The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 6

Different Types of Sermons

Chapter Six


The principles of sacred eloquence never alter, but they have to be adapted to the various types of Christian preaching —to the sermon properly so-called, the panegyric, the ordinary parochial instruction, the homily, and the catechism for children.

In the usual type of sermon all the rules we have discussed relating to composition and to style should be observed in their entirety. In a panegyric the principal rule to follow is to make it useful for the ordinary life of the people by drawing their attention to the saint's virtues which they themselves can imitate. Moreover, the priest will find it easier to talk about the interior life of the saints if he first speaks about their faith, then about their confidence in God, and finally, about their charity for God and their neighbour. The reason for this order is that generally speaking faith and hope are presupposed to charity, and in the life of the saint there first appears the perfection of faith, then the perfection of hope, and finally, the perfection of charity. That is certainly true of the life of St. Thérèse, and of the lives of the martyrs. Another method of approach is to discover what the saint received from Christ. This was the method adopted by Bossuet in his panegyric on St. John the Evangelist and he divided his panegyric accordingly. Christ gave him his heart at the Last Supper, his mother on Calvary, and his cross for the fruitfulness of his ministry.

The parochial instruction should be delivered in the manner of a friendly talk, at the same time making certain that the actual instruction with its practical applications is not overshadowed by any other part of the sermon. A homily on the Gospel of the day cannot be divided up in the usual way, but the explanation of the verses of the Gospel should be directed towards some well-defined conclusion. In conferences, on the other hand, certain points of history or of apologetics or of speculative theology can be developed at much greater length than is possible in the ordinary sermon to the people.

The style of the catechetical instruction of children must always be conversational and interesting. Questions should be asked in order to retain their attention; instruction and encouragement must be given. The priest must make use of stories and illustrations not chosen at random but selected for their appropriateness to the end which he has in view.

Retreats to the diocesan clergy and to religious must pay particular attention to the special obligations of their respective states.

For the normal type of mission preached in Christian countries sermons are required which are adapted to the circumstances and carefully arranged amongst themselves relating to man's final end, the fear of God, the theological virtues, confession, Easter duties.1 There should also be special instructions for young girls, for mothers, for men. A mission is, so to speak, a battle which the apostle wages for the conversion of sinners and then for their perseverance.

What is the plan recommended for a successful mission, according to the laws of psychology and of grace?

There must first be an intense preparation of prayer offered by the missioner himself, by souls consecrated to the service of God, and by those to whom the mission is to be preached. The opening of the mission is then devoted to disposing the people to listen to the great truths of salvation. This must be done with kindness in order to win their confidence and to move them to pray to Christ our Saviour and Our Blessed Lady. Artificial enthusiasm or excitement are to be carefully avoided; it usually results in disillusionment later on. Special appeals should be made to wives to bring their husbands along, and children should be encouraged to come so as to bring their parents with them. Sometimes it is useful to open with some striking ceremony, such as the setting up of a special statue in honour of Our Lady or of a large crucifix. Visits to the sick are also recommended.

The second part of the mission should consist of sermons on the eternal truths—eternal salvation, sin, death, the particular judgment, Hell, God's mercy—, on some of the chief vices such as impurity and injustice, on the theological virtues, on the sacrament of Penance—sincere confession, contrition, firm purpose of amendment, avoidance of the occasions of sin. Prayer should be offered in public, in the family, and in private for the conversion of every soul to God; it should be pointed out how dangerous it is to delay one's conversion. Special services could be held for the dead of the parish, and a public act of reparation made to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The people should be given every opportunity of going to confession.

The third part of the mission will concentrate on the principal obligations of a Christian who is now resolved to dedicate himself to the service of God: prayer—he who prays is saved, he who does not pray is condemned—, keeping Sunday holy, frequent reception of the sacraments, careful education of children, respect for one's parents, resisting temptation, good intention, generous acceptance of the cross in daily life, conformity to the will of God, love of one's neighbour. Other sermons could be preached on the Christian family, on the need of trust in God's Providence for those who try to fulfil their obligations, on devotion to the Mother of God as the mother of mercy.

The fourth and final part of the mission will be devoted to the gift of perseverance which is obtained through prayer and to the daily fulfilment of our various duties. The mission should conclude with a sermon on the erection of a mission cross and the indulgences attached.

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The first objective of missionary work in pagan countries must be the conversion of unbelievers to the faith and to the initial purification of their heart. Prayer must be offered daily for this intention. From the outset the missionary should speak fearlessly about Jesus Christ, his holy Mother, and the final destiny of man. But under no circumstances should a pagan be baptized until he is sufficiently well prepared. Then gradually the missionary can lay down the foundations of a Christian family, of a Christian parish, and of a Christian society.

In retreats given to lay people the main subjects of the conferences ought to be the final end of man, the conversion of the soul to God, prayer, the obligation of one's state, perseverance: cf. The Exercises of St. Ignatius and of St. Alphonsus, and the Retreats of St. Vincent de Paul.

Priests on retreat should observe complete silence, cease from all their usual occupations, and be alone with God. They should pray together, renew their devotion to Jesus Christ by adoring the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Blessed Lady by renewing their act of consecration, and they should offer prayer in public for all their fellow priests.

Subjects for prayer and meditation during these retreats should include man's final end, priestly perfection, sin, death, judgment, Jesus Christ priest and victim, the theological virtues, chastity, mental prayer, perseverance, apostolic zeal, priests' societies and conferences. These latter are extremely useful for priests living in isolated districts; without them it would be like trying to cross a rough sea in a skiff. The retreat conferences should be doctrinal in character, based on Scripture, Tradition, and the accepted teaching of theologians. The priest giving the retreat ought to speak like a person engaged in serious conversation with his friends. At the very outset he should state with all due respect and charity that priests can be divided into three main categories—the virtuous, the lukewarm, the unfaithful—and each one has to adapt the retreat to the state in which he finds himself at that moment. Reference should be made in the course of the talks to each one of those groups. The unfaithful priest who is open to despair must be encouraged to hope and confidence.

In retreats to seminary students special emphasis must be laid on the priest's vocation and its obligations.

1Cf. Fr. Desurmont, II, 436.