Preachers Must Meet The Challenge Of Setting Hearers Hearts On Fire
Is all that you hear from preachers is that you or your family members are going to Hell if you don’t change your way of life? Well, maybe what needs to change first is what these preachers are saying.
Take a lesson from Pope Benedict XV during World War I.
The time is 1917 mid year. The Great War, which we now call World War I, raged in Europe. The Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia which would change Eastern Europe and the world for decades.
This was backdrop for the first half of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XV. He was elevated to the role of pontiff in 1914, just after the beginning of the World War, which roared behind the scenes for four years. During the third of his eight year pontificate, he wrote Humani Generis Redemptionem an encyclical that did not call the world to repentance but the Church. He wrote the lack of fire in the hearts of preachers was one of the causes of the great international troubles.
The solution may seem far from the problem, but he wrote from a perspective that saw beyond what was more apparent. It was the lack of inspiration in the hearts of humanity caused by the church’s failing to supply it.
Comparing the times to that of the first century church, the pontiff explained that the apostles changed the hearts of so many. They renewed the face of the Earth through nothing more than their preaching.
For if the religion of Christ has withdrawn the minds of men from errors of every kind to the truth, and won their hearts from the degradation of vice to the excellence and beauty of every virtue, assuredly it has done so by means of that very preaching. (#1)
Despite this great power of the first centuries of the church, the early twentieth-century pontiff, lamented that the people of his day have:
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.#2
We realize that it must be Our earnest endeavor everywhere to bring back the preaching of the Word of God to the norm and ideal to which it must be directed according to the command of Christ Our Lord, and the laws of the Church. #4
He wrote of a plethora of preachers who do not know how to preach. Instead they have a direction in their words which God does not want them to take.
For the man who owing to his peculiar bent of mind, or any other cause, should choose to undertake the ministry of the Word, finds easy access to the pulpits of our churches as to a drill-ground where any one may practice at will. Therefore, Venerable Brethren, it is your duty to see that such a grave abuse should disappear. #6
Pope Benedict XV explained that the role of the preacher is to inspire others to have a deeper knowledge of God and to lead them on the way to salvation. Anything short of this is not the divine will for the preacher.
Of course, the point here is that the person who preaches is not to lead others to be discouraged in their life, but to encourage them to seek the deepest truths that changed the most hardened of hearts in the time of the Apostles.
If these are not the object of their words then the pontiff denounced them as those who could speak powerfully but without sincerity. Such people could be good orators but not “proclaimers of the Gospel.”
He warned against those who speak above the heads of their congregation so that they may be honored for their high but impractical words. Such a message sounds good, but it is useless because the words are not understood by the hearers they just sound good.
Of course, he also wrote against those preachers whose motive was money. They too he condemned.
The preacher must first be a person of prayer and holiness, he explained. Even if he is a learned person, his education is useless to him if he is not prayerful and seeking to grow in holiness of life. Those who do pursue this plan of action, even if they are not learned, will come preachers who change hearts.
Citing St. Peter Damien, he wrote:
“The priest who discharges the office of preaching should cause showers of heavenly wisdom to fall from his lips, and from his life rays of piety to shine out, just as the angel in telling the shepherds of Our Lord’s birth, both shone with great splendor and expressed in words the tidings he had come to announce.”
Divine wisdom builds upon human reason. Therefore, he warned that the source of the preacher’s words cannot be reason alone. Instead, he must bring forth those truths that are deeper than we can understand just in educational institutions. We do not choose to bring forth only the products of our reason, but of the experience of divine revelation for a deeper truth.
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. #19
The encyclical was written to bishops whom he called to enforce the command to have good preachers and to remove those whose did not have the divine intention. They got lost in the issues of the day and politics with no words that bring people to know more of the divinity of Christ.
As we look about our country today, many are saying that we have fallen on hard times and even crazy times. They will blame many reasons for this including indoctrination in education and leftism on college campuses. However, one group they will not blame may be preachers not preaching divine truths and not setting people’s hearts afire with love of God.
Photo: Malcolm Lightbody