Friday, 27 July 2012

St Alphonsus on preaching

Recently, I have been slowly and meditatively reading the treatise of St Alphonsus on the Dignity and Duties of the Priest. It is hard-hitting stuff and I have had many occasions to examine my conscience, bow my head and repent. I recommend the text to any priest who is willing to hear from a kind of Regimental Sergeant Major of the priestly order who does not waste time telling us what wonderful people we all are, but hits us hard with the ecclesiastical equivalent of a roaring NCO pouring scorn on our excuses and laxity and getting us fit for the battlefield we have to face if we are not to be deserters from the corps to which Christ has called us.

There is a great deal in the treatise for any priest to ponder in the wee small hours. I was struck by the surprising relevance of his remarks on preaching. In his characteristically no-nonsense style, St Alphonsus warns:
If all preachers and confessors fulfilled the obligations of their office the whole world would be sanctified. Bad preachers and bad confessors are the ruin of the world.
There is then a lot about the futility of empty rhetoric. This is not so much an issue today because nobody studies or cares about rhetoric. Even politicians take to the podium without proper preparation and issue shallow soundbites when with a little forethought they could move the crowd they are trying to motivate.

Nevertheless, the principles of the advice of St Alphonsus apply to us who are untutored in the ancient art of rhetoric:
He who wishes to preach, not for the purpose of acquiring praise, but of gaining souls to God, should not seek to hear others say: Oh, what beautiful thoughts! What a splendid speaker! What a great man! But he should desire to see all going away with their heads bowed down, weeping over their sins, resolved to change their lives, and to give themselves to God.
The Saint admitted a place for basic rhetoric in sermons to the ordinary faithful to action, and specifically conversion of life. I wonder what he would think of our unformed sermons today which neglect any serious study of rhetoric; especially if this failure on our part fails to move hearts and save souls.
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