The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1

The Model of Christian Preaching

Part Three


The third part of this work is to be divided into two sections, the first being devoted to the ministry of preaching the divine word, and the second to the ministry of confession and spiritual direction.

We will discuss the ministry of preaching under the following headings: the model of Christian preaching; the secular approach; the purpose of Christian preaching; its efficacy; essential subjects for sermons and their presentation; different forms of preaching.

Section One


Chapter One


We ought to find in this ministry a practical illustration of the principle that goodness necessarily diffuses itself, and the higher its nature, so much the more completely and intimately does it diffuse itself. This was certainly true of the mysteries of the Incarnation, Redemption, and Eucharist, and it should also be true of any form of apostolic preaching, which has continued without ceasing since the day of Pentecost. St. Peter's sermons from that day forward gave ample witness to the truth of what St. Thomas wrote in his Summa, Ha Ilae, q. 188, a. 6, that preaching should proceed from an abundance of contemplation on the mysteries which are to be explained— the mysteries of the redemptive Incarnation, the Eucharist, and eternal life.

This spirit of contemplation is born of vigorous faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost-—faith which is steadfast because of divine authority, faith inspired by charity, faith which penetrates eternal truths through the gift of understanding, faith which shares the tastes of God himself through the gift of wisdom, faith which is practical and directs what is to be done under the influence of the gifts of knowledge and counsel and under the influence of the soul's devotedness to its Father which comes through the gift of piety, so that even the gifts of fortitude and fear of God are perfecting its faith. These gifts are possessed by every soul in the state of grace and are increased by the daily reception of Holy Communion. They should, therefore, be present in the priest, the preacher of the faith.

The Apostles received their commission to preach from Christ himself, and they were given the necessary grace for their work: "Go out all over the world, and preach the gospel to the whole of creation" (Mark xvi, 15). Now the Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and they—together with the Pope— constitute the teaching Church. So to-day they themselves appoint others to go out over the world and preach the faith. Every priest with the care of souls must carry on this ministry of preaching, and for this work he possesses the graces appropriate to his position, graces which are not to be found in a layman, no matter how eloquent he may be.

Hence the priest must first convince himself that his commission to preach the Gospel has come from God through the Bishop, and that he cannot fulfil his task successfully without the aid of grace. God alone can move men's hearts and convert sinners. For that reason the priest must pray to God for the necessary grace, so that his preaching may be supernatural and fruitful.1

With this end in view, St. Thomas lays down three conditions (Ha Ilae, q. 177, a. 1). He who preaches the faith must speak in such a way that the word of God enlightens the intellect, gives spiritual delight to the affections, and effectively inspires the will to be obedient to the divine commands with the aid of grace.

"We would do well to consider the splendid way in which all these conditions were fulfilled in the preaching of Christ and the Apostles.

In the first place, Christ's preaching enlightened the mind of his hearers. He revealed to them the sublime mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Eucharist, eternal life, with the highest authority and yet with perfect simplicity and humility. Notice the wonderful union of these two extremes.

His authority was unrivalled and unique. "For he taught them, not like their scribes and Pharisees, but like one who had authority" (Matt, vii, 29). He did not enter into useless wrangling over the texts of Scripture, like the Pharisees. Neither did he propose abstract proofs, such as the philosophers give. Nor did lie use the tricks of oratory to compel the admiration of his audience. His statements were brief, clear, profound. They proved a stumbling-block to evil tendencies, and made a deep impression on the intellect, immediately piercing the soul through and through. They struck home like arrows, even in the most stubborn natures.

Moreover, he spoke as the supreme master: "You hail me as the Master, and the Lord; and you are right, it is what I am" (John xiii, 13): "You have one teacher, Christ" (Matt, xxiii, 11): "I am the light of the world" (John viii, 12-14.). And it is in his name that we must preach. That is why he said to his Apostles and their successors: "You. are the light of the world." That is to say, you must preach the need of accepting the faith because of the authority of God revealing, and for no other motive. The Christian belief is not a collection of religious opinions, which have a mere probable value and could be false. On the contrary, it is infallibly certain, entirely free from the possibility of error. It would be impossible to conceive any greater authority.

But Christ confirmed his teaching by the authority of his life, and the priest should follow his example. Very often the life of a philosopher is not in harmony with his moral teaching, whereas Christ fulfilled perfectly the precepts and counsels which he put before his listeners: "Jesus set out to do and to teach" (Acts i, 1).

Christ combined with his supreme authority perfect simplicity and humility—a union in one person of two widely-separated extremes which was wholly divine in its conception. Christ was too noble to be proud. He was the peak of lowliness, and thus, even in the midst of all his majesty, he was a model of humility: "The learning which I impart is not my own, it comes from him who sent me" (John vii, 16): "Learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart" (Matt, xi, 29). He did not look for the title or honours of Doctor. While the Pharisees sat in the place from which Moses used to teach, Christ preferred to preach the Gospel to the poor who were looked down upon by those who deemed themselves wise. He preached everywhere and to all classes—on the mountain, on the shore of the sea of Tiberias, in Solomon's porch. There was no rhetorical splendour in his speech, no straining after effect. He spoke easily in parables about the highest mysteries, in a way suited to his hearers but without pandering to popular taste.

It seemed that the loftier his subject, the simpler and more sedate was his style of delivery. Divine truths were natural to him. They formed the object of unbroken contemplation, and were loved with an infinite love. But, though these treasures were possessed by Christ completely and in an unlimited degree, he proportioned them to our weakness so as not to overwhelm us. It was in this way that Christ harmonized in his preaching divine authority with simplicity and humility.

However, Christ did not merely enlighten the mind; there was also a remarkable spiritual charm about his preaching which delighted the affections of his hearers. Why ? Because he spoke with overflowing emotion. The constant theme of his preaching was the supreme love of God for men. He told the crowds gathered around him: "I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly" (John x, 10). The pleasing attraction of his teaching was especially evident in the eight beatitudes, in his conversation with the woman of Samaria, in the final address to his disciples before the Passion.

This supernatural charm of Christ's preaching has nothing in common with the useless sentimentality of a John James Rousseau, for example. Christ's doctrine is at once opposed to our inordinate inclinations, and yet profoundly attractive to our heart. His charm is combined with strictness, self-denial, and due severity: "If thy eye is an occasion of falling to thee, pluck it out and cast it away from thee" (Matt, xviii, 9); "If any man has a mind to come my way, let him renounce self, and take up his cross" (Mark viii, 34).

"God's word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit . . . quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts" (Heb. iv, 12).

And finally, Christ's preaching was efficacious in moving the wills of men to act correctly and holily: "The words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life" (John vi, 64). Many, in spite of great difficulties and the threat of persecution, came to believe in him. Even the officers of the Pharisees, not daring to seize him, were forced to admit that "nobody has ever spoken as this man speaks" (John vii, 46). His Apostles defended his teaching with their blood. On innumerable occasions the morals of a whole nation have been restored by his teaching; times without number it has been the means of inspiring an ardent love of God and one's neighbour, culminating in evident sanctity and martyrdom. After twenty centuries the words of Christ still retain their original extraordinary effectiveness.

This is a very different picture from that presented by the better philosophers of the past. Rarely did they succeed in correcting the interior inclinations of men, and to-day their works are only read by a few of the learned.

Therefore the preacher of the faith should follow in the footsteps of Christ as closely as possible, so that he may be able with the aid of divine grace to enlighten, attract, and move effectively the souls of men. He must ask for this help at all times—before he preaches, while he preaches, and after his preaching. If he continues to pray, his preaching will become a channel of living water flowing down from its divine source.

1I know an excellent priest who has been preaching on the Rosary for many years to the spiritual benefit of innumerable souls. The secret of his amazing success lies in the fact that before he began he wrote to 150 convents of contemplative nuns, asking for their prayers and sacrifices. In consequence, his preaching has been strengthened by these prayers and sacrifices which obtain grace for his hearers.