|The eloquent tongue of St. Anthony|
miraculously from corruption
June 13th, Feast of St. Anthony of Padua
While St. John Chrysostom is the patron saint of preachers, there can be no doubt that St. Anthony of Padua is a most superb model for all Christian preaching. Not only is he recognized as the great preacher of the Friars Minor (i.e. the Franciscans), we must also recognize that many of his greatest miracles are associated with his preaching.
Consider, for example, his famous sermon to the fishes on the bank of the river Brenta near Padua – his spiritual father, St. Francis, is often remembered for speaking to animals, but it was St. Anthony who preached to the fishes!
Beyond this most extraordinary example of preaching, recall that he once bilocated while preaching on Holy Thursday; that, on another occasion, he preserved his audience from getting wet while he preached in the midst of a rainstorm; and that, when once the pulpit in which he was preaching collapsed and fell among the hearers, none was hurt, not even the saint himself.
We do well then, in honor of St. Anthony, to consider what is the sacred eloquence of a truly Christian preaching, and how this differs from the profane eloquence of worldly discourse.
Two resources on preaching
While there are certainly many good studies on what makes good Catholic preaching, we point in particular to two works. First, by St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Selva” or “Dignity and duties of a priest” [here]. The chapter on preaching is superb.
Second, the chapters on preaching in “The priest in union with Christ”, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, are a must-read for any modern preacher. Find the book on-line, [here].
A priest friend of mine, upon reading the passages from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s book, called my attention to the great need there is in our own day to stress the importance of a thoroughly Christian and evangelical approach to preaching. To this end, I will offer a number of inspiring quotes from these two books. It is my desire that these passages would help to inspire all priests (myself included) to preach according to the desires of the Sacred Heart of our Savior.
Pray for priests to preach well
Before giving the quotations from St. Alphonsus and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, I must stress the necessity of prayer for good preaching. Not only must the priest himself be a man of prayer, but he must be supported by the prayers of devout lay persons and religious.
How good it would be if families would pray and fast, at least on Saturdays, for their parish priest and for all priests who will be preaching that weekend! How many souls would be converted through the homilies of priests for whom the Christian faithful offered prayers and sacrifices – especially if they did this in the context of family life!
We simply cannot overstate the importance of praying for priests, and especially praying that they be good and holy preachers who effectively convey the Gospel and inspire their flock to the love of Christ. Additionally, it is most necessary that we all pray for priests to be good and holy confessors.
From St. Alphonsus, “Selva” or “Dignity and Duties of the Priest”
The remote preparation for preaching
“In the first place, in order to preach well learning and study are necessary. He who preaches at random will do more injury than service to religion.”
“In the second place, an exemplary life is necessary.”
“Justly, then, did Father John d’Avila say to a person who asked what rule he should follow in order to preach well, that the best means of preaching well was to love Jesus Christ ardently.”
“The preacher must have an affection for mental prayer, in which he may excite the sentiments that he will afterwards communicate to others. Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which sacred orators are inflamed with divine love.”
“It is necessary to preach with a good intention, that is, not for temporal interest, but for the glory of God; not to attract empty praises, but to procure the salvation of souls.”
Sacred eloquence and simplicity of style
“Hence, as the Council of Trent ordains, it is the duty of preachers to preach in a manner accommodated to the capacity of their hearers […] What a pity, sometimes, to see so many of the poor going to the sermon, and afterwards leaving the church affliceted and wearied, without having understood almost any part of the discourse. Justly has Father John d’Avila said, that they who preach in a lofty style, not intelligible to the audience, are traitors to Jesus Christ; and that, though sent by him to procure his glory, they seek only their own exaltation. Justly, too, has Father Caspar Sanzio said, that such preachers are at present day the greatest persecutors of the Church, because by their sermons they are the cause of the perdition of many souls that would be saved by exhortations composed in a simple and apostolic style.”
“Hence it is always expedient to preach in a simple, popular style, not only in the missions and spiritual exercises, but also in all sermons addressed to the people.”
From Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, “The Priest in Union with Christ”
Preparation for preaching
“The priest must first convince himself that his commission to preach the Gospel has come from God through the Bishop, and that he cannot fulfill 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The success of this preaching is due to divine grace, since the priest is now co-operateing with God himself.”
Sacred eloquence in preaching
“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.”
“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 to 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 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.”
Forgetfulness of self as necessary to Christian preaching
“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: a lack of faith, a want of humility, a lack of prayer and charity.”
The content of every sermon: Heaven, hell, death, and judgment
“Christian preaching must always be directed towards the final end of man; that is, towards the supreme love of God and the eternal salvation of souls.”
“The priest should often make this general purpose of preaching the chief topic of his sermon, frequently talking to his people about the final end of man, eternal salvation, the serving of God and his glory, death, prayer as an essential means of salvation, final perseverance, the duty of loving God and Jesus Christ, devotion to Mary as a sign of predestination and the way which leads to eternal life. The priest should never tire of putting these subjects before his people.”
“Christ himself opened his first sermon on the mount with the beatitudes in order to show that eternal happiness begins here on earth; although everybody looks for happiness, not all of them realize that it is only to be found in loving God above everything.”
“Preaching loses its Christian character when it does not concern itself with eternal salvation, or when it fears to mention eternal punishment. We find in the New Testament that Christ often spoke about Hell, and the saints were never afraid to preach about it. Otherwise a priest’s sermons will cease to be priestly and become purely academic. He will avoid the important truths, soften down the Gospel, and fail to lead souls to salvation.”
A final word on good Christian preaching
“What should be the priest’s practical attitude towards the outcome of his apostolate of preaching? In the first place, he must continue preaching the word of God, since this is one of the most fundamental duties of the priestly state. … 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. … 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’ 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?”
St. Anthony of Padua, Pray for us! Pray for our priests!