Straight Talk from Hippo: How St. Augustine’s Sermons Speak Volumes to Today’s Preachers
Introduction: A Sign of our Times
The growing awareness of the importance of preaching is a sign of our times. This is true in terms of the academic discipline of homiletics, but even more so in the ecclesial mindfulness that good homilies are at the core of any truly new evangelization. We see this in the common awareness of our assemblies: people know that a good homily makes a difference. We see this as well in the Magisterium of the Church.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council say in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “the homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself” (52). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the homily as an extension of the proclamation of the Word (1154). But, as we know, this liturgical action is not always performed in the best way. With a view to how important preaching is to the life of the Church, Benedict XVI writes, “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved” (Sacramentum Caritatis 10). Recently, Pope Francis has called for “serious consideration by pastors” (Evangelii Gaudium 135) in regards to the homily.
Of course, in general, people in the pews are kind to us preachers, even when our homilies are bad or when the congregation doesn’t bother to listen to our homilies. One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a preacher happened when, after Sunday Mass, a well-formed adult kindly thanked me for my preaching. “Great homily today, Father!” said the parishioner. In my surprise I was only able to say, “Thank you, but, you know that the deacon preached today, right?”
That incident made me realize that the problem of how a homily is received by the faithful is not only about what one’s congregation may like or dislike. The challenge among preachers is especially a question of how we can be instructed and moved by the Word of God in such a way that our testimony will be powerful and memorable. Furthermore, how can homilists preach that Word in a way that will effectively move our people to growth and conversion?
The testimony and teachings of St. Augustine offer a great wealth of wisdom for preachers today. The anecdote of the inattentive parishioner that I just shared makes me think of one initial reason for the relevance of St. Augustine to preaching in a time of new evangelization. In St. Augustine’s own time, only around 10 percent of the population was literate. The Bishop of Hippo once famously said to his congregation, “We are your books” (Codices vestres nos sumus (Sermon 227)). In these powerful words, we see how St. Augustine understood the importance of homiletics. To people who do not know how to read or how to interpret God’s Word, the preacher becomes a book.
But even in a literate society, these words are pertinent. Whereas most people know how to read and the average American household has 4.4 Bibles, nearly 60 percent of Americans read the Bible only four times a year or less.1 And, of course, when we come to the problem of interpreting Scripture, or understanding God’s revelation—theology!—the scriptural illiteracy is even greater. In this context, when people become more and more unfamiliar with God’s Word, preachers serve as the only books that most people will read. Returning to the wisdom of St. Augustine can teach us how the homily helps fulfill the Church’s mission.2
We will learn three lessons from this saint and Church Father from North Africa—and thereby discover three ways in which St. Augustine’s homilies are worthy of emulation. First, we understand through his sermons that preaching is shared prayer between preacher and listener. Second, St. Augustine’s common-sense style is a primary characteristic of his sermons, a characteristic that today’s preachers would do well to integrate into their own homilies. Third, when it comes to the homily’s power, St. Augustine appeals not only to the head, but also to the heart, another lesson for today’s homilists to remember in their own preaching. Each lesson imparted by St. Augustine will shed light on some common false dichotomies about preaching, showing that when it comes to preaching, one’s style is not restricted by a choice between different elements but ought to embrace both features to achieve truly dynamic homilies.
Homilies as Shared Prayer
Augustine is famous for his “restless heart.” This is true not only in regards to his initial conversion but also in his constant search for God and for transmitting his love effectively as a good preacher. He confesses, “I am nearly always dissatisfied with the address that I give… and when I find that my actual address fails to express what I have before my mind, I am depressed by the fact that my tongue has been unable to keep up with my intellect” (De Cat. Rud. 2,3). The sudden insight into the truth seems to fade from the mind, St. Augustine says, whereas our speech needs to be articulated in syllables, taken from what has been impressed on the memory.
Christ, however, is one syllable, one eternal Word said by the Father from all eternity. “Yet we should not find it surprising,” St. Augustine says, “that to meet our weakness [Christ] descended to the discrete sounds that we use” (En.Ps.103,1-4th). Our Lord’s incarnation makes it truly possible to explain, albeit imperfectly, the Word through our words.
Our life is a pilgrimage towards eternal happiness, and while we walk on this path, our true and daily food, St. Augustine says, is the “absolutely necessary” bread of the “very word of God…. [O]ur daily food on this earth is the word of God, which is always being served up in the churches.” In encountering this word, says Augustine, we realize “it’s our food, not our wages” (S. 56,10). Prayer, as the encounter with Christ and his word, is a necessary disposition for any believer, and this is keenly felt by anyone who shares God’s word.
The Bishop of Hippo is very fond of describing his mission as preacher as the work of one who provides sustenance. “I feed you on what I am fed on myself. I am just a waiter, I am not the master of the house; I set before you from the pantry which I too live on” (S. 339,4). His own experience of prayer is what allows him to share the good news with his people. His own search for Christ leads him to search for the truth and find it in the revelation of charity. Everything in Scripture tends toward charity, as he taught his people: “You need look for nothing else in Scripture…. [W]herever there is an obscure passage of Scripture, charity is concealed in it, and wherever the sense is plain, charity is proclaimed. If it were nowhere plain to see, it would not nourish you; if it were nowhere concealed, it would not exercise you” (En.Ps. 140,2). The life of a preacher is the constant search for that charity in prayer, and the faithful effort to share that charity with the people entrusted to his care.
Augustine understood that preparation for preaching was not primarily an intellectual or technical endeavor. For all his years of teaching and training in the art of public speaking, after his unexpected priestly ordination, he was deeply aware of the necessity of preparing his heart and mind, through prayer, for this important ministry. He wrote a moving letter to his bishop, Valerius, asking for some time dedicated “to make it my business by prayer and reading to secure that my soul be endued with the health and vigor necessary for labors so responsible” (Ep. 21,3). Of course, this preparation is not only about a specific time off, but about the constant feeding he undertakes so that he can be a good household servant (S. 90,3) who, like a waiter, offers the tray of God’s word to his people (S. 126,8).
In St. Augustine’s understanding of homiletics as a matter of service, the saint reveals one of the most common false dichotomies in the life of preachers: Should the homilist prepare a homily or improvise on a few basic principles with minimum preparation? The objections to preparing a homily are, usually, rather practical: as pastoral life is so demanding and burdensome, it seems impossible to spend any good time preparing homilies. But preparation and spontaneity are not really opposed.
Augustine certainly improvised in the sense that he did not write down his sermons. However, he did prepare his preaching. Plain evidence of such preparation on St. Augustine’s part is found in the occasions when the wrong reading was proclaimed at Mass. For instance, as he was prepared to preach on Psalm 138: “We had prepared a short psalm for our consideration today and indicated to the reader that this was the psalm to be recited. But at the last minute he apparently became flustered and read this one instead. We have deemed it preferable to see in the reader’s mistake a sign of the will of God and to follow that rather than to do our own will by sticking to our original plan.” This course-correction is a clear proof that for Augustine, as for any good homilist, “improvisation does not mean unpreparedness”3 and that the saint did spend time preparing his homilies. The fact that he was capable of speaking without notes or of preaching about a text for which he was not prepared, indicates familiarity with the word and dedicated years of training. If we can use a modern comparison provided by William Harmless, this spontaneous response is like a jazz player who is able to play because of the long hours of disciplined practice.4
In the end, the solution to this common pastoral problem—to prepare or not to prepare—is found when we realize that we are to be served and fed upon what we serve and feed to others. Although many priests will say that despite having no time to prepare homilies, they are still able to preach, very few priests will say that because they are busy, they can live without praying. In prayer we are fed by God; in preaching we feed our people. It would be a mistake to see the demands of preparing our homilies as another of the many things we have to do during the week. In fact, the preparation of our Sunday preaching could be one of the best ways of bringing unity to our lives, as our prayer and study become our work, and our work becomes our prayer.
A rich weekly meditation on the lectionary readings will nourish the soul of the preacher while, at the same time, this time of reflection will offer the homilist the wisdom to discern what he needs to share from the ambo with his assembly. Preaching is, truly, our own prayer shared with our people.
Common Sense in Preaching
While the contemplation of God’s word in prayer is foundational, it is not the only requisite for effective preaching. To borrow from St. Augustine’s metaphor, like a good waiter, the preacher needs to know what to serve and how to serve it, according to those who are being fed. Augustine’s sermon style is a great example of how to practice the art of accommodation, not only, as we saw, in the saint’s capacity to preach with spontaneity, but also in how he practices the skill of adapting his speech to the needs and characteristics of his audience. This ability speaks to his common sense approach to homiletics.
This sober mark within St. Augustine’s sermon style also reveals other false dichotomies in homiletics. Are homilies, some preachers might ask, supposed to teach or share, to be doctrinal or pastoral, conceptual or personal? In his own style, Augustine’s common sense in preaching comes from his knowledge of his people and the ultimate aim of his prayers and sermons—the conversion of the sinner. Unified in this way with his people, he is able to say, as he celebrates the anniversary of his episcopal ordination, “brothers and sisters, lighten my burden for me, lighten it, please, and carry it with me; lead good lives” (S. 339,4), and elsewhere, “do my job in your own homes” (S. 94).
“This is the secret of Augustine’s enormous power as a preacher,” writes Peter Brown. “He will make it his first concern to place himself in the midst of his congregation, to appeal to their feelings for him, to react with immense sensitivity to their emotions, and so, as the sermon progressed, to sweep them into his own way of feeling. He could identify himself sufficiently with his congregation to provoke them to identify themselves completely with himself” (Augustine of Hippo 248).
St. Augustine constantly puts into practice what he teaches in De Doctrina Christiana. As he says in this work, the traditional distinction of styles according to the kind of speech—calm to teach, moderate to delight, and grand to sway—was important but limited. For any Christian preacher, St. Augustine says, “everything we say is a great matter” (DDC IV:18,35). Therefore, he concludes, it is best to adapt and combine these styles in each sermon to achieve in any case a certain eloquence. Such eloquence, St. Augustine states, is necessary for a preacher. “It is the duty…of the eloquent churchman, when he is trying to persuade the people about something that has to be done, not only to teach, in order to instruct them; not only to delight, in order to hold them; but also to sway, in order to conquer and win them” (DDC IV:13,29).
This eloquence, however, is not motivated by the vain pursuit of excellent rhetoric, but by a bond of love, a feeling of compassion that moves the preacher to dwell in his listeners and the listeners to dwell in the preacher (see De Cat. Rud., 12,17). Out of this love and compassion, Augustine asks, “Why do I preach? What do I live for? This is my sole purpose: that together we may live with Christ! This is my passion, this is my honor, this is my fame, this is my only possession, this is my joy! …But I do not want to be saved without you!” (S. 17,2).
This loving passion moves Augustine to teach doctrine as he preaches, explaining the mysteries of Scripture as he did so many times in his works. For example, one need only look to his series of sermons on the Psalms (a larger corpus than all the other extant patristic commentaries on the Psalms taken together). Consider, too, St. Augustine explaining the mysteries of the sacraments to the infantes, in a manner both personal and magisterial: “I haven’t forgotten my promise. I had promised those of you who have just been baptized a sermon to explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which you can see right now, and which you shared in last night…. If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive” (S. 227).
The Bishop of Hippo’s pastoral common sense is perceived clearly in the wealth of images and simple phrases, each of which is moving and easy to understand and altogether permeate his homilies. A few examples will suffice.
– Considering the last things, St. Augustine says: “It’s by the mercy of God that a man doesn’t know when he is going to die. The last day is hidden from us, in order that every day may be taken seriously” (S. 39,1).
– Preaching about Jesus being asleep in the boat, St. Augustine notes: “You have heard an insult—it’s a high wind; you’ve got angry—it’s a wave…. What does it mean that Christ is asleep in you? That you have forgotten Christ. So wake Christ up, remember Christ; let Christ stay awake in you” (S. 63,2).
– Speaking about love of the things of this world, St. Augustine explains that the “world is a smiling place” (S. 158,7).
– Focusing on the same concern for worldly matters, St. Augustine also uses the image of a ring to make his point: “Brothers, if a bridegroom made a ring for his bride, and she loved the ring…more than her bridegroom…, if she said, ‘The ring is enough. I do not want to see his face again,’ what sort of person would she be? Who wouldn’t detest this crazy woman? …[The ring] is given her by the betrothed just that [in it] he himself may be loved. God, then, has given you all these things. Love Him who made them” (In 1Ioa 2, 11).
– Teaching about prayer St. Augustine compares God to a doctor (S. 20B,4): “God provides for our salvation even if he doesn’t comply with our wish” (1Ioa 6,8). “You know what you desire, but he knows what’s good for you.… So think yourself as being ill under a doctor. You have suddenly the lovely idea of asking the doctor to let you have a glass of wine…. Don’t hesitate to ask…, but if you don’t get it, don’t feel bad about it” (S. 80, 2).
Effective preaching is always personal and profound; it always teaches and touches the heart; and it always moves to conversion: “Do what he has told you, and hope for what he has promised” (S. 80, 8).
The Heart as a Path
There is one more false dichotomy which St. Augustine reveals in his sermons and which preachers today would do well to take into account as they prepare their own homilies. Each pastor must ask, are my homilies supposed to address the mind or the heart? This question comes from the awareness that our culture, deeply subjective and relativistic, most often appeals to personal experience and emotion when seeking to convince us of a point.
How can the Church teach the truth to our society? More specifically, how can homilies be relevant, for example, to millennials? Augustine’s example gives us an important key. The emotional mindset so common in our culture, while being a challenge, also presents an opportunity if we know how to appeal to the heart.
In his own conversion, Augustine sought healing in his heart. His different emotions and affections found redemption in love, he says, especially as that love played out in the Psalms: “How I cried out to you in those Psalms and how they kindled my love for you” (Conf IX: 8).5 He understood that love is at the root of who we become, and so he prayed with the Song of Songs: “Order in me my love” (CD XV:22). This was, in the end, the dividing line for the history of humanity: “The citizens of God’s holy city have all their affections rightly ordered” (CD XIV: 9,1). Love is that force of gravity that moves us upwards, towards the city of God, as he preached in his commentary on Psalm 121: “If our foundation is in heaven, the weight of our building bears upward, toward heaven” (121, 4).
Augustine teaches today’s Catholic preacher to address his people just as he did in the early fifth century: “Question your heart: see what you have done and what you have been yearning for” (In 1Ioa 6, 3). These are words that are easily understandable by anyone, and they address the perennial questions of the human heart. Such an approach can lead to a fruitful emphasis in preaching today: go to the real human heart, not just to a relativistic and politically correct sentimentalism. Address in honesty and warmth the authentic human heart, with all its passion, with all its questions, with all its deep longings.
Start with the heart. That is Augustine’s lesson here. In his sermons, St. Augustine knew how to do that. He would preach about the psalms of ascent, emphasizing the spiritual ascent to the city of Jerusalem. He says, “Our ascent must be made in the heart, by a good intention, in faith and hope and charity, in a desire for eternity” (En. Ps. 120,3). He also says, “We travel not on foot but by our affections” because “love is a powerful thing” (En. Ps. 121,11-12).
And how can we teach the heart to ascend in this way? Such spiritual “travel” is possible through what we could call a pedagogy of desire. Desire is an experience of any human heart. Any human being, of any age, of any background, will relate to the simple and profound insight of Augustine’s commentary on the Gospel of John: desiderium sinus cordis (“desire is the bosom of the heart”). As Brown put it, “it is yearning that makes the heart deep” (In Ioan 40,10).
This profound human reality is no less central for a Christian because of his faith. Quite the opposite is true. A preacher can wake up a congregation consumed by routine the way that St. Augustine does in his sermons. “Because now you are unable to see,” the saint writes, “let your task consist in desiring. The entire life of a good Christian is a holy desire” (In 1Ioa 4,6). A homilist can strengthen those who might be tired of praying in this way: “He wanted to make them knock at his door in order to exercise them in desire” (S. 80,1), and give comfort to those who do not know how to pray. “Desire is praying always,” St. Augustine says, offering hope to those who feel that their prayers are not heard. “God stretches our desire through delay, stretches our soul through desire, and makes it large enough by stretching it. Let us desire then, brothers, for we have to be filled” (In 1Ioa 4,6).
This is the goal of a good homilist, in any age—to help the faithful, whether well-formed or not, to stretch that desire and go from there to God; to help them recognize in their hearts the longing for eternity. Beginning with the heart, a preacher can open the conversation about eternity, as St. Augustine did so well when he talked about “being possessed by yearning for the well-springs.” Furthermore, he says, “Remember how we were gladdened by an inner sweetness, remember how we found it possible to perceive…something that does not change” (En. Ps. 41,10).
The homilist can broach this same conversation about eternity in a particularly effective way in our mystagogical preaching, by surprising our congregations as the Bishop of Hippo did. For instance, St. Augustine—as Brown indicates—would not preach during Baptism on what his people expected—the cleansing power of the waters—but about our deep thirst for God, the fountain of true water.6 He also surprised his congregation on another occasion when he praised the shining night of our hearts as he described the lights of the Easter Vigil.
Allow me here to introduce a free comparison that can help us to see how modern Augustine’s approach can feel and how much we can learn from him today. 20th century American writer James Agee wrote a beautiful poem in the 1930s (made famous by American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting) in which Agee expresses his gratitude for the beauty of the earth, but also his deep longing for something more than what this world can offer.
“Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
… Sure on this shining night I weep for
wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.”
Some 1,500 years before Agee was writing, Augustine also sang about this shining night, brightly seen in the liturgical rites of Easter, revealing the true meaning of this night where all our human longings are fulfilled. “The sun has gone but not the day,” the Bishop of Hippo writes, “for a shining earth has taken the place of the shining sky. With delighted eyes we behold the gleam of these lamps, and thus, with an illuminated spirit, we can understand the meaning of this shining night” (S. 5,1 and 2). Our human desires are fulfilled in the mysteries of the Church.
Few ancient authors can be felt in such a powerful way today as Augustine. But, for all the passion that he conveyed, as we read in these homilies, we know that we are missing their tone, volume, and musicality; we know that the expression of his face and the movement of his hands are lost to us. We weren’t there to hear them as they were delivered. As Possidius said about his friend, “Those who read his works on divine subjects profit thereby. But I believe that they were able to derive greater good from him who heard and saw him as he spoke in person in the church” (Vita XXXI). However, even though we have not seen Augustine, we find comfort in knowing him through his words. His heartfelt letter to his friend St. Paulinus expresses well what we experience when we get to know Augustine and learn from him how to renew our preaching for the new evangelization.
“I grieve that I do not see you,” Augustine writes to Paulinus, “but I take some comfort in my pain…. Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? …I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation” (Ep. 27,1).
Father Daniel Cardó was born in Lima, Peru, in 1975. He joined the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. His license thesis on the thought of Joseph Ratzinger was published in Spain. He earned his Doctorate in 2015, specializing in liturgy and early Christian literature. In 2007 he moved to Colorado, and was chaplain at St. Malo Retreat Center. In 2010 was appointed to Holy Name Parish, Denver. He is in charge of formation for the Christian Life Movement, chaplain at Christ in the City and teaches Homiletics and Patristics at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
- Although there are many studies on Augustine’s preaching, it is fundamental to review the classic work of Cardinal Pellegrino: Michele Pellegrino, general introduction to Augustine: Sermons I, 1-19, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 1990), 13-136.
- Michele Pellegrino, general introduction to: Augustine Sermons, 30.
- See William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate, 247.
- See about this Michael Fiedrowicz, general introduction to Augustine: Expositions of the Psalms [Enarrationes in Psalmos] 1-32, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 2000), 37-38.
- See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 242.