The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 4

The Efficacy of Christian Preaching

Chapter Four


We must first consider the general nature of this efficacy, then the results which come from ill-prepared and well-prepared sermons, and finally, the practical line of conduct which ought to be followed by the zealous preacher.

The efficacy of preaching is shrouded in mystery. For, in the first place, it depends not only on the effort put into it by the priest himself but also on the hidden workings of God's grace which has to be obtained through prayer: "It was for me to plant the seed, for Apollo to water it, but it was God who gave the increase. . . . You are a field of God's tilling, a structure of God's design" (i Cor. iii, 6 and 9). The Apostles were simply God's workers in the field of the apostolate. Secondly, it depends on the interior dispositions of the congregation, as is well portrayed in the parable of the sower (Matt, xiii, 4); the word of God is like a seed of corn which sometimes falls on rocky land, sometimes among briers, sometimes on good soil. "The man who took in the seed in good soil is the man who both hears and grasps the word; such men are fruitful", but not to the same extent: "one grain yielding a hundredfold, one sixtyfold, one thirtyfold." And thirdly, the effects of a sermon are not always immediately evident; sometimes they come to light later on when God sees fit, on other occasions "the enemy comes and scatters tares among the wheat" (Matt, xiii, 25).

So it may easily happen that "one man sows, and another reaps" (John iv, 37). Furthermore, "he who sows sparingly will reap sparingly" (2 Cor. ix, 6), and "the men who are sowing in tears will reap, one day, with joy" (Psalm 125, 5). Jeremias sowed in tears, so also did many other prophets and apostles, and it seems at first sight that their preaching was all in vain, but they will reap the reward of their effort with joy.

However it must be remembered that preaching can only be fruitful if it is prepared. It is nearly always true that a sermon which has not been preceded by careful study and prayer does not bring lasting profit to souls, even to those who are well disposed. At first sight such sermons may appear to have been most successful, but their success is superficial and is confined to the imagination and the feelings. Neither the intellect and its faith, nor the will and its charity have been affected, so the seeming success is only a passing phase. Even should the priest succeed in capturing the imagination and the senses of his hearers, and his sermons hurry on with growing excitement to a point where the people hardly dare to breathe, if they are not based on genuine faith and charity they cannot increase those virtues and will do no more than rouse the feelings for the time being. It is far better to speak slowly and thoughtfully with sincere faith, confidence, and charity.

In contrast, zealous preaching which has been well prepared by meditation, study, and prayer is always of great profit to souls who arc well disposed, even though its efficacy may not appear at once. Time and time again it succeeds in converting the hardened sinner.

The success of this preaching is due to divine grace, since the priest is now co-operating with God himself. Hence its efficacy is immense, sometimes most remarkable; perhaps we might even go so far as to compare it with the efficacy of the sacraments, although its effects are not strictly speaking ex opere operato, but they do result from the divine word expounded in the course of the sermon. So that even if the priest does not possess outstanding intellectual gifts or natural eloquence, provided his preaching is inspired by great faith, hope, and charity, he will meet with amazing success—like St. Peter 011 the day of Pentecost, or St. Vincent Ferrer, or St. Francis Xavier, or St. John Vianney.

This zealous preaching makes use of all the good dispositions of those who are listening, both their natural and supernatural dispositions. The people come to trust and respect such a priest. It is as though Christ himself were speaking through the priest as his minister. He gives him the graces proper to his state and sometimes apostolic graces (gratiae gratis datae) or good inspirations to say what is best for the conversion of souls.

It is said of St. Vincent Ferrer in his Office: "He began to preach with such power and success that he led large numbers to belief in Christ and persuaded thousands of Christians to turn from their sins to repentance, from their vices to virtue. . . . Once he succeeded in breaking the attachments of his hearers to things of earth, he incited them to a love of God."

What should be the priest's practical attitude towards the outcome of his apostolate of preaching? (Cf. Fr. Desurmont, op. cit.) In the first place, he must continue preaching the word of God, since this is one of die most fundamental duties of the priestly state. He was sent by Christ and the Church to preach. And when he is firmly convinced that it is the Gospel which is the word of God, he must be prepared to make the Gospel the subject of all his preaching until the day of his death, no matter what sacrifices that may entail. He must believe in the mystery and efficacy of the divine word. If ever a day should come when the priest refrains from preaching the word of God, there will begin to grow among his congregation a prevalent disregard for salvation and a lack of enthusiasm for the glory of God and the saving of souls. His church will be lifeless and inactive, like so many schismatic churches. Therefore the priest must preach God's word without interruption.

Secondly, the priest must beware of falling a victim to delusion in his preaching, discovering success where it does not really exist. This would be a serious temptation to vain glory; he would swell with pride and become—as we say—drunk with his own success. Even if his congregation were wonder-struck and tearful, it would not follow that there had been a genuine and lasting conversion. In fact, there are occasions when such external signs are lacking, and yet there is serious reflection leading ultimately to conversion. That is clearly the effect of the word of God.

Thirdly, the priest must maintain his confidence in God and in the efficacy of divine grace. There are certain times and places when depression is liable to become a serious temptation for a priest whose apostolate seems to be yielding little or no result. He preaches but nobody listens, he sows but does not reap. And so he is weighed down with sorrow.

In order to fight against and overcome this feeling of sorrow, the priest should plead for the grace of an even more steadfast belief in the efficacy of God's word. He should say to himself: when I preach the Gospel, it is not I who am preaching but God who is preaching in me and through me, and how could this word of God be fruitless? God works in a hidden way; although results may not always come to light immediately, his actions are bound to be effective. What a privilege I have in being able to preach the word of God which cannot be otherwise than fruitful. God never speaks to no purpose, and although my sermon this morning does not seem to have any obvious effect, it sows a seed which, perhaps, will bear fruit many months later. I must keep on hoping and never judge the utility of my preaching from its apparent success or failure. "One man sows, and another reaps", as the Gospel says (John iv> 37) I and it is true even of Jeremias that "the men who are sowing in tears will reap, one day, with joy" (Psalm 125, 5); they will certainly receive the reward of their supernatural labours.

All true success belongs to God; my duty is to work and to sow in his name. The efficacy of Christian preaching is certainly mysterious, but it is never in vain. As St. John of the Cross says, one interior act of pure love for God and for souls is of greater profit to the Church than a number of sermons, which though they might appear effective are inspired by less charity. St. Thomas states that Jeremias prophesied the Passion of Christ, clearly foreshadowed in his own sufferings (Ilia, q. 27, a. 6); and it was this that made his preaching so fruitful.