by Humbert of Romans
IX. The Language of the Preacher
In reference to language, it is essential that the preacher have clear diction, lest a defect of speech make his words unintelligible. Thus Moses, having such a defect, excused himself from accepting the mission which God confided in him; and his brother, Aaron, who was eloquent, was entrusted instead with the task of carrying the word of God to the people. The account in Exodus is as follows:
“Aaron the Levite is thy brother, I know that he is eloquent. . . . He shall speak in thy stead to the people and shall be thy mouth; but thou shall be to him in those things that pertain to God” (Exod. 4:14-16).
Furthermore, it is imperative that God’s representative know the intricacies and the resources of language. If in the primitive Church God gave the gift of tongues to His ministers in order that they might speak to all men indiscriminately, would it not be improper for a preacher to be defective in speech, either because of a weak memory, or an ignorance of Latin, or an inability to express himself well in the vulgar tongue, or any other fault of this kind? The Apocalypse states:
“And his voice was like the voice of many waters” (Rev. 1:15).
The preacher is actually the voice of Christ in this world and he ought to have in his words a fullness proportionate to the subjects that he will treat.
It is equally desirable that the preacher have a voice with a definite resonance, otherwise he will lose much of the fruit of his sermons, for the weakness of his voice will prevent his words from being clearly heard. Scripture even compares the voice of a preacher to the sound of trumpets, for it should be heard at a distance with force and clarity. And then it is that we can apply to the preacher the words of the Prophet Hosea:
“Let there be a trumpet in thy throat. . . .” (Hosea 8:1).
In regard to style, it should be so clear that the listener can easily understand, and not be of the type that St. Augustine decries:
“Those who cannot be understood without difficulty should never be commissioned to instruct the people; or at least only in rare instances and in cases of urgent necessity.”
The Book of Proverbs has practically the same advice:
“. . . the learning of the wise is easy” (Prov. 14:6).
The manner of delivery should be neither fast or slow, for the one becomes burdensome and difficult to follow, the other occasions weariness.
“A genuine philosopher,” remarked Seneca, “should take as much care of his diction as of his life.”
Nothing is in order where haste prevails, therefore the discourse should flow smoothly without tiring of overtaxing the listener. If this is demanded of a philosopher, who merely desires the esteem of men, how much more should it be of a preacher who labors for the salvation of souls!
Also, the delivery should be succinct, according to the advice of Horace:
“Be brief in your speech so that the docile may understand and the faithful keep your words.”
That is why the Book of Canticles says:
“Thy lips are as a scarlet ribbon” (Cant. 4:3)
– a reference to preachers who, as the gloss holds, are the lips of the Church. And as a ribbon binds the hair of the head to prevent it from falling into disorder, so the lips of preachers should restrain the profusion of words.
A sermon should be simple, and devoid of all the empty ornaments of rhetoric, after the example of those Asiatic nations who went to battle armed only with a plowshare.
“Guard against multiplying the solemn Divine words lest you thereby overburden your speech,”
is the advice of St. Augustine. At the same time the Bishop of Hippo describes in detail the metre, the length of syllables, and the oratorical figures which may be properly used. There is nothing astonishing about the fact that a saintly doctor concerned himself with such minor points, when we realize that the philosophers also considered them. Seneca, for example, declared:
“Any discourse having Truth for its object should be simple and unaffected.”
Leave the ingenious style to art; here it is a question of souls. A sick man does not look for eloquence in his doctor; and a doctor who gives his prescriptions in flowery language is like a ruler who cares more for elegance than practicality.
The preacher should, moreover, exercise prudence, varying his sermons according to the type of his hearer. Let your word, says St. Gregory, be a sweet melody for the good, a rebuke for the wicked; let it encourage the timid and moderate the restless; let it arouse the slothful and stimulate the negligent; let it persuade the obstinate, calm the hot-headed, and finally, let it console those who are losing hope. This is exactly what the text of Isaiah teaches,
“The Lord hath given me a learned tongue” (Isaiah 50:4).
But all of this will be of little use to the preacher if his speech is not pleasant,
“for a man without grace is as a vain fable” (Ecclus. 20:21).
He should have a graciousness and sweetness of speech like that which was written of the Master of all Preachers,
“Grace is poured abroad on they lips” (Ps. 44:3).
This is an excerpt from the Preachers Institute publication: