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Posted July 3, 2007

Eloquence is Timeless

Augustine and the modern-day media have something in common: They tap into the power of good communication

By C. Colt Anderson
Associate Professor, St. Mary of the Lake University, Mundelein, IL

Several years ago I was asked to serve on a diocesan task force for preaching in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Several concerns were raised, including placing more emphasis on exegesis, catechesis and tradition. At the same time, there was consensus that homilies should not become lectures. After the committee was disbanded, I decided to seek preaching models that could address these issues.

As a historian, I tend to look back before I try to move forward. So I found three models of preaching that stress exegesis, catechesis and tradition, without being pedantic. All of them built upon Augustine’s understanding of Christian eloquence and doctrinal preaching: the patristic, monastic and university sermon. What ties these models together is their common understanding of the principles of communication and the meaning of being a disciple of Christ.

The patristic and medieval theologians saw preaching as an active form of imitating the Son’s self-emptying kenosis. Just as the Son emptied himself to enter into our condition and to reveal himself, just as the Word came to speak in human words, so, too, the priest must empty himself of his fears and desires and enter into the concerns, needs and culture of his people.

Augustine said that sermons are like meals and that only a few people can stand to receive bland food week in and week out. Most people need some spices in their meals. His medieval heirs accepted this principle and employed humor, alliteration, wordplay and narrative to make their sermons more palatable. However, the stories they employed were not personal narratives. Instead they used biblical, hagiographical and communal narratives that recognized and built up the sense of shared experience found in vital Christian communities. Their use of narrative was designed to focus their audience’s attention on the message rather than the speaker. Still, they believed that the preacher is important because he acts as a tuning fork, revealing whether or not he resonates with his words.

Though they sought to be transparent windows for God’s grace, they understood the importance of rhetoric. The methods the doctrinal preachers used to win over their hearers are the same methods employed in the communication industry. Like an advertising executive, th medieval preachers broke down their audiences in terms of wealth, education, social standing, sex, age and personality types. They tried to learn about the difficulties and joys of their people in very concrete ways. Hugh of St. Victor taught that the preacher needs to generally understand weaving, farming, athletics, commerce and all the other professions of his people so that he may better serve them.

Just as television programs use pacing and transitions of subject matters to keep a mass audience watching, the medieval preachers used a variety of styles to pace their sermons and to build in transitions to keep people engaged (short attention spans are not a new phenomena). Their goal was to have something of interest for everyone. In fact, they held that the first thing the preacher must establish is the profitability of his words. To put it another way, the preacher must answer the question: “What’s in it for me?” if every corporation, political party and interest group understands the centrality of this question for convincing people to buy their product, vote for their candidate, or reform their behavior, why would preachers ignore this fundamental question when they are trying to persuade people to acts of mercy and love?

Finally, the medieval understanding of a fourfold sense of Scripture can be a useful tool for emphasizing both historical aspects of Scripture and communal appropriation. The first task for the preacher, according to Gregory the Great, is to answer the questions raised by the readings in the liturgy. This meant paying attention to the historical sense, which had priority and was the only sense that is a source for official dogma. But the spiritual senses were used to fuse the horizons of the people’s experience with Scripture. The three spiritual senses were intended to answer the questions of what we should believe, hope for, and do. So the spiritual senses are reading scripture through faith, hope and love.

Obviously we cannot simply return to preaching the way it was done in the Middle Ages, but those methods are still valuable and in use. By studying how effective preachers reached their people in the past, we can come to imagine how we can tap into this rich vein of our pastoral tradition.

Once you have read a few of these sermons, you begin to see that doctrinal preaching is anything but a dusty or pedantic discourse: rather, it is delightful, playful, provocative, funny, soothing, informative and challenging. Learning from the past will allow you to become like the scribe who can bring out things both old and new.