By PAUL LIKOUDIS
The horror of World War I, preoccupied with massive humanitarian projects on behalf of widows, orphans, and prisoners of war, engaged in intense diplomatic initiatives to defend the rights of the Church in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Pope Benedict XV issued an encyclical Humani Generis Redemptionem on June 15, 1917, which blamed ineffective preaching by priests for the decline in morals and civilization’s backsliding into paganism.
Pope Benedict reminded bishops that their foremost duty is to ensure sound preaching in their parishes, and priests incapable of sound teaching should have their faculties to preach removed.
Poor preaching, today, is taken for granted by most Catholics, though the responsibility of bishops for it is often overlooked.
A Google search for “Catholics & bad homilies” will bring up some 717,000 entries in less than half a second, and a quick glance at the subject lines draws one to the fact that “bad homilies” are the number-one reason why Catholics stop attending Mass.
In his encyclical, now nearly 100 years old, Pope Benedict XV wrote that “it is evident that the preaching of the wisdom taught us by the Christian religion is the means Divinely employed to continue the work of eternal salvation, and that it must with just reason be looked upon as a matter of the greatest and most momentous concern.”
Along with the “other misfortunes of the times,” the saintly Pontiff observed that, while those who are engaged in preaching are, perhaps, more numerous than at any time in history, if “we examine the state of public and private morals, the constitutions and laws of nations, We shall find that there is a general disregard and forgetfulness of the supernatural, a gradual falling away from the strict standard of Christian virtue, and that men are slipping back more and more into the shameful practices of paganism.”
The “deplorable fact” for this state of affairs, Benedict XV stated, is that “ministers of the Word” have failed to handle the Word of God as a two-edged sword.
“If that weapon does not everywhere produce its effect, the blame certainly must be laid on those ministers of the Gospel who do not handle it as they should. For no one can maintain that the Apostles were living in better times than ours, that they found minds more readily disposed towards the Gospel or that they met with less opposition to the law of God,” Benedict XV wrote.
So, said Benedict, bishops “must look for the causes of our deviations from the right path in this matter. They may be reduced to three: for either the one chosen to preach is not the right person, or his office is not performed with the right intention, or in the right way.”
Citing the Council of Trent, Benedict reminded bishops that their primary duty is to preach, but “since it is impossible that they should always or everywhere be able to discharge it in person, distracted as they are by the many cares which they meet in the government of their churches, they must of necessity comply with this obligation through others.”
Lack of oversight over priests who preach under the authority of the bishop, Benedict observed, has led to a situation where too many priests find “easy access to the pulpits of our churches as to a drill-ground where any one may practice at will.”
A Terrible Charge
“Therefore, Venerable Brethren,” he added, “it is your duty to see that such a grave abuse should disappear, and since you will have to render to God and to His Church an account of the manner in which you feed your flock, allow no one to creep unbidden into the sheepfold and to feed the sheep of Christ according to his fancy. Therefore let no one henceforth preach in your dioceses except on your summons and with your approval.”
No priest, Benedict warned bishops, should be allowed to preach who is not “fit,” “i.e., those who ‘can exercise the ministry of preaching with profit to souls.’
“ ‘With profit to souls’,” Benedict emphasized, “well note that the word which expresses the rule does not mean eloquently or with popular applause, but with spiritual fruit. This is the end for which the ministry of the Divine Word is instituted. If now you would have Us define more exactly the qualifications of those who are really to be considered fit, We answer: those in whom you find the signs of a Divine vocation. Whatever is required for admission to the priesthood, is likewise needed if one is to be considered eligible and fit for the office of preaching. . . .
“Such is the meaning of the Council of Trent when it decrees that the Bishop is not to permit any to preach unless they are ‘of approved virtue and learning.’ Wherefore it is the duty of the Bishop long and thoroughly to examine those who are to be entrusted by him with the function of preaching that he may find out the nature and extent of their learning.
“If any one acts carelessly and negligently in this duty,” the Pontiff sternly reminded bishops, “he clearly offends in a grievous matter, and on him will fall the responsibility of the errors which the untrained preacher may spread or of the scandal and the bad example which the unworthy one may give.”
“To make your task easier in this matter,” Benedict wrote, “We desire that hereafter severe judgment be passed on these two points: on the character, namely, and learning of those who seek to obtain authority to preach, just as is done on the character and learning of those priests, who would hear Confessions. Whoever, therefore, is found defective in either regard must without any consideration whatever be debarred from a function for which he is not qualified. Your dignity demands this, since, as We have said, the preachers are your substitutes. The good of Holy Church demands it.”
The priest, as an ambassador of Christ, the Pontiff wrote, has no different mission than Christ Himself. Therefore, they “must diffuse the light of truth made known by God, and in those who hear them they must quicken and nourish the supernatural life. In a word, by seeking the salvation of souls they are to promote the glory of God.
“As it would,” he continued, “be wrong to call anyone a doctor who does not practice medicine, or to style anyone a professor of some art who does not teach that art, he who in his preaching neglects to lead men to a fuller knowledge of God and on the way of eternal salvation may be called an idle declaimer, but not a preacher of the Gospel. And would there were no such declaimers!
“What motive is it that sways them mostly. Some are moved by the desire of vainglory and to satisfy it: They ponder how they can express high rather than practical thoughts, causing weak minds to admire them, instead of working out the salvation of their hearers. They are ashamed of what is simple and plain, lest they be thought to know nothing else. They are ashamed to give milk to the little ones. . . .
“What efforts do such men make to acquire reputation by their sermons from the size and wealth of the cities and splendor of the great churches in which they preach? But since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred.
“Not seldom it happens that in the very midst of a discourse upon the things of eternity, they turn to politics, particularly if any questions of this kind just then deeply engross the minds of their hearers. They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as ‘having itching ears.’
“Hence that unrestrained and undignified gesture such as may be seen on the stage or on the hustings, that effeminate lowering of the voice or those tragic outbursts; that diction peculiar to journalism; those frequent allusions to profane and non-Catholic literature, but not to the Sacred Scriptures or the Holy Fathers; finally that volubility of utterance often affected by them, wherewith they strike the ears and gain their hearers’ admiration, but give them no lesson to carry home. How sadly are those preachers deceived!
“Granted that they receive the applause of the uneducated, which they seek with such great favor, and not without sacrilege, is it really worthwhile when we consider that they are condemned by every prudent man, and, what is worse, have reason to fear the stern judgment of Christ?. . .
“Frequently the preachers who avail themselves of these devices do so to attain some other and even less honorable object. Forgetting the saying of Gregory: ‘The priest does not preach that he may eat, but should eat that he may preach,’ there are not a few who, because they think that they are unsuited for other labors by which they might be decently supported, take to preaching, not that they may worthily exercise the sacred ministry, but to make money.
“We therefore see them devoting all their attention not indeed to finding where greater fruit for souls may be hoped for, but where preaching reaps a more lucrative return.
“Now since nothing except harm and discredit can be expected for the Church from such as these, Venerable Brethren, you must exercise the greatest care, so that, if you detect any one for his own glory or for gain, abusing the office of preaching, you should at once remove him from that function. For the man who does not scruple to defile so holy an office by such an unworthy perversion of its end, surely will not hesitate to descend to any indignity, and will bring the stain of ignominy not merely upon himself, but upon the sacred office also which he so unworthily administers,” Benedict wrote.
The Model Preacher
mSt. Paul manifested the three types of knowledge the preacher must possess: “that is to say, the knowledge, to phrase it briefly, which consists of a knowledge of self, of God and his duties. For self-knowledge, We maintain, will lead a priest to renounce his own advantage. The knowledge of God will lead him to make everyone else know and love God, and the knowledge of his office will lead him to discharge his own duties and to teach others to do theirs. If he lacks these three kinds of knowledge, whatever other learning he has, will only puff him up, and will be useless,” Benedict XV wrote.
“[I]f we ask on what subjects [St. Paul] was wont to discourse when he preached, he condenses them all in these words: ‘For I judged not myself to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’ To make men know Jesus Christ better and better, and to make that knowledge have a bearing, moreover, not only on their faith, but on their lives as well, was the object of that apostolic man’s every endeavor. This was the object of every throb of his apostolic heart.
“Therefore all Christ’s doctrines and commands, even the sterner ones, were so proclaimed by St. Paul that he did not restrict, gloss over, or tone down what Christ taught regarding humility, self-denial, chastity, contempt of the world, obedience, forgiveness of enemies, and the like, nor was he afraid to tell his hearers that they had to make a choice between the service of God and the service of Belial, for they could not serve both, that when they leave this world, a dread judgment awaits them; that they cannot bargain with God; they may hope for life everlasting if they keep His entire law, but if they neglect their duty and indulge their passions, they will have nothing to expect but eternal fire.
“For our ‘Preacher of truth’,” Benedict declared, “never imagined that he should avoid such subjects, because, owing to the corruption of the age, they appeared too stern to his hearers.
“Therefore it is clear how unworthy of commendation are those preachers who are afraid to touch upon certain points of Christian doctrine lest they should give their hearers offense. Does a physician prescribe useless remedies to his patient, merely because the sick man rejects effective ones? The test of the orator’s power and skill is his success in making his hearers accept the stern truth he is preaching. How did the Apostle unfold the subjects of which he treated? ‘Not in the persuasive words of human wisdom.’
“It is perfectly plain, Venerable Brethren, how important for everybody it is that they should thoroughly realize this, since we see that not a few of our sacred preachers overlook in their sermons the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the arguments based on sacred theology, and for the most part, make their appeals only to reason. Unquestionably that is wrong, for in the supernatural order, merely human resources are of no help whatever.”
Heed His Warnings
Over the past five decades, bishops have taken a lot of criticism for their negligence or malfeasance in their duties, particularly on the never-ending revelations concerning abusive priests.
If the warnings of Pope Benedict XV on the bishops’ grave duty of overseeing the preaching in his diocese, as well as the lifestyles of his priests, had been heeded, so many modern crises in the Church could have been avoided.
Perhaps it is time for bishops — and laity, too — to rediscover this great encyclical.