Cardinal DiNardo’s Lecture

Sunday, January 13, 2013
6:00 p.m.
Corso Auditorium
The Pontifical North American College
Annual Carl J. Peter Lecture

“Preaching with the Fathers of the Church”


Daniel Cardinal DiNardo

Archbishop of Galveston-Houston

[This text refers to reference materials that can be downloaded by clicking here. His Eminence also spent time speaking extemporaneously throughout the lecture. The audio recording of the lecture can be downloaded here. To download, right click and click “Save Link As…”]

It is an honor and a privilege to be invited to deliver the Carl Peter Lecture on Preaching; this yearly talk devoted to some aspect of the preaching ministry allows the concerns of all seminary formators about the theoria and practice of preaching to be met in a regular and prescribed way   at the North American College. It shows the dedication of the College to advance the importance of preaching in the life of priests, and thus, its importance in the lives of those preparing for priestly ordination.  Perhaps the lecture can also serve as a catalyst for further development in the preaching seminars and practicums done each year for and with the students in their seminary formation.  This lecture is not scholarly as some others have been in this series but is a pastoral set of observations done by a local bishop who has had a great love for the Fathers and has continually read and studied them.

My general topic for this lecture is “The Fathers of the Church and Preaching.”  Patristics was my field of study at the Augustinianum while I was a student here at NAC.  As I mentioned above, I have continued to read and study the Fathers for many years and find them to be equal dialogue partners in our common discussion about evangelization and preaching. We give, and perhaps rightfully so, much more metaphysical weight and significance to when something or someone occurred in time. The temporal and cultural differences between us and the Fathers of the Church are large and may even be large among the Fathers themselves in their temporal and cultural differences from one another. But though distance creates some blocks in understanding the past, the “fusion of horizons offers us an avenue for genuine comprehension. Further,  there is an ethos and an identity about these early preachers, teachers and theologians of the first six Christian centuries that gives them great importance  in the history of Faith. The Magisterium of the Church has certainly emphasized  these witnesses  as models for right teaching, right practice and  spiritual discernment.  The very differences in times and cultures of the patristic period from our own  can actually engage us all the more and allow us to see their “contemporaneity”  for the life of Faith today.   The Fathers of the Church are significant. We should read them. Let us be candid. We read more about them than actually read and study them and their writings.  The weight of seminary curricula and requirements among those studying for the priesthood sometimes truncate a more prolonged study or leisurely reading of these ancient Christian  authors.

Such a situation is  disappointing when it comes to my chosen topic: the Fathers and Preaching. Outside of Origen and St. Jerome, scholars even in their own estimation, the overwhelming  majority of  recognized  Church Fathers, East and West, were bishops, and thus preachers. They did a vast amount of their work in homilies and sermons.  (In the case of St. John Chrysostom 90% of his work that has come down to us is in sermons!)  Though they wrote treatises and extended letters that seem like treatises, what they have left for us in abundance are homilies, catechetical and mystagogical catecheses, and panegyrics, public discourses for famous people or for dedications of churches and anniversaries of  ecclesial events.  Even portions of their exegetical writings may well have first been delivered in the form of sermons.  The best way to appreciate these documents is to read them and not read studies about them or syntheses of their contents, however helpful such things are for theological education.  Mea culpa, that is what I am also about to do, i.e. talk about them and synthesize their approaches to preaching,  though I want also to examine a few homilies, “up close and personal,”  to exemplify what I say in general in my remarks.

Homilies and sermons can be called, like letters, occasional literature. They are delivered orally for a particular celebration, even if meant for an eventual wider audience. Though they can be written out,  ‘the eruption of the moment’ is very important in such speeches.  This is the power of oral declamation. Many patristic homilies come down to us through stenographers who were present and wrote them down. In some cases, the authors may have subsequently “polished them.”  Still, many of them retain the passing remarks and the asides of their original venue. It gives them an endearing quality and a sometimes humorous tone,  though classical rhetorical procedures indicate the need for such moments  as a formal part of a construction of a speech.  It is said that St. Ambrose, with his prodigious abilities, memorized all his sermons and thus seems to have spoken ex tempore. Others may have had prepared texts. But there is great vitality in their homilies, the only exception I can think of being St. Cyril of Alexandria who is very repetitious, a practice that is wearing.  There is a droll comment from St. Augustine about the need to avoid being boring even to oneself in preaching, the sure sign that one is boring the congregation.  As occasional literature, patristic homilies and sermons  seize the hour and time, the place and the tenor of a congregation, and bring the ever new Word of God  to the situation at hand. The gain here is the living experience of the Word of God heard and unpacked for sometimes rowdy assemblies.  There is great learning to be had in being attentive to such things, at least among the perceptive!

The Fathers of the Church were accomplished preachers; most had studied and been schooled in ancient rhetoric and in the procedures of  classic oratory, that is, in the arts and in learning the ways of oratorical composition, an education  that in some ways prepared them for preaching.  (Many of them were less schooled in the philosophy training of ancient times.) It is noticeable, however, how self conscious they were in frequently simplifying their style and vocabulary to fit the artless but beautiful form that the expression of Christian Faith demanded, especially when preaching to catechumens and to the “rudes,” i.e. those  people of no education or those who were seekers of truth and meaning.  The importance of the Rule of Faith was uppermost in their responsibilities of preaching.  St. John Chrysostom, in his famous and beautiful Treatise  On the Priesthood, spends some chapters on preaching, on its grave importance and on the pitfalls that befall both the inexperienced and experienced preacher. His one comment that is provocative for us today is that if one finds a holy man, of integrity and deep faith, of abilities to meet with people and of spiritual depth but lacks preaching skills, then send him to the monastery but do not ever ordain him a priest.  How essential preaching is to the priestly ministry!

There was a wonderful Synod on The Word of God in October of 2008 of which I was fortunate to be a member.  On September 30, 2010, Pope Benedict published his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, “The Word of the Lord.”  In Part One, #37, after emphasizing the broadening of the scope of reason in dealing with the interpretation of the Scriptures, the Holy Father observes: “A significant contribution to the recovery of an adequate scriptural hermeneutic, as the synodal assembly stated, can also come from renewed attention to the Fathers of the Church and their exegetical  approach. The Church Fathers present a theology that still has great value today because at its heart is the study of Sacred Scripture as a whole. Indeed, the Fathers are primarily and essentially “commentators on Sacred Scripture.’”  That last phrase is from Book II of St. Augustine’s “De Trinitate.”

The Holy Father is most aware of the patristic arena and its remarkable significance for the life of the Church, and his homilies, especially for the “high seasons” of the Church year, exemplify what he says.

Given all this background, I would like to make a few observations on the characteristics of Patristic preaching. This is not an exhaustive taxonomy but a kind of rhapsody on some reappearing themes in their homilies and sermons.

The first observation is obvious. Patristic preaching is biblical. The homilies are suffused and infused with biblical quotes, allusions and narratives.   Let us take a brief look at Chapters Three and Four of St. Ambrose’s De Mysteriis, the magnificent sermons given to the newly baptized in Milan during the 380’s.  St. Ambrose later reworked them for publication and they lose, unlike his De Sacramentis, a bit of the immediacy and vitality they had when delivered orally.  The homilies set out to explain after the fact what happened at the Easter Vigil, sacramental initiation into the Faith. But this “plot” has a subplot, a very subtle narrative of God’s wondrous work in salvation history and in creation. It is difficult for us to imagine how the sheer multiplicity of biblical quotes and allusions, retelling of biblical narratives, realization in act through sacraments and words of biblical events, all are woven together in the texture of this homily.   Let us note together as well typology and, like a good early pupil of Origen that Ambrose was, typology spilling into allegory, in the text. There is also ingenuity as St. Ambrose goes beyond the usual baptismal biblical citations to introduce a few new ones.  Chapter Three takes us through salvation history with special stopping places at the Book of Genesis, a favorite text.


St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries


The Western fathers, and even some in the East, are highly indebted to St. Irenaeus, an early figure and the first true biblical theologian, whose “hermeneutics” are more substantial and subtle than was at first thought. (Already Tertullian says that Irenaeus is “passé’” but he was speaking like mathematicians who, having mastered Euclid, move on because mathematics has already absorbed the insights of the former masters.) Tertullian and most of the Fathers in the West used what Irenaeus brought to understanding the biblical texts. Truth claims are brought to bear on a narrative field of vision and the “Logos” is always being anticipated or realized in interpretation. His famous theme of recapitulation gave great explanatory power while never losing sight of interpreting a text, a text that was received typologically and, when convenient, allegorically. But the text and the field of vision, salvation history, had a further control, the Rule Of Faith. St. Irenaeus knew how to keep these three in a remarkable balance.    St. Ambrose is heir to all this.  The whole field of vision is never lost while the texts are elucidated and moved always on the fulcrum of Christ and of the Spirit who is the Spirit of Christ: the fulcrum is the Rule of Faith.

In Chapter 3, we note already the tissue of citations from the New Testament on the invisible meaning of the truths of faith, especially about the baptismal water. Immediately Ambrose moves to a flashback, a constant method in his style. Flashbacks deal with the Old Testament and he is prodigious in his citations. Note also in #18 of Chapter 3 how the traditional type of Naaman the Syrian is enlarged by allegorizing the young maiden among the Hebrews who encouraged Naaman to go to the prophet to cure his leprosy.  In Chapter 4, St. Ambrose is being creative in using the cure of the paralytic in John’s Gospel as a further baptismal image. It is quite an arresting development of the narrative in light of Christian Faith.

A second observation, perhaps needless to say, is that the Patristic way of preaching is theological. It is God-talk. But the theological is an integrated whole where Christology, Soteriology, Trinity Doctrine, Doctrine of God and the divine compassion towards humanity representing a theological anthropology  all work together and are at home with one another. The later distinctions in theological development were certainly necessary, and the conscious attention to the distinction of faith and reason very important, but some distinctions became separations and spirituality and ascetical dimensions of theology became more and more a vanishing act from theological mind. This is something unheard of in the Fathers in their theological preaching.  (The Fathers do use reason within faith but do not call as much attention to the distinction since the major theme of theology is manifestation and shining forth of everything in God.) Theology always leads to spiritual and moral discernment and as a “wisdom” is concerned with union with God.   I want to move to a second textual example to show this unity, a unity that may leave us bewildered in our understanding of biblical preaching.

The example is the ninety homilies delivered by St. John Chrysostom in 390 at Antioch on the Gospel of St. Matthew, the only complete homiletic commentary on that Gospel handed on to us from the Patristic period. They are a precious heritage indeed. They exemplify what I have briefly stated. I use one example: the homily on the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount that treats a series of verses in Matthew 7:28 and Matthew 8:1.  That the homilies were translated into Latin, Georgian, Arabic and Armenian, and that there are 185 manuscripts of them in Greek by the Middle Ages is a testament to their popularity, power and depth.  Three of the main themes of the homilies are the unity of Old and New Testaments against the Manichees, the treatment of Christ’s divinity and humanity against the Arians, and the importance of asceticism and living in Christ by a life of repentance and charity, a theme that elicits a vast and lengthy praise of monks and monasticism.  The homilies also reveal the incredible dedication and commitment of St. John Chrysostom to the writings and life of St. Paul, his favorite author. (I also must add in all candor that the homilies reveal an anti-semitism in his preaching.)


St. John Chrysostom


Let us briefly look at this text. The Old and New Testament and their relationship is treated as is Jesus’ astonishing humility and greatness. The cure of the leper allows Chrysostom to develop the gift of thanksgiving and gratitude, a gift ultimately related to the Eucharist.  Christ is central in the homily but attentiveness to virtue and a thankful life is emphasized.

A third observation about Patristic preaching is that it is sacramental.  In Verbum Domini, mentioned above, Pope Benedict XVI, at #56, touches on this issue. He is speaking in this section on the Word of God in relationship with the Sacraments and the Eucharist. It is especially true that Word and Eucharist are bound together. By reflecting on the performative character of the word and the word of preaching, Blessed John Paul II had already called attention to the sacramental character of Revelation itself and to the sign of the Eucharist itself in which the indissoluble unity of signifier and signified makes it possible to grasp the depth of the mystery. At the heart of the sacramentality of the word is the mystery of the Incarnation, the “Word Made Flesh.”  The reality of the mystery is in the flesh of the Word, that through words and deeds, we can come to light, to understanding, and to transformation.  Thus Christ is present and speaks to us in the proclamation of the Word. As the unpacking of that word, preaching participates performatively in this “sacramentum.”  This is the power of patristic preaching as it is consciously aware of being drawn to the Word of God and admonishing and instructing God’s people to be transformed. The outer word humbly begs the Word that works within to bring illumination and transformation.

The divinity of Christ was present during his earthly life but not recognized always during this state of kenosis.  But in his Ascension, what seemed to be bodily absence becomes a more real understanding and living of the truth of who Christ is through the active work and energy of the Holy Spirit.  The great theologian and preacher of this in the Western Church is St. Leo the Great. In a series of Ascension homilies, Pope Leo clarifies the meaning of Christ’s presence. “The visible presence of our Redeemer has passed over into sacraments; and that faith might be more excellent and more firm, vision has given way to doctrine.” (spiritali intellectu tangeretur: this is a further formulation)

For the Fathers and for St. Leo, sacramentum is a much broader character than what we know as the seven sacraments though it includes them. The sacramentum is the economy of the Father, the plan of salvation, the working out in words and deeds of God’s saving acts through his Son and in the energy and activity of the Holy Spirit. To say “sacramentum” is to say “anamnesis” and “epiclesis,” terms of liturgy but also terms of  Christian life so touched by that liturgy. Aligned with that understanding, preaching is the humble yet confident speaking of God’s ministers about the mysteries as the inspired words of Holy Scripture tell. Preaching participates in the sacramentum and demands worthy preparation by the homilists  and a worthy reception from the assemblies of God’s holy people.  Preaching is integral to the proclamation of the Word and the Word and Eucharist or other sacramental rites belong together in intense unity.  Let us read Leo.


From a Sermon by Saint Leo the Great, Pope.


The text of St. Leo here first alerts us to salvation history, a history that continues during the forty days of Easter, but also continues in the apostolic witnesses, and the witnesses of martyrs and saints that follow. The progress of the apostles after Easter, even in doubts, is the realization that Christ remains even while ascended, for his physical absence is now  succeeded by the presence of the Holy Spirit that helps all witnesses to “see” his divinity, his teaching. They are now “touched” in a new way, the discernment by the intellect of faith to grow even stronger in union with Him who has returned to the Father to constantly intercede for us. The double movement of the Incarnation reaches its completion and so the sacramentum makes real and manifest all that the Incarnate Son has and is accomplishing(ed).   St. Leo’s very preaching is a part of such a movement as is the preaching of all apostolic witnesses.

In the Fathers, preaching is biblical, theological-spiritual, and sacramental. There are a thousand other threads, but as a pastoral practitioner of the preaching ministry, these three themes are significant aspects of patristic homiletics.

There is a coda I would like to add to these. The Fathers of the Church are eloquent and humble, a conjunction that produces beauty and delight. In the words of St. Augustine, preaching  comes from “hilaritas,” the demeanor of joy and exaltation, of a face shining because the Word of God is so wondrous, so elevating, so full of a future of beatitude, so full of Christian hope!

I conclude with some observations on one of St. Augustine’s homilies to the newly baptized in Easter Week.


Saint Augustine of Hippo


You cannot read this text, even in English, without getting a sense of the joy in its declamation, even a bit of impish joy in the question/answer exchange.  St. Augustine takes great delight in the newly baptized for they are an assembly moved by the love of God already poured out abundantly upon them in their baptismal regeneration. They are themselves a new song. The text is an interpretation of Psalm 149. But it is a celebration of the love of God. This is Patristic preaching at its most delightful and beautiful. In the great St. Augustine, there is rarely a page of his homilies that does not at least have one insight about this hope, this delight, this joy.

If we could get at least part of this demeanor in our preaching and homiletic activity, the very energy of the Word of God will find a place in our lives of ministry and make our ministry a harmony of doxology and wisdom.