The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 2

The Secular Approach to Christian Preaching

Chapter Two


Probably the best way of grasping in a practical form the correct approach to Christian preaching is to study carefully what it ought not to be. In a similar way we have a clearer realization of the value of justice from observing the suffering which follows on injustice.

First and foremost, the preacher must be a man of tremendous faith, and it is precisely because of weakness in his faith that so many failings appear in his preaching. If it is true that belief in the word of God is expected of him who listens to sermons and instructions on the faith, with even greater reason is it true of the preacher himself.

A vigorous and discerning faith is absolutely essential for apostolic preaching. Without it, one's preaching may well be academic, but it will certainly not be apostolic. Without it, the priest is a mere orator, not a Christian preacher. Thus St. Paul finds his motive for preaching in the words of Psalm 115: "I have believed, therefore have I spoken." Cf. 2 Cor. iv, 13. It is as though St. Paul wants us to know that if he had not believed, he would not have spoken.

The reason for this need of faith is simply that the priest is not speaking as a mere man, but as the representative of Christ—in the name of God in whom he believes. His audience is composed of those who believe, or at least desire to believe. Therefore his words to them must always be guided by faith.

St. Paul says (1 Cor. ii, 4): "My preaching, my message depended on no persuasive language, devised by human wisdom, but rather on the proof I gave you of spiritual power; God's power, not man's wisdom, was to be the foundation of your faith. There is, to be sure, a wisdom which we make known among those who are fully grounded; but it is not the wisdom of this world. . . . What we make known is the wisdom of God, his secret, kept hidden till now; so, before the ages, God had decreed, reserving glory for us." St. Thomas has an excellent commentary on this passage: "St. Paul points out that it was not his intention to rely on the persuasive force of rhetoric, but on the proof he gave of spiritual power, since that was clearly the source of his words. This he himself states (2 Cor. iv, 13); 'We too speak our minds with full confidence, sharing that same faith.' St. Paul gives as the motive of his previous remarks; God's power, not man's wisdom, was to be the foundation of your faith. That is, he does not intend their faith to be based on human wisdom, which so often leads men astray. He then adds: there is, to be sure, a wisdom which we make known among those who are fully grounded ... the wisdom of God, his secret, so that the faithful receive later on a lucid understanding of everything which is now veiled in his preaching."

In order to confirm what we have said, we would do well to remember the disastrous effect of any preaching which is too human in character. Far from promoting the glory of God and the salvation of souls, it obstructs them.2 That is to be expected when preaching is devoid of sacred eloquence. What is meant by this sacred eloquence ? To say that a thing is sacred or consecrated means that it has been set apart for divine worship, and the more sacred the use to which it is put, the more perfect is its consecration. Thus the sacred vessels are more sacred than the chasuble or the cope; the chalice and ciborium are consecrated in the strict sense of the word and not merely blessed, because they are to contain the body and blood of Christ. The priest's fingers are also consecrated, since they touch the sacred victim of the Mass.

But after the sacraments there is nothing more divine, more sacred, than the word of God contained in Scripture and Tradition and which has to be preached to the faithful. Therefore this preaching is aptly termed sacred eloquence. Moreover, as the priest's words improve in their power of expressing a vigorous belief—which itself is an expression of divine wisdom and of God's love for men—so much the more perfect does that sacred eloquence become.

In the same way as the silver of a chalice is overlaid with gold, so is the ordinary rhetoric used in sacred eloquence perfected in a supernatural way. It loses many of its useless ornaments and receives higher qualities.

Since it is an eloquence to be used for preaching the Gospel to all men, it must obviously be adapted to human nature. At the same time, however, it should not be so popular as to make little or no appeal to the educated. It should also avoid being too abstract or too artificial, so that it may be understood by all, even by the uneducated. The presentation of the word of God should provide nourishment for the soul, just as material food nourishes the body. Christ desires to offer himself to us in Holy Communion under the appearance of ordinary food; similarly, he desires the word of God to be presented in a simple but splendid style, because of its subject-matter and purpose. It follows that sacred eloquence is the most perfect and yet the most difficult of all the various forms of rhetoric, since it has to propose supernatural truths in such a way that they penetrate the souls of men in every walk and condition of life.

This is a difficult task, and well-nigh impossible without divine assistance. These supernatural truths are admittedly sublime mysteries, but they are obscure, and they are just as repugnant to the pride of the human intellect as the commands of the Gospel are to the fallen state of man's desires.

It is no use merely proposing these supernatural truths and divine commands in a theoretical way. They have to be presented in such a form that they penetrate the inmost recesses of the human soul. The soul must come to realize as clearly as possible what is naturally beyond its powers, so that it will firmly believe the truths proposed and steadfastly embrace God's precepts.

Finally, sacred eloquence must have this effect on all men without exception, no matter what their condition of life may be. It must enlighten the ignorant, convince the sceptic, and induce the depraved to abandon their pleasures, their hatred, and their envy in order to turn to God.

Therefore sacred eloquence possesses of its very nature—as being something supernatural—unparalleled perfection and persuasiveness, and is, with God's help, most fruitful with the result that its effects endure for all eternity.3

For this reason the greatest orators of all time have been the Apostles, since their preaching proceeded from an abundance of contemplation on the mysteries of salvation; for example, St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, when as the result of his preaching three thousand Jews were converted and baptized. Similarly, St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist; later on, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Francis Xavier.

But sacred eloquence has one perennial foe—the spirit of secularism, which renders the word of God ineffectual and fruitless.

In considering this secular spirit which may invade the priest's preaching, Fr. Desurmont points out how in those functions of the priestly ministry which do not depend on the skill or artistry of the priest himself and which do not enhance his reputation the essential parts of the rite are always observed. Thus it rarely happens that a priest does not baptize validly, or that he does not consecrate when celebrating Mass. But it does happen frequently that when he comes to preach he does not preach as he should do—with apostolic zeal.

The reason for this is not difficult to find. A sermon is the result of the combined effort of all the priest's powers; it reveals his entire person; it is his struggle against the vices of the surrounding world. Everything in the priest co-operates in his preaching—study, reflection, his powers to compose and revise, the activity of his intellect, his imagination, his memory, his feelings, his voice. Therefore, when he preaches, the priest stands exposed for all to study; some will be attracted, others will not. Some will accept what he says, others will simply criticize.

So if the priest approaches his task from the human angle, he will say to himself: "I cannot afford to lose my reputation; people of weight in the parish who take offence easily must be spared their feelings and not provoked; I must proceed warily so as not to incur criticism." In that way Christian eloquence is invaded by a profane eloquence in which the preacher looks after his own interests, not the glory of God or the saving of souls.

This human or secular approach to Christian eloquence may originate from any of the following three sources. Sometimes it is due to a lack of faith; the priest fails to meditate on the divine word, to study it and make it part of himself, to penetrate its meaning. He quotes the words of Scripture from memory, but they are not for him "spirit and life." He does not speak with overflowing emotion, meaning every word which he speaks; consequently his preaching is uninspiring and fruitless.

Sometimes, this profanation of Christian eloquence is due to a want of humility in the priest. His vanity makes him seek to please men rather than God. It is not God who directs his speech, but himself. The pulpit is used as a platform for showing off his intellect, his imagination, his voice, his skill. He does not speak of the truths which are opposed to vice, but is solely concerned with pleasing his audience and fitting in with the mood of the times. Very often this form of preaching becomes absolutely ridiculous, theatrical, and irritating.

The third source of this secular spirit in Christian eloquence is to be found in a lack of prayer and charity. The priest is only anxious to cut a good figure amongst his fellow men, and does not worry about the glory of God and the saving of souls. Consequently he neglects to pray earnestly for the conversion of souls. On the contrary, if he were to pray often and sincerely for this intention and if he were to ask for the prayers and sacrifices of saintly souls, his preaching would be most fruitful. That is why St. Dominic used to pray all night and do penance in preparation for his preaching the following day. His first foundation was an order of contemplative nuns, not the Order of Preachers, so that they might offer up unceasing prayer and sacrifice for the apostolate of his friars.

There are three forms of the apostolate—prayer, daily sacrifice for the conversion of sinners, preaching. Without the first two, the third will never be fruitful. From time to time God has revealed that a priest's success in his preaching has been due to prayer offered in secret by someone else. There was once a certain lay brother who was the constant companion of a famous preacher, and while this priest was delivering his sermon the lay brother would pray without ceasing. Many souls were won over to the service of God as a result of these sermons, and it was revealed to the priest that he owed his amazing success to the sincere and humble prayer of that lay brother.

Fr. Desurmont is perfectly correct in speaking of the human approach to Christian preaching as a real scourge and disaster, for these are the only words which can be used for a prevailing and wide-spread evil which destroys life.

It is an evil which prevails frequently, since it can only be overcome by genuine charity in the priest, a charity which exerts its influence continually and makes itself felt in others. But, unfortunately, this kind of charity is rare. Even in Christian surroundings charity is more often than not lukewarm or inspired by purely natural motives. No wonder, then, that the preacher lapses into a careless or affected style of preaching.

Moreover, this evil of humanism in Christian preaching spreads so easily by being imitated. People are deceived by the veneer of success, and public opinion is by no means a safe guide in this matter. In order to remain unaffected by the usual judgment of the crowd or by the seeming success of others, the priest requires a courageous zeal and a determined character—a rare gift in the world.

Finally, the human approach to preaching takes all the life and value out of Christian eloquence by altering completely the tone and balance of its subject-matter—an action which is similar to that of pouring into the chalice water and a drop of wine, instead of wine and a drop of water. It is not the Gospel which is preached, but a collection of social theories which tend towards socialism. Gradually a new and false purpose is introduced into preaching. The priest docs not urge his people to think seriously about their eternal salvation; his whole concern is for their temporal welfare, for the building up of an earthly paradise. One has only to think of Lamennais and his writings. The simple form of the Gospel is abandoned for the artificiality of modern elocution; the divine word gives way to a worthless fluency in speech. And in this stream of words the priest will fail to present God to his people, because he is thinking of himself only. Christ and his Gospel are not to be found in this form of preaching, just as the precious blood would not be present in a chalice where one drop of wine had been mixed with water.

In consequence, the priest will meet with very little genuine success, since he has forgotten or does not understand these words of Christ: "It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you. The task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure" (John xv, 16).

Fr. Desurmont says rightly that profane eloquence in preaching hinders the work of redemption, because Christ's words are not being observed: "You are the salt of the earth; if salt loses its taste, what is there left to give taste to it? There is no more to be done with it, but throw it out of doors for men to tread it underfoot" (Matt, v, 13).

Therefore, in the words of this author, the life of souls is destroyed by this secular spirit in preaching, because they are being starved of their spiritual food of truths contained in the Gospel. Their taste is perverted, for they now prefer adulterated food—false opinions—and they cannot correct their taste, since they never hear a forceful presentation of the truth. As a result, wherever this secular approach to preaching prevails, zeal for the saving of souls is lacking.

Not only is this type of preaching fatal to those who listen to it, but it is also fatal to the spiritual life of the preacher himself. It destroys his zeal and weighs heavy upon his conscience. Such preaching is a sin which comes very near to sacrilege, since it violates what is sacred—as though one were to substitute some other liquid for the wine used in the sacrifice of the Mass. This sacrilege could be a mortal sin, especially if it became habitual. Cf. Fr. Desurmont, op cit.

To-day there are very few outstanding preachers who enlighten the minds of their hearers with the light of faith, or who inspire them to carry out the divine precepts and to strive for salvation. Sermons tend to be apologetic or social conferences in which the speaker is more concerned with the rational or even historical approach and makes no attempt to direct Godwards all the faculties of the souls of his hearers. He simply expounds truths after the manner of a lay philosopher, as though the faithful had long since ceased to believe; he does not preach as a genuine priest of Christ.

On the other hand, Christ and his Apostles put forward their apologetic from a supernatural standpoint, for the motives of credibility were never devised by men but by God, who, so to speak, came down to our level in order to point out the correct way to our end in life. These motives of credibility —such as the prophecies of the Old Testament and of Christ himself, miracles, the wonderful fulfilment of all our desires— can be considered from two different angles; either from the outside and from below by those who are looking for the faith, or from above after the manner of Christ and the Apostles who adjusted themselves to the minds of those who were searching for belief. In a similar way, stained glass windows in a church may be viewed either from the outside—when their meaning will be grasped imperfectly—or from the inside of the church, when they are seen with their complete beauty and meaning. And thus, for example, rationalists study the prophecies of the Old Testament from the outside, while those who are sincerely searching for the way of belief have a better insight into their meaning and value; but their full understanding—so far as this is possible here on earth—is reserved for those who possess already the virtue of faith, enlightened by the gifts.

1Even in the Old Testament, Ezechiel and Jeremias had spoken of this irreverent attitude towards the divine word displayed by false prophets. So also did St. Paul. Cf. St. Francis of Sales, Letter on the manner of preaching; St. Alphonsus, Letter to a religious on the way of preaching. Advice to preachers, Ven. Joseph Frassinetti, Gesù Cristo, regola del Sacerdote, c. iii; Desurmont, La Charité sacerdotale, 3e id., 1906, vol. ii; Monsabré, La prédication; Litterae encyclicae S. Congreg. Episcoporum ac Regularium super Sacra praedicatione, written at the command of Leo xiii, July, 1894; St. M. Gillet, O.P., Littera ad Ordinem Praedicatorum, circa Praedicationem.

2Cf. Fr. Desurmont, La charité sacerdotale, II, 7.

3This is well explained by Fr. Desurmont, op. cit.