by Humbert of Romans
VIII. Knowledge Required by a Preacher
We must not overlook the high degree of learning that is necessary for preachers, who are commissioned to instruct others. St. Paul justly reproached certain ministers of the word for their deficiency in this respect. Her are some of his words:
“ . . . desiring to be teachers of the Law, when they understand neither what they say, nor the things about which they make assertion” (I Tim. 1:7).
This knowledge should be very extensive. First of all, it should include a firm grasp of Holy Scripture, since in that there is substantially contained the doctrines that the preacher is bound to preach.
“From the midst of the rocks they shall give forth their voices” (Ps. 103:12),
wrote the Psalmist; or to bring out the point, they must draw from the Old and New Testaments as from an inexhaustible quarry, which they evidently cannot do if they do not have the requisite knowledge.
It is a fact worth noting that the Savior, in choosing unlearned men as preachers, endowed them Himself with a knowledge of the Scriptures; hence, we see in their writing frequent references to the texts of the Old Testament. And St. Jerome adds that learning, which ordinary men seek by study and daily meditation on the Law of God, was granted directly by the Holy Spirit to these chosen disciples. That is why it has been written:
“And they shall all be taught of God” (John 6:45).
After the study of the Holy Books, should follow the study of creatures, for the Creator has placed in these many profound lessons. St. Anthony, the hermit, observes that they are like a book, containing many edifying thoughts for those who take the trouble to read. The Redeemer often had recourse to this type of knowledge in His discourses, as, for instance, when He said:
“Look at the birds of the air. . . . See how the lilies of the field grow. . . .” (Matt. 6:26-28).
Next there should follow a knowledge of history for this science, dealing with both the faithful and infidels, abounds in examples which furnish the preacher with valuable lessons. Our Lord used this branch of learning when, to confound the blindness of those who despised His words, He said:
“The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation and will condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31).
And, for the benefit of those who would not do penance, He added:
“The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a greater than Jonas here” (Luke 11:32).
The preacher must also know the laws of the Church for many men are ignorant of them; and it is his duty to instruct these. It was with this intention that St. Paul
“. . .traveled through Syria and Cilicia and strengthened the churches, and commanded them to keep the precepts of the Apostles and presbyters” (Acts 15:41).
It is equally necessary that the minister of the word by familiar with the mysteries of religion, upon which subject the Apostle noted:
“And if I know all mysteries . . .” (I Cor. 13:2). Religion is, indeed, full of mysterious figures and lessons, the recounting of which can be most edifying. Consequently, the preacher should be cognizant of them.
Then there will be applied to him the words:
“And in the midst of the Church she shall open his mouth, and she shall fill him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Ecclus. 15:5).
The Spirit of understanding spoken of is exactly He Who aids us in penetrating the meaning hidden in words and figures, and “understanding” signifies “to read within” something.
On the other hand, the preacher should not neglect knowledge gained by experience, for those who have attained a wide experience in the care of souls are able to speak more competently about interesting subjects:
“A man that hath much experience shall think of many things: and he shall show forth understanding” (Ecclus. 34:9)..
In addition the preacher must be able to judge souls, which means that he should: firstly, know those whom he should not preach the word of God, for it is not intended for dogs and swine; secondly, realize when it is convenient to preach and when to keep silence, as
“there is a time for speaking, and a time for silence” (Eccles. 3:7);
thirdly, preach according to the needs of his hearers, as St. Gregory advises in his Pastoral, where he enumerates thirty-six varied subject that a preacher may use; fourthly, guard against verbosity, loudness, unbecoming gestures, lack of order in the development of thoughts, and other defects which are disastrous to preaching. Speaking of this subject, St. Gregory explains the words of Ezekiel:
“The sole of their foot was like the sole of a calf” (Ezek 1:7),
by noting that the soles of the feet of a saintly preacher resemble those of the calf because of their form and that they symbolize (the sole of the foot being divided in two parts) the proper division of the subject under treatment. Finally, the preacher should be aware that the skill he possesses results from knowledge communicated by the Holy Spirit. This was the type of learning possessed by the Apostles, who grasped all things by the power of the Holy Spirit from Whom the inspiration for all their sermons came, as is observed in the Acts:
“They began to speak foreign tongues, even as the Holy Spirit prompted them to speak” (Acts 2:4).
Happy are those who are provided with this knowledge which makes up for the imperfections of all other kinds of learning!
This is an excerpt from the Preachers Institute publication: