LONG WITH MANY OTHER devotees of the good Archbishop Sheen, I am disheartened by the events of this past week. Not only am I disappointed that work on the cause for his canonization has been stalled, but I am further embarrassed by the inter-diocesan squabbling that has the public appearance of pettiness. I have no desire to enter the fray that has ensued; instead, I would like to commandeer the occasion to share some great thoughts on preaching from the man whose canonization I still hope to attend someday.
Sheen was, without a doubt, one of the greatest evangelists of the twentieth century. His incomparable blend of superior academic prowess and spellbinding preaching style makes him well worthy of study. One day in 1979—the last year of his remarkable life—Sheen gave a collection of off-the-cuff reflections about public speaking to a religious sister at a restaurant in New York City. The following is drawn from notes that the sister frantically scrawled as she listened to him:
1. Voice tone: Plato recalls tone three or four days after hearing a talk. It’s the tonal quality that strikes an audience.
2. When listening to a speaker, count the words on each breath. Indicate each word by a dash, and each pause by a stroke. If it’s – / – /, it’s dull, flat and stale.
3. Avoid a pulpit voice. Be natural. As Disraeli said, “There’s no index of character as sure as voice.”
4. Learn the value of pauses. Never for their own sake, but for emphasis or to allow the thought to sink into the audience. They need time for digestion.
5. A whisper can have more value than a shout. Macaulay said of Pitt, “Even a whisper of his was heard in the remotest corner of the House of Commons.”
6. If there’s a commotion, disturbance, or latecomers, do not raise the voice; lower it and the audience will try to catch the whisper.
7. The audience is infallible in judging if a voice is artificial or natural.
8. Let a first sentence be interesting. Do not state the obvious, e.g. “Today we celebrate a 25th anniversary.”
9. Only nervous speakers need water.
10. If brevity is the soul of wit, the secret of oratory is “know when to quit.”
11. Before beginning, pause a few moments. As a mother cannot forget the child of her womb, we can’t forget the child of our brain.
12. Start with a low voice.
13. Audience needs a come-on; feel superior, not timid or obsequious.
14. To begin with, have a story where you came out second best.
1. Talk naturally.
2. Plead vehemently.
3. Whisper confidently.
4. Appeal plaintively.
5. Proclaim distinctly.
6. Pray constantly.
(Taken from Thomas C. Reeves, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001), pp. 381-382.
My love for Bishop Sheen stretches back to high school, when I first read his book, Calvary and the Mass. It is no exaggeration to say that this book changed my life. Later, listening to his cassette tapes in my car led to my adult acceptance of the faith in which I had been routinely raised. I consider him a friend, a teacher, and an intercessor. I shall continue to pray for his beatification & canonization.