Difficulties in the Office of Preacher: Part 2

by Humbert of Romans


VI. Difficulties of the Office of Preacher: Part Two

There are other kinds of preachers who diligently look for arguments irrelevant to their subject, like the one who preaches on the Apostles Peter and Paul, and borrows from the Book of Numbers the test,

“The sons of Merari; Moholi and Musi” (Num. 3:20).

One can scarcely adapt this to this subject such incongruous references, for in trying to reconcile them, the preacher runs the risk of exciting derision rather than producing edification.

Some give too much attention to the feast of the day, so that, in order to adapt their discourse to it, they become unpractical and quickly lose the interest of their audience. They deserve the name of choristers of the church rather than priests of Jesus Christ. The choristers often seek only what is proper to the occasion or feast being celebrated, without considering whether the words they are singing are profitable to those present or not.

Others choose a subject which contains only one idea; they are like those hosts who serve only one dish at table.

It is true, however, that there are preachers who have abundant matter, but they are afraid to omit the least detail, useful or not, dragging out their sermons indefinitely. They are like the host who serves his guests generously with beef, excluding all other dishes; serving for the first course the horns; for the second, the hide; for the third, the hoofs, and so on. That certainly is not the technique of a good cook or host; on the contrary, he removes the less suitable parts, carefully preparing and serving the best.

There are other preachers who start with a subject that is really suitable but they become so attached to the first or second point that they do not develop the others. They are like rustic hosts who serve so much in the fist course that the appetite is lost for the following courses, even though the latter are better. Such is not the practice of the cultured, who prepare a sufficient number of dishes and serve a little of each. This is more pleasing to the guests.

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Let preachers avoid, then, these abuses in the choice of a subject, and let them be very careful to treat it in such a way that it will be most profitable to those who hear it; they should not limit themselves to one idea, nor choose too extensive a topic, nor dwell too long on the less important points, which should be passed over lightly.

Let them watch lest they fall into the mistake of those preachers who, although they are incapable of composing good sermons themselves, are yet unwilling to study those composed by others, and preach only those that they have laboriously written out themselves.

They are like those who serve their guests only bread made by themselves even though they cannot bake. Our Lord told the Apostles to serve the crowd which followed Him into the desert, not the bread that they had made, but that which others had made (Matt. 15). On this subject they tell of a remarkable characteristic of Pope Innocent III, a man of great merit, under whom the Lateran Council was held. While preaching on the feast of St. Madeleine, he had someone read the homily of St. Gregory on the feast while he explained it in the vulgar tongue; and when his memory failed he followed the text of the one reading the book. After the sermon they asked him why he acted thus, when he was so capable of saying original things; he answered that he wanted to confound and instruct those who despise using the works of other people.

There are some who depend on their own knowledge, relying only on themselves and neglecting to consult the interpretations of the Sacred Scriptures made by the Saints. St. Jerome speaks of these when writing to St. Paul in:

“They have no desire to find out what the Prophets and Apostles meant, but adapt inapplicable texts to their ideas, applying the words of Scripture to statements that are opposed. Their own words to them have the authority of God.”

Others there are who are more interested in the form of their discourses than in the matter. They are like a host who is more concerned with the beauty of a dish in which food is served than the food itself. They ought to meditate on what St. Augustine said in his Confessions,

“I know that wisdom and folly resemble food, some of which is wholesome and some harmful. And just as they can be served in worthless or precious plates, so also good can be presented as evil in flowery discourse or in discourses lacking all elegance.”

A preacher who wishes to avoid the three errors that we have just pointed out, will take great care to study what others have taught about the Scriptures, in order to find his inspiration in the holy Doctors rather than in himself, and in his discourse he will prefer practical thoughts to beautiful words.

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In regard to the second point, note that the arts are taught much more efficiently by example than by oral teaching. For one does not learn to play the hand-organ so well by verbal instruction as by seeing and hearing another play. Likewise it is very important in learning to preach well, to study not only the different methods used by great preachers, but also those adopted by others; in order to avoid the errors of the latter and to imitate as far as possible the excellences of the former. That is why Gideon, who was the prefigurement of a good preacher, said to his soldiers,

“What you shall see me do, do you the same” (Judg. 7:17).

As to the third point we must observe that every effort of man is worthless without the assistance of God: a preacher, therefore, who wishes to benefit his listeners, ought to have recourse above all to prayer. This is what St. Augustine says,

“If Queen Esther, before setting out to Assurius to implore salvation for the Hebrew people, begged God to inspire her with words capable of obtaining this favor, how much more ought that one to pray, who wishes to procure eternal salvation for men by his doctrine and his discourses!”

To sum up, the preceding considerations point out three difficulties which are met in preaching; three reasons that explain why we meet with these difficulties; and three ways of overcoming them and of acquiring the qualities indispensable to preaching.

Furthermore, the office of preaching is very different from a considerable number of other offices and greatly excels them. Some of these worldly offices are contemptible, while preaching is an excellent and noble work; their usefulness is slight, while preaching is necessary for the whole world; they displease God and in His eyes have little worth, while preaching is eminently pleasing to Him; they return but little profit to the business-man, while preaching brings to the minister of God considerable benefits; they benefit the rest of men but little, while preaching has the greatest utility for all men; finally, some of these secular offices can be undertaken without great difficulty, while preaching is such a noble art that one cannot fulfill it in an honorable and fruitful manner, without overcoming the most serious difficulties. But how success is to be envied and praised!

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This is an excerpt from the Preachers Institute publication:

On the Formation of Preachers

You can purchase the Ebook HERE, the Kindle version HERE

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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