Preaching 101

We recently celebrated the 700th anniversary of Thomas Aquinas’s canonization, which took place on 14 July 1323 in the “Palace of the Popes” in Avignon.  This was during what has sometimes been called “The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy,” when seven successive popes resided in Avignon, France, rather than in Rome. Later, sadly, there would be a schism, leading to a period where there were multiple claimants to the papal office.  This problem was not entirely resolved until the Council of Constance in 1417.  It’s always good to keep these things in mind when we imagine things are worse now than they’ve ever been.

I was reminded of this anniversary a short while ago when someone asked me about Thomas’s preaching.  Thomas was, as is generally well known, a member of the Dominicans, “the Order of Preachers” founded by St. Dominic.  Why an order of preachers?  Well, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was very little preaching done for laypeople in the Church.

In many places, there was no preaching at all (which was not as good as it might sound).  Or when there was preaching, it was done badly and filled with doctrinal errors.  (Sound familiar?)  The fathers at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decided this needed to stop, so they directed that bishops make resources available to train good preachers. St. Dominic founded the “Order of Preachers” partly in response to this call for reform within the Church.

Although St. Thomas was a member of this Order of Preachers, oddly little attention has been paid to his preaching over the centuries.  Happily, however, the Leonine Commission recently issued a critical edition of the authentic sermons, of which there are only about twenty. And there is a nice English translation of these by Fr. Mark-Robin Hoogland available through the Catholic University of America Press.

Since the style of these sermons is rather odd, I wrote a book called Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.  The key is to realize that each word in the opening Biblical verse serves as a mnemonic device that enables the listeners to recall the content of the entire sermon by simply calling to mind that biblical verse.

I am often asked, “What does Thomas have to teach modern preachers?”  That’s a little complicated.  His style, although characteristic of everyone in the thirteenth century, is not one many people could tolerate today.  But there are lessons to be learned.

The first is obvious: good preaching depends on the holiness of one’s life.  And yet, there are plenty of holy pastors who are not necessarily good preachers.  Preaching, like writing or plumbing or gardening, is a skill that must be practiced and learned.


The second, related lesson is that a good preacher prepares.  You don’t preach the way Aquinas and Bonaventure did in what was called the “modern sermon” style without some serious preparation in advance.  It was impossible to do it “off the cuff.”

The third thing we might learn from this style of preaching is the value of constructing a sermon so it can be remembered.  If the congregants come out of Mass, and someone asks, “What was the homily about today?” and those asked can’t come up with anything, then there’s a problem.  More importantly, if the congregants can’t remember what the Scripture readings were, then the homily was probably a failure.

Some readers are probably saying: “Remember the homily and the readings?  When does that ever happen?”  Yes, that’s a problem – a big problem.  One thing we learned from the synodality surveys (that we didn’t need the surveys to discover) is that there is almost universal displeasure with the quality of preaching.  So much so, one would have thought the synod would have taken it up as an issue to be addressed, just as the Fourth Lateran Council did.

Even Pope Francis has suggested that preaching needs reform, though I think he was talking about homilies being too long. I’m not sure that’s the biggest problem.  Bad homilies are tedious after thirty seconds.  Good homilies seem to fly by.  But to address a problem, you first need to admit there is a problem.

There is, however, one other bit of advice I might offer.  I argue in the book Aquinas, Bonaventure and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris that the lectures given on the books of the Bible in the medieval university by the masters were designed to give the listeners resources for preaching. This was a central concern.

Compare this with our modern practice. Historical-critical biblical scholarship, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, rarely produces good material for preaching. I have heard preachers try it occasionally, and it was always a disaster.

I’m not talking about mentioning the meaning of keywords in the original Greek or Hebrew.  I have a colleague who is superb at this and keeps our students enraptured.  But this has much to do with his obvious love of the text and its every word. “Oh, I love this verse; it is so beautiful,” he says.  We tease him: “Father, you say that about every verse.”  No, I’m talking about comments like: “Paul didn’t really write this epistle,” or “A later editor added this to the Gospel.” Most of this scholarship is far too speculative, and the effect of mentioning it in preaching is like sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.

“Well Father, if we don’t have to pay attention to the Scriptures, then we don’t have to pay attention to you. Because the only reason we’re here listening to you is that we think you’ll help us understand more deeply the word of God.  So, if you say this isn’t the word of God, I’m tuning out.”

Perhaps, then, we need a new course: “The Bible for Preaching: How Not to Make the Most Fascinating Story Ever Told and the Most Important Book Ever Written Empty, Meaningless, and Boring.”  We’ll list it in the course catalog as Preaching 101.


*Image: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom by Antoine Nicolas, 1648 [La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris]

You may also enjoy:

Pope Benedict XV’s The duty of preaching

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s St. Thomas Aquinas

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.