by Humbert of Romans
XVII. Defects of Judgment Which are Harmful to the Preacher
First of all, let us remark that it would be bad judgment to address oneself to those who have no wish to hear the word of God, and we ought not to preach to them.
“Where there is no hearing, pour out not words” (Ecclus. 32:6).
And the same holds for those who listen, but understand nothing, as if they were senseless.
“A fool,” the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 18:2) says, “receiveth not (that is in his understanding) the words of prudence.”
It is not necessary then to preach to such.
“In the ears of fools,” adds Proverbs (Prov. 23:9), “speak not.”
So also for those who defame the preacher:
“Do not,” says St. Matthew (Matt. 7:6), “give to dogs what is holy”;
and these dogs, the gloss tells us, are those who only know how to bark and to tear in pieces what was once whole. There are some who vilify the holiness of doctrine, which, therefore, should not be preached to them.
“Neither throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6),
St. Matthew adds. The swine, according to the gloss, are those who scorn and trample under foot holy doctrine.
Some people, much like certain great sinners, tempt the Lord, even to the point of rendering themselves unworthy of the grace attached to preaching. It was said to Ezekiel:
“And I will make thy tongue stick fast to the roof of thy mouth, and thou shalt be dumb, and not as a man that reproveth: because they are a provoking house” (Ezek. 3:26).
They provoked this anger, says the gloss, because their malice and revolt against the Lord were so great that they no longer deserved to hear the voice of reproach. Which shows that sin, in multiplying, ends by rendering those who are guilty unworthy even of being corrected by God.
Others, still more wicked, blaspheme against the Gospel, as do the infidels, and we must take great care not to preach to them publicly. It was thus that
“the Jews contradicted what was said by Paul and blasphemed. Then Paul and Barnabas spoke out plainly: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we now turn to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13:45,46).
Let us remark, secondly, that it should not be necessary to preach the same thing to all; but that one should adapt his preaching to his different hearers. St. Gregory the Great says on this subject:
“A long time ago Gregory of Nazianzen, of happy memory, taught that one and the same exhortation is not convenient for all men, having observed that all are not formed by the same habits. Often what profits some harms others, as herbs which nourish certain animals, cause others to perish; a soft whistling which calms a horse excites a dog; a medicine which tempers one disease strengthens another; bread which fortifies a mature man, would cause the death of a little child,”
In fact, one should address in an entirely different manner men and women; young people and the aged; the rich and the poor; the joyful and the sad; simple subjects and their prelates; servants and their masters; the wise and the foolish; the modest and the shameless; the timid and the bold; the patient and the hasty; the benevolent and the jealous; the innocent and the impure; the healthy and the sick; those who from fear of chastisement live in virtue and those who are so hardened that no punishment corrects them; the taciturn and the garrulous; the industrious and the lazy; the gentle and the angry; the humble and the proud; the steadfast and the vacillating; the moderate and the glutton; the merciful and the covetous; those who do not want either to take from another or to share their own, and those who willingly share what they possess, but sometimes take what belongs to another; the quarrelsome and the peaceful; those who sow discord and those who bring peace; those who do not listen as they should, and those who listen and understand, but without humility; those who preach well, but through humility dread to, and those whom age and imperfection should keep from preaching, but who allow themselves to be carried away by their presumption; those who prosper in their temporal affairs and those who in their pursuit of the goods of this world are unfortunate; those who are bound to the obligations of marriage and whose who have not undertaken those obligations; those who deplore having sinned in deed and those who have sinned only in thought; those who regret having done evil, but continue to do evil, and those who, ceasing to do evil, have no regret for past faults; those who boast of their sins, and those who accuse themselves of them without correcting them; those who succumb to temptation by surprise and those who fall deliberately; those who do not commit grave sins but frequently commit venial sins, and those who watchful lest they commit slight sins, although they are sometimes guilty of grave sins; those who never think of doing good, and those who do not finish the good already undertaken; those who hide the good that they do and let themselves be judged for certain wicked actions which they do in public. All the preceding is from St. Gregory.
Let us remark again that there are some who preach too often, and others who preach too little; both are to be blamed, for, as St. Gregory says,
“Preaching rarely is not enough, preaching too often becomes cheap.”
It is necessary, then, to find the happy medium; for preaching like rain, in order to be useful, must be neither too rare nor too frequent.
Let us add that the manner of expressing oneself ought not to be the same in all sermons; but that it should vary according to the speaker, or according to those whom he addresses, or according to the subject of which he speaks. The preacher, in fact, should use a different style according as his authority is little or great; if his authority is slight then he should preach with humility, if his authority is greater he has the right to express himself with more severity.
“The poor (who have no authority), will speak with supplications,” says the Proverbs, “and the rich will speak roughly” (Prov. 18:23).
Thus did John the Baptist, who, being rich in virtue, permitted himself to say to the Pharisees,
“Brood of vipers . . .” (Matt. 3:7).
Thus did St. Stephen, who, being rich in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, dared to say to the high priests:
“Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear . . .” (Acts 7:51).
Thus did St. Paul who, being invested with the power of God, could say to the Jews of Rome:
“Well did the Holy Spirit speak through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers saying: ‘Go to this people and say: With ear you will hear and will not understand’” (Acts 28:25-26).
Our Lord Himself spoke very differently to His disciples than he did to the Scribes and Pharisees; to the first he promised a great reward, saying to them with sweetness:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20),
while to the others he said in a menacing tone,
“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:13).
Finally, we ought not to speak of the sins of men as we speak of the benefits of God. We should speak with compassion of sin, for the subject of sin is sad, and it is in this tone that St. Paul said to the Philippians:
“For many walk, of whom I have told you often and now tell you with weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is ruin, their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame, they mind the things of earth” (Phil. 3:18-19).
In treating of the benefits of God, on the contrary, we should be joyful saying with the same Apostle:
“I give thanks to my God always for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, because in everything you have been enriched in him, in all utterance and in all knowledge” (I Cor. 1:4-5).
With common people, one can speak without too much circumspection; but with the learned, it is necessary to have a certain refinement. Before tyrants we should be audacious; before the great who lie good lives, we should be respectful; we should be carried away by the fervor of the Spirit, or be moderate according to the counsels of prudence, consoling the timid, frightening the presumptuous, in short, changing the tone of the discourse as a singer changes the tones of his song. As it is very difficult to have always the right manner of speech, the Apostle St. Paul addressing the Colossians begged them to pray for him:
“Pray for us also, that God may give us an opportunity for the word, to announce the mystery of Christ (for which also I am in chains), that I may openly announce it as I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3).
Let us note that it is necessary to choose the right time to preach
“for there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 3:7).
When the people are otherwise occupied and cannot come to hear the preacher would not be a propitious time. Mary Magdalene freed herself from the duties of the household in order to listen to the Savior, as it is written in Saint Luke. Neither would that be a propitious time in which to preach when men are plunged in sadness and are unable to relish the holy word; that is why the friends of Job were silent for seven days in the presence of so great an affliction. Nor would that be a fit time to preach when men are heavy with sleep and have difficulty in paying attention, as Ecclesiasticus insinuates where it says:
“He speaketh with one that is asleep, how uttereth wisdom to a fool” (Ecclus. 22:9).
Again, it would be disadvantageous to preach when a tumult rages and there is no sign of it being quelled. Thus St. Paul before speaking motioned for silence with his hand. Finally, when the audience is badly disposed towards the preacher is not the time to preach; that is hwy St. Paul and Barnabas withdrew, remarking that the Jews stirred up persecution against them. Indeed then
“in every business,” there is, according to Ecclesiastes, “a time and an opportunity” (Eccles. 8:6).
And the preacher ought to avoid preaching when the hour is not opportune, lest his preaching produce no effect. That is why St. Gregory remarks that St. Paul, in recommending to Timothy to preach
“in season, out of season” (II Tim. 4:2),
took care to say first “in season” before adding “out of season,” for preaching is to no avail if there is not, even with its rashness, a certain seasonableness.
Let us note, finally, that not every place is suitable for solemn preaching, for one must not preach in secret assemblies, as do the heretics; but in public like our Lord, Who spoke in broad daylight saying nothing in secret. Public places and crossroads where men carry on business and employ themselves in worldly affairs, and other places whose secular use makes them unfit for this ministry ought not to be used for preaching. One should choose suitable places, as did St. Paul, who spoke in the synagogues; or as Our Lord, Who spoke in the temple, or sometimes in the country, apart from the bustle of the world. Also, preaching ought not to be carried on in any place where the audience might be exposed to danger, but rather a safe and secure place should be found, where there is no risk of that disaster which happened to the disciples of Theodas and Judas of Galilee.
From the preceding we draw the following conclusions. Some are bound to preach, others to refrain from it; those who preach must vary their sermons according to their diverse audiences; they must arrange the number of their sermons so that they be neither too frequent, nor too rare; they must adapt the manner of their preaching to the taste of particular cases; preaching must be distinct in all places and at all times; preachers must be prudent and not preach unless they are capable, and must not choose subjects ill-suited to their listeners; finally, they must guard against preaching too seldom or too often, and they must preaching only in a suitable manner, time, and place. By so doing they will acquit themselves well of their charge; and by ever considering what sort of person their hearer is, what kind of discourse suits him, how often, when, and where they must preach, and such like, they will become worthy preachers of the word.
This is an excerpt from the Preachers Institute publication: