RTFUL CELEBRATION of the liturgy (ars celebrandi) has, quite fortunately, received an explosion of interest in recent years. A significant part of this focus, to be sure, results from the writing and example of the Holy Father Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI. In fact, I reflected recently on some of Benedict’s thoughts on the matter.
The art of preaching, however, has not always received the same level of attention in Catholic circles. Most priests and seminarians, I would wager, do not view themselves as “preachers.” And yet preaching is one of the most fundamental methods of evangelization at the Church’s disposal.
Most ordinary Catholics would agree that their priest’s preaching could be improved. To this end, Bl. John Henry Newman once sketched a few recommendations to guide the writing of sermons.
His admonishments are as follows:
1. A man should be earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.
2. He should never aim at being eloquent.
3. He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again until he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in a few words.
4. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.
5. He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.
6. He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.
7. He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English Literature.
(Taken from Wilfrid Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol. II)
Preaching styles necessarily adapt to time and circumstance. This is attested even in the life of the great preacher, St. Paul, who adopted different styles in different locales. It would be foolish to mimic St. Paul or Fulton Sheen or Cardinal Newman. Nevertheless, these rules offer guidance that would be apropos in any age.