Evangelistic Preaching (Part 3) — Purposes of Catholic Preaching in History

This is the third post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts. 

This post is another historical excursus (not part of the original presentation on which this series is based) briefly exploring some of the non-Eucharistic functions and purposes preaching has served throughout Catholic history.

For example:

To address the nonbeliever…
In Milan, Augustine “went every Sunday to the service of readings, psalms, and prayers that preceded the Eucharist…there he would have mixed in not only with the faithful and catechumens, but also with pagans and heretics of every stripe. These liturgies were sometimes noisy affairs. ‘What a job it is,’ Ambrose would complain, ‘to procure silence when the lessons are read.’ After the readings, Ambrose would preach, probably at considerable length.” Later in his life, Augustine would also offer specific exhortations to nonbelievers who were present for his sermons (while still addressing the faithful). (Harmless, p. 83).

Cyprian (c. 200-258) preached in marketplaces during times of persecution (David Larsen, Company of the Preachers, p. 73).

Eusebius, (c. 263-399, Bishop of Caesarea) characterizes the preachers of the early centruies of the Church, summarizing, “they set out on journeys from home and performed the work of evangelists, making it their aim to preach to such as had not yet heard the word of faith at all, and to give them the book fo the divine Gospels. But they were content to lay the foundation only of the Faith in some foreign places, appointing others as pastors to whom they entrusted the care of those lately brought in” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, p. 20). 

To encourage catechumens to seek baptism…

Cappadocians used preaching to attempt to “rally their catechumens” “to put in their names for baptism.” Gregory of Nazianzus appealed to catechumens’ common sense, preached tantilizing images of the “ineffable mysteries” baptism would give them access to, “played upon their fears of hell and warned that death might come unexpectedly.” “These sermons by the Cappadocians contain sparkling theology and rhetorical acumen, but the intent behind them was the same as an evangelical preacher’s altar call: to bring people to the water” (William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate (1995), p. 61).

To nourish the faith life of catechumens…

In Origin’s time (c. 185-254) “The synaxis on weekday mornings had only one reading. It was always from the Old Testament, since not only the baptized but also the catechumens attended, and the catechumens had not yet been introduced to the New Testament. A homily followed to explain the reading, and prayers concluded the service. The assembly probably lasted an hour. The reading would be long, equivalent to two or even theree chapters in our Bibles. And the reading was continuous—that is, a book was read from beginning to tend, even if the preacher did not comment on the whole of the reading” (David G. Hunter, ed., Preaching in the Patristic Age (1982), p. 41)

To move believers to conversion in preparation for Mass…

An English friar (c. 1405-09) wrote, “it is more profitable to hear God’s Word in preaching, than to hear any Mass; and rather a man should forbear his Mass than his sermon. For by preaching folk be stirred to contrition, and to forsake sin and the fiend, and to love God and goodness; and be illumined to know their God, and virtues from vices, truth from falsehood, and to forsake errors and heresies. By the Mass they be not so; but if they come to Mass in sin they go away in sin…And also the virtue of the Mss standeth principally in the true belief of the mass, and especially of Christ that is there sacred in the Host. But that may men learn by preaching of God’s Word and not by hearing of Mass” (Charles Smythe, The Art of Preaching 747-1939, p. 16) (Note: this take is somewhat similar to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s articulation of the need for faith/conversion before Mass.)

To provide for particular needs of the faithful…

Popular appeal and festivity, as cathedral vigil services in 5th c. Gaul (which included preaching) “were not only religious celebrations but also occasions of holiday leisure and good fellowship, of fairs, and going out with friends. From this we can also appreciate the pastoral commonsense of our forefathers” (Robert Taft, Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, p. 183).

Catherdral vigil services were also used to honor martyrs on their anniversary, counteract Arian teachings, and gain strength in times of persecution (Taft, p. 177).

What have we learned? We know from Church documents and history that there are types of preaching other than Eucharistic homilies. This small collection of examples demonstrates just some of the reasons why Catholic preachers have found it desirable to preach outside the Eucharistic context or specifically to those in need of conversion prior to full participation in the Eucharist at Mass.



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