Friday, February 17, 2012

The Ineffectiveness of Preaching

Reading a little about the Servant of God Cardinal Merry del Val, I was led on to some details about the pontificate of Benedict XV ("he was a saint, but he didn't know it", as the wry Roman joke runs – or, as it says in full, "Pius X was a saint, and he knew it; Benedict XV was a saint, but didn't know it; Pius XI wasn't a saint, and he knew it; Pius XII wasn't a saint, but he didn't know it!" - not that I don't dispute the last verdict).

All this introduced me to the extraordinary encyclical Humani Generis Redemptionem of 1917, which was concerned with the ineffectiveness of preaching!  Yes, even ninety-five years ago, the Pope candidly declared that, despite the great numbers of preachers, their preaching was largely in vain, given the evils daily increasing everywhere, whereas the Apostles by their preaching had converted the Roman Empire and beyond: hence the preaching of the latter was efficacious, rather than useless as so much modern preaching is.

Here then, Venerable Brethren, is a burden added to the other misfortunes of these times, with which, more than any one else, We are tried. For if We look around us and count those who are engaged in preaching the Word of God, We shall find them more numerous perhaps than they have ever been before. If on the other hand 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 causes of these evils are varied and manifold: no one, however, will gainsay the deplorable fact that the ministers of the Word do not apply thereto an adequate remedy. Has the Word of God then ceased to be what it was described by the Apostle, living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword? Has long-continued use blunted the edge of that 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, Humani Generis Redemptionem, 2-3.

I recommend reading the whole short encyclical; but the serious declarations he makes about the solemn duty of bishops to permit only those possessing the gratia prædicationis to preach, and the sinfulness of neglecting this, certainly deserve to be given wholehearted assent. True preaching must advance the kingdom of God, by bearing fruit in souls unto everlasting life. Spreading error, or even merely entertaining without converting the listeners, is worse than useless. Certainly Benedict XV did not mince words about true and false preaching, and the dreadful decline engendered by the latter. Homilies and sermons should be powerful instruments, not pointless exercises in futility. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

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