Having wrought the Redemption of the human race by His death on the altar of the Cross, it was the desire of Jesus Christ to lead men to obey His commands and thus win eternal life. To this end, He used no other means than the voice of His heralds whose work it was to announce to all mankind what they had to believe and do in order to be saved. “It pleased God, through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).
He therefore chose His Apostles, infused into them the gifts in harmony with their high calling by the power of the Holy Spirit, and said: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” (Mk 16:15). And this preaching renewed the face of the earth. For if the Christian Faith has turned the minds of men from errors of every kind to the truth, and won their hearts from the degradation of vice to the excellence of every virtue, it has done so through preaching. “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
Has the Word of God lost its efficacy?
Wherefore since by God’s good pleasure, things are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being, it is evident that the means Divinely willed to continue the work of eternal salvation is the preaching of Christian wisdom. This must with just reason be regarded among the matters of supreme importance and, accordingly, must be the object of all care and attention, particularly if there is reason to believe in any way that it has lost something of its original authenticity, diminishing its efficacy. […]
Has the Word of God then ceased to be, as it was described by the Apostle, living and active and more piercing than a double-edged sword (cf. Hb 4:12)? Could long-continued use have blunted its edge? If this sword frequently lacks strength, the blame assuredly must be laid on those ministers who do not know how to wield it. For it cannot be said that the Apostles lived in better times than ours, as if in their day the world were more readily disposed towards the Gospel or less opposed to the law of God. […]
The purpose which sacred orators should bear in mind in performing their duty may be understood from the fact that they may and ought to say of themselves, as did St. Paul: “We are ambassadors of Christ” (2 Cor 5:20). If then they are ambassadors of Christ they ought to have the same purpose in discharging their office that Christ had in conferring it, the very one that He himself had during His early life. For neither the Apostles, nor the subsequent preachers had a different mission from Christ’s: “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you” (Jn 20:21).
For the applause of the uninstructed, they incur the judgement of Christ
We know why Christ descended from Heaven, for He said expressly: “For this I have come into the world; to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37); “I am come that they may have life” (Jn 10:10). Preachers must therefore pursue both of these purposes; that is, to diffuse the light of truth revealed by God, and to quicken and nourish the faithful in the supernatural life. In a word, by seeking the salvation of souls they are to promote the glory of God.
As it would be wrong to call anyone a physician who does not practice medicine, or to style professor in some art someone who does not teach that art, he who in his preaching neglects to lead men to a fuller knowledge of God may be called an idle declaimer, but not a preacher of the Gospel. […]
But since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of fallen human nature, and which therefore are not apt to attract the multitude, they carefully avoid them, and prefer to treat of topics in which there is nothing sacred, except the nature of the place. It happens not infrequently that in the very midst of a discourse upon eternal truths, they lower themselves to politics, particularly if such matters are likely to fascinate their listeners.
Their sole aim seems to be to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as “having itching ears” (2 Tm 4:3). Hence, those unrestrained and undignified gestures such as are more suited to the stage or the hustings, those soft tones of pathos or those tragic outbursts; that manner of speech peculiar to journalism; those frequent allusions to profane and non-Catholic literature instead of the Sacred Scriptures or the Holy Fathers; finally that volubility of utterance they often employ, which only serves to numb the ears and stupefy the listeners, but provides them with no valuable lesson to carry home.
How sadly are those preachers deceived! Perhaps from the uninstructed they receive the applause for which they strive with such labor, and not without sacrilege; but is it really worthwhile when by this means they incur the disapproval of all judicious men, and, what is worse, the stern judgement of Christ? […]
It is not possible to serve God and Belial
Returning to St. Paul, if we ask on what subjects he was wont to discourse when he preached, he condenses them all in these words: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). With all the fervour of his apostolic heart, he strove to lead men to an ever greater knowledge of Jesus Christ – knowledge that had bearing not only upon what they should believe, but upon how they should live.
Consequently, he proclaimed all of Christ’s doctrines and commands, even the sterner ones, without any restriction, glossing over or toning down. He preached on humility, self-denial, chastity, contempt of the world, obedience, forgiveness of enemies, and the like. He did not fear 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 judgement 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” never imagined that he should avoid such subjects, because, owing to the corruption of the age, they appeared too severe to his hearers.
It is thus clear how reprehensible 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 setting forth unpleasant matters in a pleasing way. ◊
Excerpts from: BENEDICT XV.
Humani generis redemptionem, 15/6/1917
Originally published in the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #162.