by Father John McCloskey
First presented at a Spring 2013 seminar for priests in Pembroke, MA.
Dear Priest Friends and Brothers,
What a joy it is to be here again at Arnold Hall for a priest event. The last time I came here I preached a retreat during which one of the retreatants received a call from the Nuncio asking him if he would accept the Holy Father’s appointment as a diocesan bishop, so one never knows. Fr. Landry will let you know if any unusual calls come in.
Going back much further in my recollections, I recall the memorable seminar for seminarians in the eighties and nineties sponsored by the New England Theological Forum during Easter week (and captained by the late unforgettable Fr. Sal Ferigle with Fr. Dave Cavanagh as his assistant and successor). This seminar did a wonderful work of fostering and in some case rescuing the vocations of a goodly number of seminarians during difficult times—many of you will remember spending those years as underground confessors to the faith in your own seminaries. Happily those trying conditions largely disappeared in seminaries and parishes during the pontificates of Bl. John Paul and Pope Emeritus Benedict.
As seminarians entered the priesthood, the seminar morphed into the present-day shorter seminar for priests. I am sure there are more than a few veterans here from the earlier seminar for seminarians.
Now on to the topic of Blessed John Henry Newman and his theory and practice of preaching. For a minute let’s imagine what Bl. John Henry would have thought if he were moved in a H.G. Wells time machine from the church of the Brompton Oratory to a typical Catholic parish in the U.S. in the year 1975. There he would encounter 10-minute amplified homilies (what is that?), talking in Church, applause, and guitar masses with their childish tunes and saccharine lyrics. He would see the priest assuming the role of emcee, facing the people, adding his own words to the Canon of the Mass, and venturing out from the altar into the congregation, possibly dressed as a clown, to shake hands. And the list goes on.
It is all too painful to contemplate, and at this juncture almost difficult to believe that most of us lived through it. Happily John Henry did not witness this, or perhaps he would have apostatized back to the Anglican Community he had left in 1846.
Newman was quite possibly the greatest Catholic preacher in English in the history of the Church up to this day. In my opinion he achieves this ranking not only because of the effect his preaching had on congregations (and readers of his sermons) in his own time, but also because of his enormous influence on the other great preachers we are examining in this seminar, i.e., Msgr. Ronald Knox and Venerable Fulton Sheen. These men were great preachers, but with all their talents and all their particular gifts, there is in their own preaching perhaps something somewhat derivative of Newman’s writing and his sermons, which they had undoubtedly read and, consciously or not, allowed to play at least a role in their own writing’s content and style.
As you may know, when Blessed John Henry at long last became a Cardinal, he chose as his motto or seal “Cor ad cor loquitur” (“Heart speaks to heart”), appropriated from St. Francis de Sales, who easily could have been included in our seminar as a great preacher if we had had the time.
Newman was a prodigious preacher of sermons, and let’s remember we are not talking about 15-minute homilies but rather half-hour or even hour-long sermons that were painstakingly composed by a man that—so the legendary critic and author Lionel Trilling once told me—was the greatest prose stylist of the English language.
To give you an idea of the extent of his output, in his first 20 years as an Anglican minister, he preached over a thousand of these carefully crafted sermons.
Keep in mind that Newman was a genius with an incredible capacity of memory. He basically had memorized the Bible in the glorious King James translation and had read the works of virtually all the Fathers of the Church in their original languages before he was 21. He indeed had the “Imperial Intellect,” as one of his biographers put it.
But how did he preach? And what was its effect? Listen to the impression he left on one witness:
For a few moments there was breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear, voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary’s, he said, “Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.” It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying. I suppose it was an epoch in the mental history of more than one of my Oxford contemporaries.
One of his contemporaries described it this way:
Newman spoke without Vehemence, declamation or display of argument. Newman had an unusual style of delivering his sermons that took some time to get used to: every separate sentence or at least each short paragraph was spoken rapidly, but with great clearness of intonation, and then at the end and as he closed there was a pause for nearly a half minute. It took some time to get over this but, that once done, the wonderful charm began to dwell upon you.
Newman was not what we would call a charismatic preacher; he kept his eyes fixed upon the manuscript, never moving, never looking at his congregation, or varying the tone or inflection of his voice. Nonetheless he gained a reputation as perhaps the most intellectual, spirit-filled, and gifted preacher of his day.
All of this must be understood in the context of a carefully thought-out theory of the relation of the preacher to the audience and the place of the sermon in the religious services. Above all it was a rejection of his early Evangelical beliefs. He decried the emotionalism and self-display of Evangelical preaching. For him the Cross of Christ was a mystery to be treated with deep reverence.
We could say that Newman was actually giving meditations or conferences not unlike the meditations given on retreats in Opus Dei retreat houses, except in the context of the Holy Mass. Newman was humble and retiring both by nature and through virtuous ascetical struggle. He had nothing of the showman about him, and he despised preachers whose ambition was to rise in the esteem of the wealthy and powerful. He wanted Christ to shine and the Holy Spirit to speak through his words. He believed that preaching must be subordinate to the ministration of the sacraments and the personal pastoral care of his flock. Newman and his associates sincerely believed that the sight of a devout clergyman, praying or carrying out his duties outside his church, had more effect than any sermon.
In his Idea of a University, speaking of university preaching, Newman writes:
…preachers should neglect everything whatever besides devotion to their one object, and earnestness in pursuing it, till they in some good measure attain to these requisites. Talent, logic, learning, words, manner, voice, action, all, are required for the perfection of a preacher; but “one thing is necessary”—an intense perception and appreciation of the end for which he preaches, and that is, to be the minister of some definite spiritual good to those who hear him…. I do not mean that a preacher must aim at earnestness, but that he must aim at his object, which is to do some spiritual good to his hearers, and which will at once make him earnest…. It is this earnestness, in the supranational order, which is the eloquence of saints; and not of saints only, but of all Christian preachers, according to the measure of their faith and love. As the case would be with one who has actually seen what he relates, the herald of tidings of the invisible world also will be…. Nothing is so fatal to the effect of a sermon as the habit of preaching on three or four subjects at once.
Finally, as to the writing or delivery of sermons, Newman said that the great thing is to have your subject distinctly before you: to think it over until you have it perfectly in your head; to take care that it should be one subject, not several; to sacrifice every thought however good and clever which does not tend to bring out the one point, and to aim earnestly and supremely to bring home that!
Blessed John Henry and the holy Cure of Ars St. John Vianney, our Patron, were contemporaries, and Newman was fascinated with him. He mentions him in his diaries, expressing a wish to meet him. Could there be two more different men? Newman, one of the greatest intellects of the 19th century, and Vianney, a simple unlearned parish priest, yet both extraordinary preachers—above all in their evident holiness. Surely we can all learn from them that what is most convicting in our preaching is our earnestness, and may we also always be priests who are striving for holiness.