Studying the Sermons of the Fathers

Humbert of Romans
Fifth Master General of the Order of Preachers

VI. Difficulties of the Office of Preacher

Let them watch lest they fall into the mistake of those preachers who, although they are incapable of composing good sermons themselves, are yet unwilling to study those composed by others, and preach only those that they have laboriously written out themselves. They are like those who serve their guests only bread made by themselves even though they cannot bake. Our Lord told the Apostles to serve the crowd which followed Him into the desert, not the bread that they had made, but that which others had made (Matt. 15). On this subject they tell of a remarkable characteristic of Pope Innocent III, a man of great merit, under whom the Lateran Council was held. While preaching on the feast of St. Madeleine, he had someone read the homily of St. Gregory on the feast while he explained it in the vulgar tongue; and when his memory failed he followed the text of the one reading the book. After the sermon they asked him why he acted thus, when he was so capable of saying original things; he answered that he wanted to confound and instruct those who despise using the works of other people.

There are some who depend on their own knowledge, relying only on themselves and neglecting to consult the interpretations of the Sacred Scriptures made by the Saints. St. Jerome speaks of these when writing to St. Paulin: “They have no desire to find out what the Prophets and Apostles meant, but adapt inapplicable texts to their ideas, applying the words of Scripture to statements that are opposed. Their own words to them have the authority of God.”

Others there are who are more interested in the form of their discourses than in the matter. They are like a host who is more concerned with the beauty of a dish in which food is served than the food itself. They ought to meditate on what St. Augustine said in his Confessions, “I know that wisdom and folly resemble food, some of which is wholesome and some harmful. And just as they can be served in worthless or precious plates, so also good can be presented as evil in flowery discourse or in discourses lacking all elegance.”

A preacher who wishes to avoid the three errors that we have just pointed out, will take great care to study what others have taught about the Scriptures, in order to find his inspiration in the holy Doctors rather than in himself, and in his discourse he will prefer practical thoughts to beautiful words.