For Lent this year I picked up a copy of The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent, part of a series of the saint's sermons published by TAN.
I won't be giving up the Internet at all for Lent this year -- not Facebook, not Twitter, certainly not blogging. (Though as usual, I'll stay off it on Good Friday.) I can see myself setting a timer so I don't overdo it, but I'll still be here.
If anything, I might try to blog more. This little corner has been sadly neglected, and it's probably (for me personally) the most fruitful writing I do.
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There are twelve sermons in this book, and I am going to try to read them and blog them all, approximately on Wednesdays and Fridays, which should take me to Holy Week.
Today, without sneaking a peek ahead to the first Lenten sermon, I looked at the book's preface, written by Rev. John A. Abruzzese, S.T.D. Here are a few quotes from it. All emphasis is mine.
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"As a young priest and preacher St. Francis was consumed by a burning desire to proclaim the love of God to all people, regardless of social class or intellectual distinction. Therefore, he chose in preaching to adopt the homily as his style, long out of vogue in his day. From his experience in hearing the popular orators of Paris churches, St. Francis saw that if he were to be an effective preacher he would have to speak in a manner which the people could understand clearly, devoid of the accustomed elaborate rhetorical devices and seemingly endless Latin and Greek quotations."
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"In doing so, he risked his reputation and even prompted the following criticism from his father:
[Y]ou preach too often... In my day it was not so, preachings were much rarer; but what preachings...! They were erudite, well thought out; more Latin and Greek were quoted in one than you quote in ten; everyone was enraptured and edified; people used to go to sermons in crowds. Now you have made preaching so common, this will no longer happen and no one one will think very much of you!"
(Anybody catch a little whiff of "Your sermons are so popular that no one will want to listen to them?" Yogi Berra, pray for us!)
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St. Francis "reminded him [his own brother, also a bishop] of his duty and emphasized that preaching must be accessible to all:"
We must not be like those little trickles of water that spring from artificial rocks in the garden of great folk and to which one scarcely dares approach... To fulfill our office we must be like the great and open fountains from which water is taken in abundance, not only for men, but also, and even more frequently, by beasts -- everything, even snakes, having free use of it... We must never repulse anyone, even though our peace and comfort may have to suffer a little.
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"The charism of his personal holiness broke down all resistance... St. Francis stated it ... simply, 'To love well is sufficient for speaking well!'"
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...[T]he disposition of the hearer is equally essential in the 'heart to heart' communication on which St. Francis based his preaching... According to an incident which is said to have taken place during the Lenten series preached at Annecy:
The Saint had the habit of pausing at the beginning of a sermon and looking across the assembly ranged before him for a few silent moments. A member of the cathedral chapter ventured to ask him what his silence signified. "I salute the guardian angel of each one of my audience," he answered, "and I beg him to make the heart under his care ready for my words. Very great favors have come to me by this means."
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It has always been controversial, the question of which is the better preaching and teaching style: the learned, or the populist.
I am of the mind that the style must be adapted to the audience, or conversely, that if we have evidence that the speaker or writer is competent, that we may judge who is the audience by considering the chosen style.
A populist, simple way of speaking, however, intended to reach everyone, is at its most effective when the speaker is in fact quite personally erudite, personally holy, personally learned. He has more fruits to pick from in his quest to offer the juiciest morsels to the hungry crowd; a deeper well to draw from, the better to give the masses of thirsty to drink.
St. Francis de Sales, according to this book's introduction, is a patron saint of writers and journalists, as well as of the Catholic press.
I think he makes a fine patron saint for Catholic bloggers as well, and a decent one for those whose task is to educate the young. We ever have to gather up a complicated, sprawling, reality, part the tangled mat of fibers in order to display that which is essential, in words that can be understood by everyone; and yet, not pretend that the simple essentials are all that is, but remain true to the complications.
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But the point is well taken: "Heart speaks to heart," says St. Francis, and that means that it takes two hearts for a connection to be made. The speaker cannot take full responsibility for the hearer. Yes, the speaker has a responsibility to be as clear as possible, and speak in a language that the hearer is capable of understanding. But none of us can force another's heart, it isn't possible; there is always a will; and the hearer may choose to hear or to not hear.
There is such a tendency to blame the messenger, or at least the messenger's style. But the hearer has control over the channel too -- if not over his own intellect, or his language, he does have command of his attention, his capacity to ask questions, his capacity of reflection and self-examination.
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Come on along and we'll see together what this Francis, that scandalously simple preacher, has to say to us.