St. Dominic

TREATISE ON PREACHING
Humbert of Romans
Fifth Master General of the Order of Preachers

CHAPTER FOUR

CONCERNING THE EXERCISE OF PREACHING

With regard to the exercise of preaching, we shall discuss: firstly, the culpability of those who neglect to preach; secondly, the base reasons which dissuade some from this office; thirdly, what would constitute a lack of judgment in this office; fourthly, the conditions which are favorable to its proper fulfillment; fifthly, the qualities of good preaching; sixthly, the reasons why those who have received the gift of preaching ought to cooperate with this grace wholeheartedly.

XV. The Culpability of Those Who Neglect to Preach

The prelate who does not preach is first of all deserving of this reproach, for he is bound by his very office to do so. “And Aaron shall be vested with it in the office of his ministry: that the sound may be heard, when he goeth and cometh out of the sanctuary in the sight of the Lord; and that he may not die” (Exod. 28:35).

Regarding this text, St. Gregory,[1] speaking of the priest who has the care of souls, observes that a priest is worthy of death when he goes and comes without being heard, for when he passes his life without preaching, he brings down upon himself the wrath of the Invisible Judge.

Next we note the culpability of the gifted preacher who does not put to good use the gift he has received. It is at such that St. Bernard directs his reproach: “You certainly deprive others of good when, although gifted with knowledge and eloquence, you enchain in a damnable silence the word which could help so many.”

Equally to be censured is the person who has received the order to preach and does not do it. “If when I say to the wicked,” said the Lord to Ezechiel, “thou shalt surely die: thou declare it not to him nor speak to him that he may be converted from his wicked way and live, the same wicked man shall dies in his iniquity but I will require his blood at thy hand” (Ezech. 3:18).

Particularly reprehensible is the one who remains silent before an audience disposed to listen to him. St. Chrysostom, expounding the text of St. Matthew in which it is written that “Jesus seeing the crowds, he went up the mountain”(Matt. 5:1) to preach, remarks that Our Lord was prompted to preach by the aspect of this crowd, just as a fisherman is moved to throw out his net, when he finds a favorable spot. What kind of a fisherman, indeed, would he be who let a catch slip through his fingers when the opportunity came to him? Still more blameworthy would the preacher be, if the people were not only disposed to listen to him, but earnestly besought him to speak. “The little ones have asked for bread,” says the Prophet Jeremias, “and there was none to break it unto them” (Lam. 4:4). “What a chastisement,” says St. Gregory, “do they deserve who see souls dying of hunger, yet do not distribute to them the bread of grace, which is theirs to give!”

They are still more guilty when they refuse those who are in dire need of their services. “Imagine,” says St. Gregory again, “the crime of those who are unwilling to preach the good word to their brethren emeshed in sin, and keep from the dying the remedy which would have restored life to them!”

It is also necessary to point out that there are times when much fruit would result from preaching, but due to negligence these opportunities are lost. Regarding this it is written: “And refrain not to speak in the time of salvation” (Ecclus. 4:28). The same reproaches are incurred by the preacher who refuses to nourish with spiritual food the very people who have supplied him with the temporal goods necessary to sustain life. This is why Job said: “If I have eaten the fruits thereof without money . . . let thistles grow up to me instead of wheat . . .” (Job 31:39,40). “To eat the fruits of the land without paying for them,” says St. Gregory, “is the injustice of whoever partakes of the bounty of the Church, and does not return to her, by way of preaching, a just payment.”

Finally, we must censure those who do not preach when everyone else is silent. For this omission, while it lasts, is more serious than if someone else did it, just as when we give alms to a person who will not get them from anyone else. In this regard the Lord said to Isaias: “The needy and the poor seek for waters, and there are none: their tongue hath been dry with thirst. I the Lord will hear them: I the God of Israel will not forsake them” (Isai. 41:17). As if to say: Because no one does it, I myself will do it. And this is what the preacher animated by the spirit of God must practice.”

XVI. Concerning the Wicked Reasons Why Some do not Wish to Preach

Among the frivolous reasons why some men refuse to preach, we mention first the excessive diffidence of those who believe themselves incapable of preaching although they are fully competent to hold this office. To such as these the Book of Proverbs says: “Deliver them that are led to death: and those that are drawn to death forbear not to deliver. If thou say: I have not strength enough, He that seeth into the heart, he understandeth, and nothing deceiveth the keeper of thy soul: and he shall render to a man according to his works” (Prov. 24:11-12). According to the gloss, this text ought to be applied to preachers.

In the same category should be placed the false humility of those who deem themselves unworthy of so exalted an office. They make a great mistake when they refuse to obey in this matter. St. Gregory says: “One who is inclined to refuse should not absolutely resist, but should take care lest pride, under the guise of humility, cause him to refuse the great glory to which his is destined.”[2]

With these latter we should place those who are held back by an excessive love of the quiet of the contemplative life. St. Gregory against these says: “There are some who, endowed with excellent qualities, reserve all their ardor for contemplation, and who refuse to work, through preaching, for the salvation of their neighbor. They love the quiet of the hidden life, and shut themselves up in their meditations; but if judged strictly, they will be found responsible for having omitted much that would have been profitable if done among men.”[3]

There are some who shrink from the active life of preaching because they are frightened by the sins which they see other preachers fall into. It is of such that Ecclesiasticus says: “For better is the iniquity of a man, than a woman doing a good turn” (Ecclus. 42:14). St. Bernard explains this by attributing “the iniquity of man” to certain faults committed by the preacher; whilst the “good turn” of the woman indicates the purity of the soul that remains in the quiet of the contemplative life. The first, rightly, being proclaimed as better, that is, more useful, than the second. Often, in fact, the active life is better, although in it one may rub elbows with evil, than the permanent indolence of a retirement for the sake of keeping a perfect purity.

Others shrink from the laborious preparation that such a ministry demands. They devote a great deal of time to gathering the material for their sermons and then wait for a perfection which they never will attain before they make use of them. And when their friends are asleep and fire consumes their house, or enemies invade it, they do not awaken their sleeping friends. “Run about, make haste, stir up they friend” (Prov. 6:3), cries the Book of Proverbs to them, and, according to the gloss, it is addressed to the negligent preacher.

Others are deterred from preaching because of a pusillanimity which seizes them when they think of this work. Let them give ear to the Lord Who will strengthen them through the words of Isaias which the gloss applies to preachers: “Say to the faint-hearted, take courage, and fear not” (Isai. 35:4).

There are others too lazy to prepare any sermon which demands of them application and hard work. St. Paul was intent upon fighting this sloth when he wrote to his disciple: “But do thou be watchful in all things, bear with tribulation patiently, word as a preacher of the gospel” (II Tim. 4:5). As if to say to him: “Do not shirk the work of writing sermons because of the vigils and fatigue which they will impose upon you, but bear up under them and acquit yourself worthily.”

Others fear the want which they will have to endure. This especially is the lot of preachers who are poor since they have neither revenues nor assured fees. Would to heaven that they would remember the privation that Jesus Christ had to suffer in His ministry! “And when he had looked round upon all things,” St. Mark narrates, “then, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany” (Mark 11:11). He looked around, the gloss tells us, to see if anyone would offer Him hospitality. And so great was His poverty that not one was found in so large a city to honor Him with the hospitality of his house. What preacher of our day has ever been in such need that he could not find in any city the necessities for his sustenance?

Others are afraid of the bodily fatigue which traveling would impose upon them; forgetting that St. Paul, the perfect model of the apostle, added to the fatigue of traveling constant manual labor. “For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil. We worked night and day so as not to be a burden on any of you while we preached to you the gospel of God” (I Thess. 2:9).

Others, again, are rebuffed by the unpleasant dispositions of certain pastors of the Church, who hinder rather than foster preaching. They are like the Scribes and Pharisees of the Jews, and the priests of the pagans, who sought to prevent Christ from preaching and violently persecuted those who proclaimed the Gospel, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles and the stories of the Saints. If the first preachers had retreated in the face of this opposition, the faith of Christ would not be preached today. If such cruel persecutions did not prevent these men of God from fulfilling their duty, then present-day preachers can find no justifiable excuse for their silence or desertion in such an obstacle as an unsympathetic pastor.

Yet, others are shocked at the impiety of the people. Willingly do they preach to pious and eager listeners, yet they abandon those who have greater need of their assistance. Do we not know that the Lord sent His prophets not only to the faithful, but also to an obdurate people? “And they to whom I sent thee are a children of a hard face and an obstinate heart,” He said to the prophet Ezechiel (Ezech. 2:4).

Others, having preached once without receiving praise, are discouraged. One could not be perfected in any art with such an attitude. Who has ever learned to speak Latin, without having for a long time used incorrect grammar? Who has ever learned to write well without having first written badly? And this is true of all things. It is only by overcoming repeated mistakes that one arrives at perfection in any art. This is why the Philosopher says: “It is by putting the hand to the work that the worker becomes capable.” And so it is in practicing to preach. Although one may be pretty bad at the beginning, yet he will arrive at success eventually.

Others remain silent because of the great number of preachers, saying to themselves: “What need is there for me to preach, when there are so many others doing so? Thus they deprive themselves of the reward promised to preachers in the Psalms, which “increase in a fruitful old age” (Ps. 91:15). Whoever wants to share in a catch of fish accompanies the fishermen, in the same way whoever wants to share in the merits of those who preach, ought to preach as much as he can. When Simon Peter s aid, “I am going fishing,” his companions replied: “We also are going with thee” (John 21:3).

Others, finally, do not wish to go preaching in uncongenial company; for as it is necessary that there be a least two on this ministry, they prefer to deprive themselves of the fruits of preaching rather than work with certain others. But although it is written: “Thou shalt not plough with an ox and an ass together” (Deut. 22:10), the poor farmer would rather harness together the ox and ass than leave his land uncultivated. Now the oxen represent the preachers, who, according to the gloss, are named in the Book of Job: “the widow’s oxen” (Job 24:3), that is to say the Church’s. Would not the herdsman who must give an account of the products of the land to the householder have the right to complain of an ox which would not be teamed with a horse or an ass although there was not other ox available?

The preacher must give up, then, these frivolous pretexts and apply himself zealously to preaching, as St. Paul recommended to his disciple, Timothy, when he said to him: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” (II Tim. 4:2).

XVII. Defects of Judgment Which are Harmful to the Preacher

First of all, let us remark that it would be bad judgment to address oneself to those who have no wish to hear the word of God, and we ought not to preach to them. “Where there is no hearing, pour out not words” (Ecclus. 32:6). And the same holds for those who listen, but understand nothing, as if they were senseless. “A fool,” the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 18:2) says, “receiveth not (that is in his understanding) the words of prudence.” It is not necessary then to preach to such. “In the ears of fools,” adds Proverbs (Prov. 23:9), “speak not.” So also for those who defame the preacher: “Do not,” says St. Matthew (Matt. 7:6), “give to dogs what is holy”; and these dogs, the gloss tells us, are those who only know how to bark and to tear in pieces what was once whole. There are some who vilify the holiness of doctrine, which, therefore, should not be preached to them. “Neither throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6), St. Matthew adds. The swine, according to the gloss, are those who scorn and trample under foot holy doctrine.

Some people, much like certain great sinners, tempt the Lord, even to the point of rendering themselves unworthy of the grace attached to preaching. It was said to Ezechiel: “And I will make thy tongue stick fast to the roof of thy mouth, and thou shalt be dumb, and not as a man that reproveth: because they are a provoking house” (Ezech. 3:26). They provoked this anger, says the gloss, because their malice and revolt against the Lord were so great that they no longer deserved to hear the voice of reproach. Which shows that sin, in multiplying, ends by rendering those who are guilty unworthy even of being corrected by God.

Others, still more wicked, blaspheme against the Gospel, as do the infidels, and we must take great care not to preach to them publicly. It was thus that “the Jews contradicted what was said by Paul and blasphemed. Then Paul and Barnabas spoke out plainly: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we now turn to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13:45,46).

Let us remark, secondly, that it should not be necessary to preach the same thing to all; but that one should adapt his preaching to his different hearers. St. Gregory the Great says on this subject: “A long time ago Gregory of Nazianzen, of happy memory, taught that one and the same exhortation is not convenient for all men, having observed that all are not formed by the same habits. Often what profits some harms others, as herbs which nourish certain animals, cause others to perish; a soft whistling which calms a horse excites a dog; a medicine which tempers one disease strengthens another; bread which fortifies a mature man, would cause the death of a little child,”[4]

In fact, one should address in an entirely different manner men and women; young people and the aged; the rich and the poor; the joyful and the sad; simple subjects and their prelates; servants and their masters; the wise and the foolish; the modest and the shameless; the timid and the bold; the patient and the hasty; the benevolent and the jealous; the innocent and the impure; the healthy and the sick; those who from fear of chastisement live in virtue and those who are so hardened that no punishment corrects them; the taciturn and the garrulous; the industrious and the lazy; the gentle and the angry; the humble and the proud; the steadfast and the vacillating; the moderate and the glutton; the merciful and the covetous; those who do not want either to take from another or to share their own, and those who willingly share what they possess, but sometimes take what belongs to another; the quarrelsome and the peaceful; those who sow discord and those who bring peace; those who do not listen as they should, and those who listen and understand, but without humility; those who preach well, but through humility dread to, and those whom age and imperfection should keep from preaching, but who allow themselves to be carried away by their presumption; those who prosper in their temporal affairs and those who in their pursuit of the goods of this world are unfortunate; those who are bound to the obligations of marriage and whose who have not undertaken those obligations; those who deplore having sinned in deed and those who have sinned only in thought; those who regret having done evil, but continue to do evil, and those who, ceasing to do evil, have no regret for past faults; those who boast of their sins, and those who accuse themselves of them without correcting them; those who succumb to temptation by surprise and those who fall deliberately; those who do not commit grave sins but frequently commit venial sins, and those who watchful lest they commit slight sins, although they are sometimes guilty of grave sins; those who never think of doing good, and those who do not finish the good already undertaken; those who hide the good that they do and let themselves be judged for certain wicked actions which they do in public. All the preceding is from St. Gregory.

Let us remark again that there are some who preach too often, and others who preach too little; both are to be blamed, for, as St. Gregory says, “Preaching rarely is not enough, preaching too often becomes cheap.” It is necessary, then, to find the happy medium; for preaching like rain, in order to be useful, must be neither too rare nor too frequent.

Let us add that the manner of expressing oneself ought not to be the same in all sermons; but that it should vary according to the speaker, or according to those whom he addresses, or according to the subject of which he speaks. The preacher, in fact, should use a different style according as his authority is little or great; if his authority is slight then he should preach with humility, if his authority is greater he has the right to express himself with more severity. “The poor (who have no authority), will speak with supplications,” says the Proverbs, “and the rich will speak roughly” (Prov. 18:23). Thus did John the Baptist, who, being rich in virtue, permitted himself to say to the Pharisees, “Brood of vipers . . .” (Matt. 3:7). Thus did St. Stephen, who, being rich in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, dared to say to the high priests: “Stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ear . . .” (Acts 7:51). Thus did St. Paul who, being invested with the power of God, could say to the Jews of Rome: “Well did the Holy Spirit speak through Isaias the prophet to our fathers saying: ‘Go to this people and say: With ear you will hear and will not understand’” (Acts 28:25-26).

Our Lord Himself spoke very differently to His disciples than he did to the Scribes and Pharisees; to the first he promised a great reward, saying to them with sweetness: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), while to the others he said in a menacing tone, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:13).

Finally, we ought not to speak of the sins of men as we speak of the benefits of God. We should speak with compassion of sin, for the subject of sin is sad, and it is in this tone that St. Paul said to the Philippians: “For many walk, of whom I have told you often and now tell you with weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is ruin, their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame, they mind the things of earth” (Phil. 3:18-19). In treating of the benefits of God, on the contrary, we should be joyful saying with the same Apostle: “I give thanks to my God always for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, because in everything you have been enriched in him, in all utterance and in all knowledge” (I Cor. 1:4-5). With common people, one can speak without too much circumspection; but with the learned, it is necessary to have a certain refinement. Before tyrants we should be audacious; before the great who lie good lives, we should be respectful; we should be carried away by the fervor of the Spirit, or be moderate according to the counsels of prudence, consoling the timid, frightening the presumptuous, in short, changing the tone of the discourse as a singer changes the tones of his song. As it is very difficult to have always the right manner of speech, the Apostle St. Paul addressing the Colossians begged them to pray for him: “Pray for us also, that God may give us an opportunity for the word, to announce the mystery of Christ (for which also I am in chains), that I may openly announce it as I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3).

Let us note that it is necessary to choose the right time to preach “for there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 3:7). When the people are otherwise occupied and cannot come to hear the preacher would not be a propitious time. Mary Magdalen freed herself from the duties of the household in order to listen to the Saviour, as it is written in Saint Luke.[5] Neither would that be a propitious time in which to preach when men are plunged in sadness and are unable to relish the holy word; that is why the friends of Job[6] were silent for seven days in the presence of so great an affliction. Nor would that be a fit time to preach when men are heavy with sleep and have difficulty in paying attention, as Ecclesiasticus insinuates where it says: “He speaketh with one that is asleep, how uttereth wisdom to a fool” (Ecclus. 22:9). Again, it would be disadvantageous to preach when a tumult rages and there is no sign of it being quelled. Thus St. Paul before speaking motioned for silence with his hand.[7] Finally, when the audience is badly disposed towards the preacher is not the time to preach; that is hwy St. Paul and Barnabas[8] withdrew, remarking that the Jews stirred up persecution against them. Indeed then “in every business,” there is, according to Ecclesiastes, “a time and an opportunity” (Eccles. 8:6). And the preacher ought to avoid preaching when the hour is not opportune, lest his preaching produce no effect. That is why St. Gregory remarks that St. Paul, in recommending to Timothy to preach “in season, out of season” (II Tim. 4:2), took care to say first “in season” before adding “out of season,” for preaching is to no avail if there is not, even with its rashness, a certain seasonableness.

Let us note, finally, that not every place is suitable for solemn preaching, for one must not preach in secret assemblies, as do the heretics; but in public like our Lord, Who spoke in broad daylight saying nothing in secret.[9] Public places and crossroads where men carry on business and employ themselves in worldly affairs, and other places whose secular use makes them unfit for this ministry ought not to be used for preaching. One should choose suitable places, as did St. Paul, who spoke in the synagogues; or as Our Lord, Who spoke in the temple, or sometimes in the country, apart from the bustle of the world. Also, preaching ought not to be carried on in any place where the audience might be exposed to danger, but rather a safe and secure place should be found, where there is no risk of that disaster which happened to the disciples of Theodas and Judas of Galilee.[10]

From the preceding we draw the following conclusions. Some are bound to preach, others to refrain from it; those who preach must vary their sermons according to their diverse audiences; they must arrange the number of their sermons so that they be neither too frequent, nor too rare; they must adapt the manner of their preaching to the taste of particular cases; preaching must be distinct in all places and at all times; preachers must be prudent and not preach unless they are capable, and must not choose subjects ill-suited to their listeners; finally, they must guard against preaching too seldom or too often, and they must preaching only in a suitable manner, time, and place. By so doing they will acquit themselves well of their charge; and by ever considering what sort of person their hearer is, what kind of discourse suits him, how often, when, and where they must preach, and such like, they will become worthy preachers of the word.

XVIII. Conditions Favorable for Discharging This Office Well

Among the conditions favorable for preaching well, freedom from all other occupations must take first place. That is why the Apostles assigned the care of the table to the deacons, in order that they could devote themselves more freely to preaching, saying: “It is not desirable that we should forsake the word of God and serve at tables” (Acts 6:2). Our Lord said to a disciple who asked permission to go to bury his father: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead: but do thou go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). St. Paul, for the same reason, stopped administering baptism, saying: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (I Cor. 1:17). When such holy men believe it their duty to give up these pious works to be more free to devote themselves to preaching, who much more willingly ought the preacher to put aside all other work so that he may be free from all distractions and have the liberty to serve the true sons of Abraham according to the spirit.

Another thing helpful to the preacher is a tranquility of soul, a freedom from all disturbance; for uneasiness is an obstacle to the work of the preacher, and St. Gregory[11] remarks that it belongs to the tranquil and detached spirit to speak of God; for the tongue is carefully controlled in discourse, when the spirit rests in a perfect truth.

Also of advantage in this office, is a knowledge of all that the profane sciences have to offer for use for the composition of sermons. As a builder gathers from many sources whatever he needs for his edifice, so too the preacher has recourse to many sources for his material. The gloss applies the text of Paralipomenon: “Then Josaphat came and all the people with him to take away the spoils of the dead” (II Par. 20:25), to the holy doctors who gather from the enemies discourses, writings, and lectures on physics, ethics, logic, and so forth – spoils very useful to the Church. The result is that the vain knowledge of the enemies becomes for the faithful a rich treasure, and a most helpful means of sanctification. Far more profitable still are the arguments which Holy Scripture furnishes for every question. It is necessary, says St. Gregory, that anyone preparing to preach seek the first causes of things in the sacred Books in order to support what he says with divine authority and to establish his whole discourse upon this unshakable foundation. It will be no less advantageous to mingle prayer with work, for the power of prayer renders preaching more efficacious. St. Augustine says with good reason, “Whoever speaks ought, as far as possible, to speak of just and holy matters, in order to be heard with pleasure, understanding, and docility; but if he is successful, he must not doubt that it is due to prayer more than to rhetoric; he ought to pray, therefore, both for himself and for his auditors, and he ought to be a man of prayer, before being a teacher.”[12]

To strengthen this personal prayer, we should also obtain the prayers of others. That is why St. Paul, who was both a great teacher and preacher, putting all his trust in the prayers of others, said to the Christians of Thessalonica: “In conclusion, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified even as among you (II Thess. 3:1).

From time to time the preacher should also renew his strength by rest. In the ordinary walks of life, indeed, men rest from their work, so that they may return to their employment with greater zest. The preacher should to the same in order to regain his strength, and so discharge his office more capably. Thus, the workers employed by Solomon to cut down the cedars of Libanus, and who prefigured preachers, according to the gloss, took a rest of two months, resuming their work on the third month. The rest of the preacher, however, should not be one of complete idleness; but should be used for reading, study, and meditation, all of which will later benefit his preaching. This is the thought of St. Gregory who recommends to preachers to “assimilate in contemplation what they will pass on to their neighbor, when the time comes to preach the word of God.”

It is still more important for the preacher to fortify himself beforehand against the danger of falling into certain faults easily committed in preaching. For just as a sailor would be culpable if he indulged his liking for fishing, and neglected to forearm himself against storms and other dangers which the sailors life causes him to risk; so the preacher would be foolhardy who exposed himself to the occasion of sin, while zealously working to save others. This is what prompted our Lord to utter those grave words: “For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his own souls?” (Matt 16:26.)

It is also salutary after having preached, to make a thorough examination of conscience. For the prudent preacher, when he has returned home, has need of entering within himself and considering thoroughly all that he has just done, in order to purify himself from the stains he has contracted, and to repair the losses he has suffered, just as a traveler, arriving at an inn, cleans and repairs his shoes so that he may resume his journey under better conditions. For this reason the prophet Ezechiel, on his return from the fields, was told: “Go and shut thyself up in the midst of they house” (Ezech. 3:24). St. Gregory comments that after laboring in the fields of the Lord and having administered to his neighbor the grace of doctrine, the preacher is commanded to retire in order that he may enter within his conscience and examine it minutely.

Let us recommend again the observance of silence, after the example of Ezechiel who said: “And I came to them of the captivity . . . and I sat where they sat: and I remained there seven days, mourning in the midst of them. And at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me” (Ezech. 3:15,16). Note well, says St. Gregory,[13] that the prophet had been sent by heaven to preach and, nevertheless, he remained silent for seven days, doing nothing but weeping; for he alone can speak according to the truth, who has known how to keep silence. The observance of silence is the nourishment of the word.

Let us also recommend sanctity; for according to Ecclesiasticus “the soul of a holy man discovereth sometimes true things more than seven watchman that sit in a high place to watch” (Ecclus. 37:18). This causes St. Gregory to say that the habitual practice of holy love will help preaching more than the knowledge acquired by experience.

In conclusion let us advise that great care and circumspection must precede the sermon, for in all things he who plans carefully beforehand what he wishes to do and know it is to be done produces the greater effect. The preacher should follow this example: “And I went out by night,” says Esdras, “by the gate of the valley; and I viewed the wall of Jerusalem which was broken down, and the gates thereof which were consumed with fire” (II Esd. 2:13). On this text the Venerable Bede observes that Esdras had encircled the ruins, in order to study carefully the best means of rebuilding them. In the same way spiritual teachers must keep watch during the night, while others are asleep, carefully examining the state of the Church and determining, on the other hand, how to repair the damage inflicted on themselves during combat with vice.

XIX. Qualities of Good Preaching

It is laudable to preach more often when preaching is more necessary. Would it be just to preach daily to religious, if in doing so those who have greater need of preaching were neglected? Did not Our Lord say: “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). It is also more commendable to preach where others have not preached, than to preach where the holy word has often been heard. What kind of gardener is he who neglects the parched sections of the land and irrigates those parts which are well watered? “But I have not preached this gospel,” said St. Paul, “where Christ has already been named . . . but even as it is written: They who have not been told of him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand” (Rom. 15:20,21). It is blameworthy to neglect less populous places, like those who do not like to preach outside the great towns and cities. They have been condemned by Our Lord Jesus Christ Who moved about in the strongholds; that is, in the villages, to teach in the neighborhood (Matt 9:35). Again, like Him, we should make it a rule not to pass through any place without preaching there, as St. Matthew tells us: “And Jesus was going about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23). It is no longer permitted to keep the word of God from certain classes of men: “Preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) where the words of Our Lord just before He ascended into heaven.

It is right, however, to prefer those whom we hope to convert, overlooking those whose hearts are hardened; as the Apostles did, when they abandoned the obstinate Jews to turn towards the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). Our Lord Himself had invited them when He said to them: “Lift up your eyes and behold that the fields are already white for the harvest” (John 4:35), as though He wished to say: There where the harvest is ready, go, then, and gather it in.

But it is also a duty of the preacher to be more vigorous wherever the malice is greater. When perversity increases, says St. Gregory,[14] preaching must not weaken, but on the contrary, it ought to become more vehement.

All the preceding considerations have been about those to whom we ought to preach, but there are also some which pertain to the preacher himself.

He must carefully avoid giving reason for any opposition that might cause trouble among the clergy and the people, and eventually force him to interrupt his preaching.

It was to prevent such a disorder that St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he “bore all things to avoid raising obstacles to the Gospel of his God” (I Cor. 9:12). Nevertheless, the preacher should not allow himself to be discouraged easily, like those who abandon preaching at the slightest trouble or obstacle. On this subject St. Paul once wrote to Timothy: “I charge thee, in the sight of God and Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead by his coming and by his kingdom, preach the word, be urgent in season, out of season . . .” (II Tim. 4:1-2).

He should be careful also to preach not only the word but to preach it with his whole person, like St. John the Baptist who, for this reason, is called a “voice,” because the word was in him completely (Isai. 40).

In money one takes into account the metal, the stamp and the weight; likewise, in a doctor of the Church one evaluates what he teaches, what he imitates, and what he does. The doctrine is the metal, the example of the Fathers which he follows is the stamp, humility is the weight. Whoever turns aside from duty is no longer precious metal, but only a worthless piece of clay; where formerly he had the sound of pure metal, now he produces no sound at all.

The preacher must persevere in his office and watch that he does not become tired too soon. As one day’s rain does not greatly help a parched land which needs a more plentiful rainfall, so one sermon or a few isolated sermons will not be of great use. This was not the practice of the Saviour, of Whom it is written: “He as teaching daily in the temple” (Luke 19:47).

The preacher should add particular advice to his dogmatic sermons, at all times and in all places, as St. Paul did, and as he says: “I have declared it to you and taught you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20); and again: “for three years night and day I did not cease without tears to admonish every one of you” (acts 20:31).

He should understand well the prescriptions of the divine law; for, as a faithful messenger, he must transmit exactly the message he has received. “Whatever I shall command they, thou shalt speak to them,” the Lord said to Jeremias (Jer. 1:7). And who will be surprised at a true preacher being faithful to his recommendation when Balaam said of himself: “If Balac would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot alter the word of the Lord my God, to speak either more or less” (Num. 22:18).

The preacher should speak with fervor, like Apollos of whom it is said: “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. We was an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, an being fervent in spirit, used to speak and teach carefully whatever had to do with Jesus” (Acts 18:24).

He should speak the truth without fear, especially to sinners, as the Apostles did when they preached the word of God to the Jews with fearlessness; or like Micheas who said: “But yet I am filled with the strength of the spirit of the Lord, with judgment and power: to declare unto Jacob his wickedness and to Israel his sin” (Mich. 3:8). However, he should know how to temper his speech so as not to offend anyone with over-harsh words. “Admonish without repulsing,” says St. Ambrose, “and exhort without offending.” Finally, he will apply himself to everything, as is his duty, in order to fulfill his ministry with all care; otherwise he will not produce great results. “Use all care,” St. Paul recommends his disciple Timothy, “to present thyself to God as a man approved, a worker that cannot be ashamed,” that is to say, devoted to God’s honor, “rightly handling the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).

XX. Motives for Devoting Oneself to Preaching When One is Capable of It

Among the exercises of the supernatural life which occupy spiritual men in general, those who have the gift of preaching ought to consecrate themselves to it in preference to every other, and this is for the three following reasons:

First of all their work enjoys special prerogatives which do not belong to others. Indeed, there are some who mortify the flesh by fasts, abstinences, coarse garments, vigils, and similar practices. All this is, according to the Apostle, of certain value but preaching is more useful,[15] as has been seen above in the fifth paragraph. Moreover, who could adequately describe all the pains that a preacher, poor and zealous for the good of souls, endures in the care he expends in their behalf, in the fatigues of travel, in numerous privations, in anxiety concerning his success, and so many other similar causes, so that he has been compared to a woman in the pains of childbirth, exposed to sufferings truly inexpressible? Has not St. Paul said: “My dear children, with whom I am in labor again, until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). Likewise, a religious of the order of Citeaux, who became a Friar Preacher, said that he suffered in his new life, in a few days, much more than in the whole time spent in his first vocation. It is true, then, that one ought to prefer preaching to fasting and other forms of mortifying the flesh, since there results from it, with the same sacrifices and from even greater ones, a usefulness to one’s neighbor which is incomparably greater.

There are some who with love apply themselves to works of corporal mercy, but preaching, because it devotes all its zeal to the salvation of souls in danger of death, surpasses in excellence the above mentioned works, as the soul surpasses the body. For this reason Our Lord said to him who wished to bury his father: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but do thou go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). So that if it is necessary, according to this command, to place preaching above the duty of burying one’s father, one of the most pious of corporal works of mercy, how much more should preaching in general be placed above all the works which have as their object only the well-being of the body. Whoever by his word nourishes souls with everlasting food does more, St. Gregory observes, than he who gives material bread in order to preserve the life of the body.

Some devote themselves especially to the holy exercise of prayer, either for themselves or for others; but their prayer is of less value than preaching, for the prayer of a sinner for his neighbor does not profit the latter, whereas the preaching of even the extremely wicked is sometimes very useful to others, as happened to Balaam, and to ourselves today and for all time. “If I have not charity,” St. Paul said, it is true, “I am like a tinkling cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1); nevertheless, this cymbal is useful to others, although it merits nothing for itself.

Others apply themselves to the study of holy writings but if this study has not preaching for its end, of what use is it? “Wisdom that is hid, and treasure that is not seen: what profit is there in them both?” (Ecclus. 20:32). Similarly the Apostle advises his disciple to apply himself at the same time “to reading and to doctrine” (I Tim. 4:16). He places reading first but he adds doctrine because the latter is the end of the former; but the end is always preferable to the means which are subordinate to it.

Others put their devotion in holy objects and in the celebration of the sacred mysteries of the Mass; but although the Sacrament of the Eucharist procures for the Church the greatest benefits, it could happen to be perilous for many who are unworthy of it. “For he who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself” (I Cor 11:29), as St. Paul declares; and if it is thus of the faithful, what will it be of the one who consecrates unworthily? Different is the condition of the preacher, for a sinner, provided his is not a public sinner, can preach without offense to God.

Others willingly occupy themselves with the hearing of confessions, but the work of the preacher is more excellent; for the confessor can give help to only one at a time, whereas the preacher addresses a great number simultaneously. Thus it was that the preaching of St. Peter converted about three thousand souls at one time, and about five thousand at another time. Other confer Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, the consecration of virgins, the ordination of clerics, or the other Sacraments of the Church, but these Sacraments do not profit adults, if they have not a sufficient knowledge of them with and expressed will to receive them; but it is preaching which gives them these good dispositions. Job said to God: “With the hearing of the ear, I have heard thee” – in preaching – “but now my eye seeth thee,” that is the first effect, namely, true knowledge; “therefore I reprehend myself” (Job 42:5-6), the second effect, which is good will; but these results are obtained without the assistance of the Sacraments, by preaching alone, which consequently, under this aspect, is preferable to them.

Others finally consecrate themselves to the praises of God following assiduously in church the Divine Office, but the laity usually does not comprehend the words which are recited in the Office, whereas they do understand the language and instructions of the preacher. By preaching, too, God is extolled more manifestly and clearly than by these Offices and for this reason it is called the “Praise of God” by autonomasia in Psalm 72, where our version says: “That I may declare your preachings in the gates of the daughter of Sion” (Ps. 72:28), while another version, in place of “preachings,” as “praises.”

From all that has just been said, it can be seen how many prerogatives preaching enjoys, and of its preference over many other spiritual works.

The second reason which should lead us to prefer preaching is found in certain examples which recommend it. Jesus Christ, in the whole time He spent upon earth, celebrated Mass but once, at the Last Supper; moreover, it is not said that He heard one confession; He administered the Sacraments rarely and to a small number; He never devoted Himself to the recitation of the canonical Office; and one can make the same observation about all the rest, except for preaching and prayer. It is also worthy of note that when He began to preach He spent more time in that then in prayer. Similarly, the most excellent of the Apostles, thanking God for his ministry, declared that he had baptized few; “For Christ did not send me,” he said, “to baptize, but to preach” (I Cor. 1:17), and we see, in fact, that he devoted himself to no other spiritual function like he did to preaching. He said to the Romans: “From Jerusalem round about as far as Illyricum I have completed the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19); and after that he traveled to the western regions to preach the Gospel to them also. Did the other Apostles and disciples of the Lord, throughout the world, devote themselves to any other task more than they did to preaching? “They went forth,” says St. Mark, “and preached everywhere” (Mark 16:20). And so for our instruction there is the example of Our Lord, of St. Paul, and of all the Apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ.

The third reason why we should prefer preaching to every other work is that Our Lord seemed to wish it to be so. Did He not recommend it in fact, at the moment of His Ascension, as a work supremely pleasing to Him? “Go,” He said, “into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:16). And according to the gloss, did He not reserve, as a special recompense for this office, a crown in the form of a halo which surmounted the table of the twelve loaves of proposition?[16] So as to insure the exercise of this office, God has, in addition, performed great miracles, infusing in an instant into unlettered and common men he highest knowledge, granting them the gift of tongues, and the power to work miracles in order to confirm their words, all of which shows ho much more pleasing is the work to Him than any other kind.

Since preaching enjoys such prerogatives, since it is recommended by such examples, since it is so dear to God, it is only right that it be preferred to all other kinds o work by spiritual men capable of undertaking it; and for them it also becomes a duty: “Woe to me,” said St. Paul, “if I do not reach, for it is a duty incumbent on me” (I Cor. 9:16).



Chapter 3    Chapter 5

[1] S. Greg., in Pastorali, part 2.
[2] S. Greg., in Pastorali, part 1.
[3] Ibid.
[4] S. Greg., in Pastorali, part 3.
[5] Luke 10:39
[6] Job 2:13.
[7] Acts 13:16.
[8] Acts 13:51.
[9] John 8.
[10] Acts 5:36-37
[11] S. Greg., in Ezech., Hom. 12.
[12] S. Aug. De doctrina Christi, lib. 4.
[13] S. Greg., in Ezech.
[14] S. Greg., in Homil.
[15] I Tim 4.
[16] Exod. 25:25 – The Venerable Bede has stated that these loaves of proposition are figures of the word of God guarded and offered by preachers.

Text from the 1951 Newman Press edition, Walter Conlon O.P. editor

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