The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 3

The Purpose of Christian Preaching

Chapter Three


In this chapter we will consider the end we must have in view when preaching and the relation which should exist between this end and the subject-matter of our sermons.

Christian preaching must always be directed towards the final end of man; that is, towards the supreme love of God and the eternal salvation of souls.

While the advocate uses all his eloquence for the temporal welfare of his client and the politician uses his eloquence for the common temporal welfare of the state, Christian eloquence must of its very nature be ordered towards the glory of God and eternal life. True, this purpose may not make such a strong appeal to the senses, but it is far loftier and strongly attracts those who are seeking God.

In an army everything—such as food, clothing, footwear, military music, entertainment—is made subservient to the final end of victory. So should the priest when preaching direct even the smallest detail towards the glory of God and the saving of souls. That was God's purpose in creating the world, and he sent his Son and the Holy Ghost for the very same purpose. In Sacred Scripture everything is intended for the final end of man.

We have already pointed out how this end is to be achieved. The word of God must be preached in such a way that it enlightens the understanding of those who believe, provides spiritual pleasure for the heart of those who hope, and inspires the will of the faithful to charity both in action and in feeling. In this way it must prove an effective means of promoting acts of the three theological virtues. It is then that a priest's preaching assumes the genuine character of Christian preaching.

Sacred eloquence resembles the sun shedding its light on man, whereas human eloquence—which has merely a temporal end in view—is like an artificial fire in comparison with the sun. Genuine Christian preaching is, if we may use the phrase, the food and drink of the soul, whereas human eloquence is like sugar given to sweeten the taste.

The priest should often make this general purpose of preaching the chief topic of his sermon, frequently talking to his people about the final end of man, eternal salvation, the serving of God and his glory, death, prayer as an essential means of salvation, final perseverance, the duty of loving God and Jesus Christ, devotion to Mary as a sign of predestination and the way which leads to eternal life.

The priest should never tire of putting these subjects before his people. The soldier in battle is told that he must either conquer or die; the sailor in a storm at sea knows that he must either make port or drown. So must we preach to the faithful— either eternal happiness, or eternal punishment.

St. Philip Neri used to drive this lesson home whenever he could. One day he said to a farmer: "Francis, why are you working?"—"I want to have a good harvest."—"Why?"— "So that I may feed my family."—"But in spite of all this food for yourself and your family, death is bound to come sooner or later."—"Yes, I realize that."—"But what comes after death? Remember your catechism; you have only two alternatives after death, either Purgatory and then Heaven, or Hell. Therefore you ought to be working here and now not only for your daily food, but more especially for your eternal life."

On another occasion he was speaking to a priest, already a dignitary in the church: "And now what do you desire?"— "I would like to be an apostolic nuncio!"—"Very well, but what then?"—"Perhaps a cardinal."—"But then what?"— "Perhaps the Pope."—"And then?" The priest replied: "That is a pointless quesdon. There is nothing more after the Papacy." "I beg to differ", was St. Philip's reply, "there is something more—death. And after death, there is either Purgatory and then Heaven, or Hell. You would do far better to desire eternal life rather than a nunciature."

For this reason the final end of man and his eternal salvation ought to form the subject-matter of the first conference in almost every retreat. Christ himself opened his first sermon on the mount with the beatitudes in order to show that eternal happiness begins here on earth; although everybody looks for happiness, not all of them realize that it is only to be found in loving God above everything. St. Thomas begins his exposition of moral theology in the Summa, la Ilae, with a treatise on the final end of man and the happiness of Heaven, the final end taking precedence in the order of intention. If we look for the reason why people show such little generosity in keeping the commandments and are not prepared to take the means— sometimes painful means-—of attaining their life's purpose, it is because their desire for their final end is not sufficiently powerful. There is, therefore, an urgent need for the priest to preach frequently on man's final end, on loving God above all things and on eternal salvation.

Preaching loses its Christian character when it does not concern itself with eternal salvation, or when it fears to mention eternal punishment. We find in the New Testament that Christ often spoke about Hell, and the saints were never afraid to preach about it. Otherwise a priest's sermons will cease to be priestly and become purely academic. He will avoid the important truths, soften down the Gospel, and fail to lead souls to salvation.

The priest should never fail to mention man's final purpose—eternal salvation—even when preaching on other topics, since everything is meant to converge towards the final end. The mysteries of our faith are usually referred to as the mysteries of salvation, particularly the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Eucharist, and Penance. So also are grace and the virtues ordered towards salvation. No matter what subjects are chosen for sermons, they should all be treated from the view-point of their relation to eternal life—the good use of time, forgiveness of injury, restitution, the obligation of hearing Mass on Sunday, prayer as an important means of salvation, duties towards one's parents or children, duties towards one's equals or superiors or inferiors, the necessity of avoiding even venial sin. It is difficult to see how any sermon can be practical and apostolic without this bias towards eternity. Attention would then be centred on matters of secondary importance to the neglect of the one thing necessary. Furthermore, individual truths would lose their meaning and value once divorced from man's final end, rather like parts of a clock scattered over a table. After all, secondary matters only acquire importance from their relation to the primary object.

That is the plan followed by God in Sacred Scripture where the ordering of everything towards salvation is guided by charity. Certainly one does not find the logical ordering characteristic of a theological treatise, but there is a most perfect one inspired by charity.

Christ himself followed the same plan in his preaching. For example, blessed are the poor in spirit; why?—because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness; why?—because they will have their fill, namely in heaven. Blessed are the clean of heart; why?— because they will see God. Blessed are the peace-makers; why?—because they will be called the children of God. . . . "Be glad and light-hearted, for a rich reward awaits you in heaven" (Matt. v). Notice that the justification in the practical order for each of those statements is a reference to the final end of man, which ought to have the first place in the order of intention even though it comes last in the order of execution. This argument forms the basis of all others.

Just as the principal theme of military eloquence is the love of one's country, so also the principal theme of sacred eloquence is God, the love of God, man's final end. St. John, for instance, speaks continually about the love of God and one's neighbour, almost overlooking all the other virtues: "We must love God; he gave us his love first" (i John iv, 19). St. Paul in his turn enumerates all other virtues as being particular determinations of charity which directs them and makes them meritorious: "Charity is patient, is kind, . . . sustains, believes, hopes, endures to the last" (1 Cor. xiii, 4 and 7).

However it may be objected that people will grow tired of hearing the same truths repeated over and over again. That may well be true, but a good preacher will avoid this danger of monotony if he begins his sermon with some practical question which each of his hearers has to answer for himself. For instance, how can we overcome the many inconveniences with which we meet in our private life, in our family life, in our social life—inconveniences which we find so annoying ? There is only one remedy—recourse to God, who must be loved above everything else. In this way it is possible to give a practical illustration of the relation which everything has to God—our final end-without being monotonous. Once these truths are explained in the right way our people will not be bored but will find peace of soul in God. Do we lose our taste for bread simply because it is our daily food? Neither will the soul lose its "taste" for God, if it truly desires its sovereign good. What does tire the soul is a type of preaching which is not supernatural, is inspired by human motives, strains after effect, and thus fails to give the soul its essential food. It is useless trying to satisfy the soul with a veneer of truth and goodness which eventually proves distasteful, just as a lion could not be fed on grass.