The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 5

Essential Subjects for Sermons and their Treatment

Chapter Five


It is stated in the Catechism of the Council of Trent that the Creed, the two supreme precepts of love of God and one's neighbour, and the Decalogue form the ordinary subject-matter of preaching. In other words, we should put before our people the mysteries they have to believe and the precepts they have to observe—although these precepts will be appreciated better if we speak about the theological, cardinal and allied virtues. In point of fact every catechism presents a complete scheme of Christian preaching directed towards the eternal salvation of mankind.

However, when preaching doctrinal sermons on the mysteries of faith or on the virtues, it is important to avoid any discussion which would prove too abstract or too difficult.

In preaching about Almighty God we should explain his wisdom, his providence, his love, justice and mercy, but without entering into discussions about the problem of evil; simply say that God could never permit evil except for a greater good and give some outstanding practical illustrations of this truth.

In preaching about the Trinity we should treat of the intimate life of God, the fruitfulness of the Father through the eternal act of begetting the Son, the close union between the three divine Persons, their indwelling in the soul—but nothing about subsistent relations!

When speaking on the Eucharist we should concentrate on the Real Presence and Holy Communion, saying little about transubstantiation and the accidents of the Eucharist.

When preaching about eternal salvation, we should speak of final perseverance, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, but make little reference to predestination as it is liable to give rise to misunderstanding.

In brief, as stated earlier, the priest should treat of all the subjects of his sermons from the standpoint of their relation to man's final end. For instance, he should view detraction in the light of God's judgment; he should consider obedience in its bearing on salvation, and the birth of Christ in relation to our obligation to love and glorify him. He must speak frequently about the three theological virtues, which have as their immediate purpose God himself who is our final end, and about the double precept of love of God and one's neighbour which gives light and life to the Decalogue, just as charity is the form of all the virtues giving them their meritorious value.

However, if the people are weak in their faith, it would be more profitable to speak to them about the reality of the future life rather than about eternal salvation as such, and about the divinity of Christ rather than about his love for us. Apologetic sermons are essential where faith is none too strong. But this type of preaching can become superficial and ineffectual if the priest does not realize clearly the purpose behind such sermons. He will not be working for the salvation of souls even indirectly, if his will is not sufficiently set on that ideal.

Subjects for retreat conferences

Although this list is intended primarily for retreats to religious, it could be used for other retreats. The subjects suggested have as their principal theme progress in the spiritual life from the point of view of its four causes—

(1) The final end to be achieved.

(2) Sin which impedes progress towards this final end; and confession.

(3) Christ's redeeming love for us—the mystery of the Redemption.

(4) Our love for God—the supreme precept and Holy Communion.

(5) Love of our neighbour.

(6) Penance and self-denial, which are essential for progress in charity.

(7) Humility as opposed to the pride of life, and its effects.

(8) Evangelical poverty as opposed to the concupiscence of the eyes.

(9) Christian chastity as opposed to the concupiscence of the flesh.

(10) Obedience in opposition to the spirit of insubordination.

(11) The carrying of the cross in imitation of Christ.

(12) Prayer of petition, liturgical prayer, the Mass.

(13) Mental prayer and its fruitfulness.

(14) Docility to the Holy Ghost and his gifts.

(15) Devotion towards the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(16) Zeal for the glory of God and the saving of souls— the apostolate.

Other suitable subjects for retreats—

The interior life as a ceaseless conversation with God.

The three theological virtues considered individually.

The cardinal virtues, and those which are related to them.

The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.

The indwelling of the Trinity in the souls of the just.

The influence which Christ exercises as head of the mystical body.

The influence of Our Lady.

The increasing of grace by merit, prayer, and the sacraments.

Fruitful confession.

The Mass as a source of holiness.

Holy Communion.

The different purifications of the soul and intimate union with God.

The composition of sermons

The entire construction of a sermon must be ruled by the purpose for which it is intended—the conversion of those who will be listening. The eloquence of the preacher and the effectiveness of his sermon are dependent on this ordering being observed. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech, and sacred rhetoric is intended to persuade people primarily of the need for turning to God.

The beginning. Right from the very outset it is important to capture the attention of one's audience by putting before them some vital and fundamental quesdon which is going to be considered throughout the entire sermon, so that the final solution will not be given in its entirety until the end. In this way the priest ensures the unity of his sermon by choosing a leading idea. When presenting the quesdon it is essential to give in a clear and practical form the precise difficulty which has to be solved, or the obscurity which has to be dispelled by a gradual enlightenment of the mind during the sermon.

For example, should we wish to preach on the duty of loving God above everything else in the world, we could begin by pointing to the large number of people to-day who love themselves first and foremost. They reveal their self-love in their unwillingness to resist the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, and it is this spirit of self-gratification which causes strife between individuals and families, and wars between nations. What is the remedy for all this unhappiness? One thing is quite certain; no solution will be found if men continue to love themselves rather than truth, justice, and God himself who is the source of all truth and goodness. By putting the opening question in this practical form it should prove possible to claim the attention of those who are present. One good preacher used to say that a priest should begin his sermon by drawing a picture of men groping in the dark, of widespread confusion, or of some great evil which ought to be avoided. His people would thus appreciate better the urgent need to receive the light of truth and to embrace the real good. In other words, he begins by pointing out that although all men desire happiness, many of them seek it where it is not to be found. But what does the Gospel have to say about true happiness? We are not surprised to find that Christ himself began his preaching by talking about happiness.

Another example: if the priest wishes to exhort his people to hope in God, he could begin by showing how the majority of men alternate between presumption which takes its rise in pride, and depression which comes from failure. The inconveniences which result from these moods are obvious. What then is the remedy? The virtue of hope in God which prevents these troublesome effects of presumption and despair by raising a man above the passing events of this life.

In order to preach on justice it would be as well to begin by giving a brief summary of the intolerable evils which follow from injustice. The more a man knows about the suffering caused by injustice, the more he appreciates the need and value of justice. On the other hand, if the opening words of the sermon are a plea for the observance of justice in one's everyday life, many of the congregation are liable to say to themselves: that's all very well, but we have heard that appeal thousands of times before and there are very few who pay any heed to it. Now if everybody else acts unjustly, how can I be expected to do otherwise ?

It is important, therefore, to present the question or difficulty to be solved in a practical form, as St. Thomas does at the beginning of all his articles. He points to the difficulty by drawing up a list of objections. The preacher can then be sure of capturing the attention of his audience, even if he is not particularly eloquent. From that point onwards the whole sermon should be so arranged that the final and complete solution is reserved for the end. To give it earlier will be to lose the attention of the people. No one will continue to listen to the second part of the sermon if the climax has already been reached in the first.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of a good beginning to a sermon. It used to be said that there were three sources on which the priest could draw for the theme of this opening; the subject itself by presenting the main difficulty which has to be solved in the course of the sermon, the contrary opinion which has to be refuted, or sometimes the prevailing circumstances by considering some event which is taking place at the time of the sermon and to which the sermon is related.

The method of St. Vincent de Paul could also be used when preaching on one of the Christian virtues—

(1) The nature of this virtue—for example, humility—by contrasting it with behaviour which masquerades under the same name, and with the vices opposed to the virtue which are themselves contrary to each other (such as pride and faintheartedness) .

(2) The motives which prompt us to possess this virtue—our relations with God and with our neighbour, and the need of this virtue for salvation.

(3) The means which enable us to practise this virtue frequently—for example, in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, and when something unexpected happens. The advantages of this virtue.

* * *

The principal argument. Once the prologue is prepared we can proceed with the composition of the body of the sermon. But here we must remember that it is the essential point of the sermon which has to exert the chief influence on the faculties of those who will hear it, so that everything else is secondary and must be made to support the main argument and not overshadow it.

The priest would do well to imitate the example of a good Christian mother in her effort to reconcile her children after a quarrel. She chooses her words carefully for the end she has in view, and does not urge them to forget their quarrel before she explains why they ought to forgive each other. So, too, the priest; if, for instance, he wants to bring sinners to confession, he should give his reasons first before exhorting them to repentance.

As a general rule the body of the sermon ought to appear in the form of a clear argument or syllogism, of which the major is a truth well known by everyone and the minor a truth which has to be developed or explained.

For example, everyone must pray if prayer is an important means of salvation. But according to Sacred Scripture prayer is such a means, since it is through prayer that the soul opens itself to the influence of grace which God desires to give us, but which he will not force 011 souls that prefer to obstruct its flow. Therefore everyone must pray.

Another example, we must forgive injury if God has commanded us to do so. But God has commanded the forgiveness of injury over and over again, promising his mercy to those who themselves are merciful. Therefore, if we want to obtain God's mercy, we must forgive injury.

Another example, the chief petition of all our prayers should be for the grace which is most essential for salvation. But the grace which is most essential for salvation is the grace of a happy death, for which the soul prepares itself by turning away from creatures to God. Therefore we must ask with special insistence for this grace and prepare ourselves for it.

Arguments such as these are easily understood by all and are convincing, provided that the hearers do believe. But even those who have little faith may find themselves convinced by one or other of the points mentioned in the course of explaining the argument. It is in this way that the word of God will be made to penetrate not only the intelligence of the people but also the inmost recesses of their souls; it will enlighten them, afford them spiritual pleasure, and move them to conversion. The priest who preaches in this way and speaks with overflowing sincerity possesses the gift of eloquence.

More often than not the priest can presume that the major proposition of his argument is known and accepted by everyone, since it reveals its own truth immediately. That being so, he concentrates on the explanation and development of the minor. Let us suppose that he wants to urge his people to go to confession before the feast of Easter and not to keep putting it off from one year to the next. He will build up his argument as follows—

If to remain in sin for any length of time is rash and without rhyme or reason, then the sinner should immediately turn to God without delay. But it is extremely rash and unreasonable to remain in sin for any length of time. Therefore he should turn to God at once.

There is no need to delay over the major, since it is so evident. All one's attention and powers of persuasion must be given to the development of the minor, in order to make quite clear the recklessness and madness of delaying repentance from one year to the next. What the priest must do is to wear down the stubborn resistance of the sinner, who must be made to realize the force of the argument for himself, so that he will say: "this is perfectly true, I am a fool and my recklessness has brought me to the brink of spiritual disaster." And then we may hope that with the grace of God the sinner will be won over from his evil life.

The minor can be proved by two parts of the sermon, first, by showing the risk involved in constantly delaying one's return to God, since death may come at any moment; and, secondly, by pointing out that such behaviour is unreasonable and the height of foolishness.

* * *

The conclusion, which makes itself known gradually in the course of the sermon, is clearly stated in the peroration. In this way the attention of one's audience is held until the very end by the principal idea or theme, which at the outset was presented in the form of a difficulty that had to be solved; for example, many people are extremely careful about their temporal affairs—their health, their business, their will— and yet they are not in the least perturbed by the postponement of their confession from one year to the next. Is that the right way of living? The people will listen and wait for the final answer which is reserved for the end of the sermon.

More often than not the priest is speaking to an audience of men and women who are ignorant in matters of religion and distracted by their life in the world. To help them understand the main argument of the sermon the major must be absolutely certain and the minor very carefully explained, otherwise they will not grasp the force of the conclusion, and will come away unmoved.

In order to make the conclusion convincing the priest should give a brief summary of his argument, make it obvious that the conclusion applies to each one of his hearers, and exhort them to resist their passions and obstinate moods. Therefore the peroration must be marked by charity and a zealous desire for the conversion of those who are present, because the priest's eloquence cannot be sincere and fruitful without that zeal.

Should the sermon consist of two parts or more? Certainly there must always be a short introduction, a body to the sermon, and a conclusion. But sometimes it may be just as well to divide the body of the sermon into two or three parts, although this is not always necessary, especially if the sermon is short. In this case the major will already be obvious and the minor will not need several explanations but one which is clear and convincing.

Thus, for instance, when preaching on the effects of Holy Communion the priest will divide the body of his sermon to correspond to the different effects of this sacrament; it is the food of the soul, a remedy for the ravages of sin, strength against future temptation, and it gives a spiritual delight in the service of God.

Another example, the sacrament of Confession was instituted by God, first, because no one but God could have thought of such a sacrament or have had it accepted by men; secondly, because if it had been instituted by some man or woman, it would have provoked such violent discussions that history would have recorded the event; and thirdly, because we have the testimony of Scripture and Tradition to show that Christ himself instituted this sacrament and no one can refute that testimony (cf. John xx, 23): "Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound."

Bossuet divides a sermon for religious on the observance of silence as follows: the introduction refers to the dissensions caused by sins of the tongue—the body of the sermon treats of three kinds of silence, the silence laid down by the rule of the Order, the silence dictated by prudence in conversations with others, the silence of patience in times of suffering or contradiction—and the conclusion corresponds to the opening question.

The type of argument to be used and the development of the principal argument

While unity must be preserved at all costs, the sermon has to be so arranged that it appeals to all the faculties of the listener and not merely to his intellect, in order to obtain his conversion to God. For this purpose the priest should use as a general rule three types of arguments: an argument based on the authority of God's revealed word in order to appeal to the faith of his hearers; a rational argument or one drawn from commonsense in order to appeal to their reason; an "emotional" argument, one which is directed to die affective part of their intellectual and sense nature, so that the conclusion combined with God's grace may inspire their will to follow out some practical resolution. It may also be useful to show the falsity of erroneous opinions, if the priest knows that they are being propagated amongst his people and are disturbing their minds.

The principal argument of the sermon has to be developed and enlarged, but very often younger priests do not know how this is done. When they repeat exactly the same argument over and over again in synonymous terms, they multiply words unnecessarily as the sermon hurries towards its emotional climax in their anxiety to imitate the ardent charity of the saints. But the people are given no time to think, hardly time to breathe, and they quickly tire. They go away with confused, undefined emotions which do not have any noticeable results. True, such preaching may sound like a melodious hymn of praise but it fails to produce the all-important prayerful effect of hymns already known, such as the "Spiritual Canticles" of St. Alphonsus.

How should the argument be developed? (Cf. Fr. Desurmont, II, p. 53). Now although Logic is essential for the purpose of proving a truth it is bound to be too theoretical by itself, and so requires to be supported by examples. Aristotle himself has pointed to the necessity of this form of development in his books on rhetoric. Otherwise, sin remains in its logical dress as evil but does not appear as a fearful monstrosity; Hell is presented as a punishment but not as a hideous torment; God as the Supreme Being but not as the supremely attractive Good. Logic by itself is never sufficient to produce the salutary effect which the argument is meant to have on the people listening. For that purpose the argument has to be enlarged, so that the truth may appear in all its reality and importance. So, for example, it must be shown how a life of virtue means the beginning of the happiness of Heaven and a life of sin brings nothing but unhappiness, so that anyone listening will say to himself: "This actually happens in real life far more so than ever I thought."

We have always to remember that there is no more constricted truth in our mind than divine truth, the truth of the Gospel, since this is infinite whereas the human mind is extremely limited. While we find it easy to recognize that a plague is a great evil it is not so easy to realize that mortal sin is a great evil, far greater than a plague. It is a truth which lies fallow in the mind, a truth which is abstract and not sufficiently practical (cf. Fr. Desurmont, II, p. 54). And thus the people are not effectively convinced by the conclusion of the sermon, they never realize its truth. But if the priest were to take these eternal truths as subjects for contemplative prayer, he would find no difficulty in convincing his people that sin is the greatest of all evils.

The development of the sermon must be adapted to the end which the priest has in view. For instance, if he is trying to urge sinners to great confidence in Our Blessed Lady he must explain what is meant by devotion to Our Lady and the general motives for this devotion; but he must also lay special emphasis on the motives which appeal to sinners, showing by the aid of examples how Mary is the refuge of sinners, the gate of heaven, the morning star, the health of the sick, the comfort of the sorrowful, the help of Christians, the patroness of the dying, a terror to Satan and his angels, especially at the hour of death. This skill in developing and enlarging a theme is not easy to come by. The mere use of synonymous words is clearly insufficient; the argument has to be enlarged by additional facts. Thus, to show that impurity is a fearful plague of the soul, the priest must explain its nature, its causes, its effects, and its frequent attendant circumstances. First, its nature: it is an excess of venereal pleasure which lowers man's spiritual nature to what is base and degrading. Secondly, its causes: these are the inclinations of man's fallen nature, the temptations of the devil, and habit which may make the failing almost incurable. Thirdly, its effects: it proves a continual burden to conscience, it corrupts a man's intellect, his will, his imagination, and all his finer feelings, it gradually undermines his health and leads to all kinds of unpleasant diseases, it results in a hatred of God and finally in damnation since the man's one desire is to satisfy the desires of his flesh. Fourthly, its attendant circumstances: it frequently destroys the good repute of even public figures, it incites men to sacrilege, and sometimes makes them the wretched and ignominious slave of some prostitute. It is obviously a most fearful plague and leads a man into the depths of unhappiness. This is the correct way to develop the main argument and it will also be convincing.

We will take another example, where the priest is urging his people to fulfil their Easter duties, to go to confession and receive Holy Communion. Now the development of his arguments should always be in accord with the supernatural end which he has in view. Thus, it would be wrong to insist on the fulfilment of the Easter precept merely for the sake of pleasing one's devout wife or beloved daughter or of preserving one's good name and personal authority. The only result would be a merely natural conversion. Such motives are secondary and should only be used to prepare the people for something much higher. It is the supernatural motive of love of God and of eternal salvation which has to be put forward as the sovereign reason for obeying the precept. This motive has then to be explained in such a way as to excite acts of the three theological virtues, living faith, hope of eternal happiness, sincere love of God.

Just as a musician or a painter or a sculptor have to know the secrets of their respective arts if they are to succeed, so also the preacher of the Christian faith, otherwise he cannot produce the desired effect. Each man has to know how to become skilled in his own particular sphere and then put his skill into practice. It would not be fitting for a jurist or a philosopher to want to preach, but the priest himself is expected to know the secrets of genuine apostolic preaching.

Style in preaching (cf. Fr. Desurmont, II, p. 58)

Style is defined as a special manner of speaking and writing. There is the style proper to a lawyer, the style of the soldier, the style of the historian, the style of the philosopher, an emphatic style, and so on. The style is the man, expressing what a man is. Thus Christ had his own style, so had St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, and St. Peter.

What should be the style of the preacher? It ought to be a style inspired by charity. Why? Because style must correspond to the interior character of the speaker, and the dominant trait of the priest's character must be charity and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. This is the genuine style of the priest and the apostle, as distinct from that which is characteristic of the philosopher or of the soldier. And the supreme model of this style is to be found in the Gospel.

Charity demands that the style of preaching be expressive, well-balanced, brief, precise, simple, suitably illustrated, and accompanied by a fervent enthusiasm.

The style has to be expressive, because it is the vehicle of supernatural truth and has to imprint this truth on the minds of a varied audience. For this reason it must be logically arranged in a way which everyone can follow and which is based on the nature of the matter which forms the subject of the sermon. After all, the priest should possess an overwhelming desire to give the truth to his hearers, and to put his desire into effect his style must express clearly what he wants to say. For instance,

Jesus Christ has conferred on each one of you immense benefits. But a benefactor ought to be thanked, and gratitude leads us to love the person whom we thank. Then why is Jesus Christ so little loved by men ?

Furthermore, the principal word or phrase of a sentence ought to be made to stand out and given special emphasis; for example, the greatest of all our benefactors is God himself.

In order to be expressive the style must be well-balanced, brief, precise, and simple. It should be well-balanced by avoiding all useless repetition and unnecessary words, which simply make for a verbose style.

Secondly, it ought to be brief-—sentences should be short and avoid the excessive complexity of oratorical periods, as in the following examples taken from St. Augustine: "God who created you without your co-operation will not save you without your co-operation." "God does not ask the impossible; his commands are meant to exhort you to do what you can and to intercede for what is beyond your power."

Avoid circumlocution by using always the appropriate word or phrase. On the other hand, there is the danger of becoming too concise and thus making one's meaning obscure and enigmatical. The style should be precise; that is, the priest should reflect carefully on the exact word to use when expressing the principal theme of the sermon. For this purpose it is recommended that at least the main part of the sermon be written down. If the language of the sermon is precise, the truth will be made perfectly clear and obvious to all.

Finally, the style ought to be simple, within the reach of his audience, and yet not excessively popular. It is by this means that the word of God moves wills to action, because a simple style does not detract the attention of the audience from what is being said to the way in which it is said. In this it differs from an artificial or affected style, one which is excessively polished. A simple style is natural and forceful, and brings elocution into the service of truth and charity.

The illustrations used in sermons should be as simple as those in the parables. Mortal sin is likened to a fatal illness, venial sin to a transitory sickness which can lead to something more serious if it is not attended to. Another way of arresting attention is the use of antithesis, pointing to the apparent opposition between God's mercy and his justice, between humility and magnanimity, between fortitude and meekness. God reveals the power of his grace by effecting a supernatural harmony between these qualities which are so widely diverse.

And then there is also required a fervent enthusiasm inspired by the Holy Ghost through the gift of piety, which makes us look to God as the kindest Father we have, to Jesus Christ as our Saviour and friend, to Mary as our mother in Heaven, to Heaven itself as our home country, to Hell as the worst horror in the world. This earnest enthusiasm should not be forced but prudent and sincere.

The preparation of notes beforehand is an invaluable help to the memory. In the actual delivery of the sermon a frequent use of question and answer will guard against monotony, and the sermon then assumes the form of a conversation with the people. Gestures should be simple and spontaneous, and in harmony with the subject of the sermon. Everything must be made subordinate to the spirit of apostolic charity.