:3). These seven thunders represent preachers, because they ought, according to the gloss, inspire the fear of God. And St. Gregory explains the text of Job; We should hear in thunder the preaching of the fear of God; which shakes the hearts of men.
Someone says that preachers are “precious stones.” “The king commanded that they should bring great stones, costly stones, for the foundation of the temple” (III Kings 5:17). And these stones, on which the edifice rests, are the holy doctors, whose preaching edifies the Church and adorns it with virtues.
It is also said that the preachers are “mountains,” because, according to the gloss, the mountains first receive the bounties of heaven, passing them on to the low-lying lands. “Let the mountains receive peace for the people and the hills justice” (Ps. 71:3), is written in the book of Psalms.
Again, preachers are said to be “fountains” because their words flow out like water from a spring. “Thou hast broken up the fountains, O my God (Ps. 73:15), that is, according to the gloss, you have raised up preachers to pour waters of eternal wisdom.
It is said that they imitate “eagles,” which swoop down on carcasses; and preachers, in much the same way, search from afar the souls dead in sin. “Wheresoever the carcass shall be, the eagle is immediately there” (Job 38:36.) Every holy preacher anxiously hastens to wherever sinners are to be found in order to shed over them the life-giving light, which dispels the darkness of death into which sin has cast them.
Preachers are like the “cock,” whose song announces the dawn: “Who gave the cock understanding?” (Job 38:36.) The gloss explains that the preacher, in the midst of the darkness of the present life, awaits the coming of the light which will rise upon the world, and announces the light by his words, just as the cock announces the day by his song.
And again, they are compared to “ravens,” for in these birds are certain good qualities found in preachers: “Who provideth food for the raven, when her young ones cry to God?” (Job 38:41.) Is not the raven the preacher, whose little ones, the gloss tells us, which beaks open for nourishment, wail in the bottom of the nest? In order to facilitate his mission God gives the preacher an abundance of grace not only for his own use but also for the nourishment of those placed under his charge.
The preacher is compared to a “dog”: “There are,” according to Isaias, “dumb dogs not able to bark” (Isai. 56:10). To bark is t o preach, says the gloss, and the preacher is likened to the dog because he ought to run here and there devouring souls and gathering them into the Church, as it is written in the Book of Psalms, and ordinances. “King Assuerus,” it is written in Esther, “sent letters to all the province of his kingdom” (Esth. 1:22); that is, according to the gloss, God has recourse to the preachers to make known to the world His warnings and reprimands.
They are fearless “companions in arms,” with whom David filled the earth with his exploits. The Lord says in Isaias of these valiant men: “I have called my strong ones in my wrath,” (Isai. 13:3) – St. Paul for example, adds the gloss. The sacred text continues: “The Lord of host hath given charge to the troops of war” (Isai. 13:4), providing them, concludes the gloss, with the armor of the great Apostle, in order to annihilate by their preaching those who oppose the knowledge of God.
Preachers are also “stewards” of the true Solomon, furnishing his table with all that is needed for the banquet. The book of Kings tells us, in fact, “that the governors of Solomon furnished the necessaries for his table, with great care in their time” (III Kings 4:27). And thus by preaching and disseminating the true doctrine, preachers work in harmony in order that nothing be lacking in the house of God, and that His table be abundantly served with whatever may nourish the faithful.
They are equally the “constructors” who under the direction of Esdras raised from its ruins the temple of the living God. It is written in the book of Esdras: “They gave money to hewers of stone and to masons” (I Esd. 3:7) – the gloss understand here preachers who have united with the bonds of charity the hearts of those to whom they have taught the good life, just as the workers joined together with cement the square, polished stones which went into the making of the building.
Preachers are, finally, the vigilant “sentinels” placed in charge of the house of Israel, that is, the Holy Church, in order to warn it of approaching danger. “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman to the house of Israel” (Ezech. 3:17). And the gloss gives this qualification to the preacher, because by his life he ought to elevate himself to the heights and from there mount watch over the salvation of the city of God.
In the preceding it should be noted that the figures, under which preachers are placed and which instruct them in their duties, are classified into nine groups; the first refers to God; the second, to the Angels; the third, to the Church; the fourth, to the heavens; the fifth, to the air; the sixth, to the earth; the seventh, to the birds; the eighth, to the terrestrial animals; the ninth, to the different offices that men hold.
Happy is the preacher who succeeds in uniting in himself all that these figures represent!
To Praise * to Bless * to Preach