Preaching to the Whole Person: Classical Wisdom for the New Evangelization

St. Augustine, the Church’s foremost teacher in the classical art of Christian preaching, master rhetorician, and former teacher of oratory, was convinced that the pagan rhetorical tradition, so important to the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, had great insights to offer Christian preachers about the art of good preaching.

 St. Augustine preaching before the Bishop of Hippo, and preparing a sermon.

“Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” 1  Pope Benedict XVI wrote these words in his 2007 Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis.  The Holy Father then repeated this admonition in his 2010 Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, adding: “The art of good preaching…is an art that needs to be cultivated.” 2  This need is all the more pressing as the Church embraces the call and challenge of the New Evangelization.  A renewed effort on the part of preachers—to improve the quality of homilies, and to cultivate the art of good preaching—must be central to the work of the New Evangelization.  The question is: How is this to be done?  How can the art of good preaching be learned and cultivated?  This is an age-old question, and there are some age-old answers to this question which, I believe, can serve preachers very well in meeting the challenges of evangelization in our day.

St. Augustine is the Church’s foremost teacher in the classical art of Christian preaching, and it is to him that we will turn in order to learn something of the classical wisdom on preaching effectively.  This master rhetorician, and former teacher of oratory, was convinced that the pagan rhetorical tradition, which was so important to the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, had great insights to offer Christian preachers about the art of good preaching. 3  We shall explore Augustine’s appropriation of this classical wisdom—first, in his own theory of preaching, and then, in his actual practice—with the hope of discovering that the perennial wisdom contained in Augustine’s theory and practice of preaching can provide a firm foundation for the work of the New Evangelization.

Augustine’s Theory of Preaching
Augustine wrote a treatise on Christian oratory called: De doctrina christiana (On Christian Doctrine), applying what he had learned as a rhetorician to the task of preaching Christian doctrine. 4 His objectives in writing this work were simple: first, to teach bishops (preachers) how to attain an understanding of the meaning of scripture (Books 1-3); and second, to teach them how to communicate what they have learned (Book 4). 5  His theory of preaching is laid out very clearly in the fourth book of this treatise.  Augustine’s De doctrina christiana was a tremendously influential work throughout the Middle Ages. 6  In his book, Christian Eloquence, C. Colt Anderson writes:

St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana was perhaps the most significant source for the development of doctrinal preaching in the West…As the number of people engaged in doctrinal preaching grew, the fourth book of De Doctrina Christiana became the foundational preaching manual for the priests, monks, mendicants, and humanists who had taken on the role of assisting the bishops in their mission. 7

Book 4 of the De Doctrina, which comprises Augustine’s “preaching manual,” begins with a defense of the place of rhetoric in Christian preaching.  Augustine asks: “Would anyone dare to maintain that truth should stand there, without any weapons in the hands of its defenders, against falsehood…Could anyone be so silly as to suppose such a thing?” 8 Augustine reasons that if the enemies of the truth are using the art of rhetoric perversely to persuade people of falsity, the defenders of truth should be all the more eager to employ the tools of rhetoric in their favor, persuading people to embrace the truth.  He quotes Cicero: “Wisdom without eloquence is of little use to society, while eloquence without wisdom is frequently extremely prejudicial to it, never of any use. 9  Augustine concludes that, “If those, therefore, who have propounded the rules of eloquence, have been obliged, in the very books in which they have done this, to make such a confession at the instigation of truth…how much more ought we to have no other opinion, seeing that we are sons and ministers of this wisdom?” 10  Throughout the De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine continues to argue for the use of rhetoric in preaching as an invaluable tool of persuasion.  He is very clear, however, that rhetoric, or “eloquence,” as he often calls it, is always subordinate to the truth which it serves.

The Three Functions of Preaching
The whole of Augustine’s theory of preaching is structured around a classical understanding of the three purposes of rhetoric: teaching, delighting, and persuading. 11  As Cicero writes in his Orator, “Teaching your audience is a matter of necessity; delighting them a matter of being agreeable; swaying them a matter of victory.” 12  To these three aims, Cicero had linked three distinct styles of speaking: “subdued,” “moderate,” and “grand.” 13

1. The Function of Teaching: Augustine writes: “The interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures—therefore, the defender of right faith and the hammer of error—has the duty of both teaching what is good, and un-teaching what is bad.” 14  Augustine goes on to explain that the purpose of teaching is to win over the hostile, stir up the slack, and point out to the ignorant what is at stake and what they ought to be looking for. 15  Teaching, he says, is a matter of necessity because people are only able to act, or not act, based on what they know. 16  The purpose of teaching is to explain, instruct, and expose, in order to teach people what they need to know.  This rhetorical function calls for a plain or subdued style of speaking.  Fr. William Harmless, S.J., notes: “If one survey’s Augustine’s sermons, one finds that this subdued style was his preference, and he used it especially to unfurl the riddles of Scripture.” 17  This is consistent with Augustine’s statement that, “it is easier to endure the plain style alone, for any length of time, than the grand manner alone.” 18  Augustine notes that some people, upon being informed of the truth, will be moved in such a way that there is no need for them to be moved any more by a more forceful kind of eloquence. 19  Sometimes, the bald, unadorned statement of truth is found pleasing in itself, causing the hearer to act upon it, precisely because it is the truth. 20  However, most will not be persuaded by teaching alone.

2. The Function of Delighting:  Augustine taught that, in fact, only a few people will benefit from teaching alone.  Therefore, just as a good meal is appealing to the tongue, so a good sermon should be delightful, or tasty, to the spiritual palate. 21  Delight must be employed in order to hold the attention of the audience.  Augustine also explains that: “There are fastidious people … who do not take pleasure in the truth if it is presented in any fashion, but only if it is presented in such a way that the speaker’s style is pleasing, too; and that is why no slight place in the art of eloquence is also allotted to the function of giving delight.” 22  The moderate style of speaking is used to bring about intellectual delight.  It seeks to do so by means of novelty and unexpectedness, as well as by making use of the whole range of classical rhetorical devices and figures.  The goal of this style of presentation is to lead the audience to see something familiar, but in a new light. 23  Augustine is insistent, however, that the moderate style, which delights by its very eloquence, is not to be made use of for its own sake, but only in order that matters may more readily win assent and be remembered. 24
3.  The Function of Swaying: Just as the listener needs to be delighted if you are to hold his attention, so he needs to be swayed, if you are to move him to act. 25  Augustine teaches that this third aim of rhetoric—swaying—is a matter of victory because, “an audience can be taught and delighted, and still not give their full assent to the speaker.” 26 By means of swaying, therefore, the audience is persuaded to do the things that they know should be done, but which are not being done.  The grand style of speaking is required to accomplish this aim of swaying.  Interestingly, Augustine says that this grand manner of speaking “is as far removed as can be from [the] moderate kind, being not so much a matter of elegantly stylish language, as of the impetuous expression of very deep feelings.” 27  The grand style does not rely on novelty or ornamentation.  Rather, it is very personal, succeeding or failing insofar as it clearly resonates with the personal convictions of the preacher. 28  Charged with emotional intensity, the grand style of preaching uses words that implore, rebuke, and stir up the audience—especially the stubborn audience.  Speaking of the use of the grand style in preaching, Augustine writes: “The fact is that the more profoundly the listeners’ emotions need to be stirred, if we are to win their assent, the shorter time they can be held at that pitch, once they have been sufficiently aroused.” 29  While Augustine promotes and employs the rhetorical tradition of teaching, delighting and swaying, Lawless notes that he always saw Christ as the ultimate agent in preaching.  “To teach or instruct (docere), to sustain in order to persuade (placere), regularly fall within the limited competence of a human agent.  To bend the human will, however, (movere, flectere), pertains to divine agency and the generous promptings of grace.” 30
After presenting the three aims of preaching, and the style of speaking associated with each, Augustine makes an important note about how these various styles are to be employed.  He writes: “Nor should anybody suppose that it is against the rules to mix these three styles; on the contrary, to the extent that it can be reasonably done, a speech should be given variety by the use of all of them.” 31  In his book, Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching, C. Colt Anderson summarizes Augustine’s theory:
Preaching is for the whole person.  The calm style appeals to the intellect, the moderate to the memory and imagination, and the grand to the will.  Since different people are motivated in different ways by memory, intellect, and will, the preacher must employ the means to reach different dimensions of the diverse people in their audience. 32

At the heart of Augustine’s theory of preaching, then, we find Cicero’s precepts on the role of rhetoric taken up and recast, so that the purpose of Christian eloquence is to “show truth, make truth pleasing, and make truth move the audience.” 33  Eloquence is used in service of the truth; the ultimate service it renders is to make the truth persuasive.  Augustine writes, “The universal task of eloquence, in whichever of these three styles, is to speak in a way that is geared to persuasion.  The aim, what you intend, is to persuade by speaking.” 34

Augustine’s Practice of Preaching
We will now consider how Augustine put his theory of preaching into practice in his own homilies concerning the First Epistle of John.  Fr. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. in the introduction to his translation of Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John, writes:

The Homilies on the First Epistle of John are not, in the end, a formal commentary on the text, but rather an exercise in preaching. As such, they are marvelous examples of the easy interaction that Augustine enjoyed with his congregation; they demonstrate his ability to adapt to the moment, to show how scripture spoke to contemporary issues, to present often-difficult material that he had mastered to his listeners in a way that they could understand, and to temper the exegetical with the spiritual. 35

What is clear from Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John is that the First Epistle of John provided Augustine with an ideal occasion to expose the Donatist schism, rebuking those who, as he says, “left us.”  Much of the social context for these homilies is supplied by the Donatist controversy. 36

1.  The Function of Teaching: William Harmless claimed that the subdued style of speaking, which serves the function of teaching, was Augustine’s preferred style. 37  This is certainly verified in the Homilies on the First Epistle of John.  Of the three functions of eloquence, Augustine devotes the most time to teaching.  Every page of these ten homilies contains elements of teaching.  For example, he teaches about the doctrines of the Trinity, 38 and of man being created in the image of God. 39 In other places, he uses the first function of eloquence to expose errors.  He speaks about the Donatist schism in the first homily, saying, “How is it that heresies have come about?  When people say, ‘We are righteous.’  When people say, ‘We sanctify the unclean, we cause the wicked to be righteous, we petition, we obtain.’” 40  He goes on to castigate the schismatics’ claim to a unique holiness by emphasizing what St. John said in his epistle about Christ, who alone is the righteous advocate that we have with the Father.  In another homily, Augustine exposes the Arian heresy, by speaking about Christ as, “new in the flesh but ancient in divinity.” 41  Further, Augustine continually employs the function of teaching to explain the meaning of biblical passages, particularly “thorny” and difficult passages.  In his ninth homily, he writes:

There are other passages that seem to contradict this, if there is no one to understand them.  For it is said in a certain place in a psalm, “The fear of the Lord is chaste, abiding forever”(Ps. 19:9).  [The psalmist] refers us to a certain eternal, but chaste, fear.  But if he refers us to an eternal fear, doesn’t the epistle perhaps contradict him, which says, “There is no fear in charity, but perfect charity casts out fear?”  Let us question both utterances of God. 42

The exegete and teacher then goes on to distinguish between these two types of fear, explaining how they are, in fact, in harmony with each other.

2. The Function of Delighting: Just as we can find examples of teaching on every page of Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John, so too are these homilies filled with countless examples of delighting.  In order to please the ears, and capture the imaginations, of his audience, Augustine employed numerous classical, rhetorical devices in order to present the truth eloquently.  He made use of every kind of rhetorical figure known in the classical tradition: 43 figures of amplification, figures of sound, figures of argumentation, figures of parallelism, figures of repetition, figures of vivacity, and figures of imagery.

Among the figures of repetition, two of the devices that he used most commonly are epanaphora and climax.  In her comprehensive study of the figures of rhetoric found in St. Augustine’s Sermons to the People, Sr. Inviolata Barry defines the rhetorical device of epanaphora as: “the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.” 44  In one particular passage of Homily Two, we find multiple examples of this.  Speaking of the begetting of the Son from the Father, Augustine writes: “Begotten by the eternal Father, begotten from eternity, begotten in eternity, with no beginning, with no end, with no length of space, because he is what is, because he himself is he who is.” 45  Climax, another figure of repetition, occurs when each successive clause of a sentence begins with the conclusion of the preceding clause. 46  In one of the instances of this device in Homily Ten, Augustine rebukes the Donatists, saying: “If you love a section, you have been cut off; if you have been cut off, you aren’t in the body; if you aren’t in the body, you aren’t under the head.” 47

Among the many other rhetorical figures that Augustine uses to delight his audience, figures of vivacity are among the most commonly used.  The device called interrogatio seems to be his favorite.  Interrogatio consists in giving a speech the interrogative (questioning) form of expression, not for the sake of information, but for effect. 48  In many places, Augustine will ask 8, 9 or 10 questions in a row, in order to produce a powerful impression of the truth of a subject. 49  In Homily Three, he writes about the resurrected Christ, saying to Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me…”  He asks:

“Put your fingers and touch my wounds” (Jn 20:27)?  Had he already ascended to the Father?  Why, then, does he forbid Mary and say, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father?”  Is this what we should say, that he didn’t fear to be touched by men, but did fear to be touched by women?  Touching him purifies all flesh.  Did he fear to be touched by those to whom he first wanted to be manifested?  Wasn’t his resurrection announced first by women to men, so that by an unexpected stratagem, the serpent might be conquered?  For, because he announced his death to the first man by a woman, his life, as well, was announced to men by a woman.  Why, then, didn’t he want to be touched, if not because he wanted that touching to be understood as spiritual? 50

Exclamatio is another figure of vivacity.  It expresses the strongest passions or emotions in vehement language. 51  Augustine often employs this device when rebuking his opponents.  In one instance, he speaks of the Donatists, who have cut themselves off from the whole body of Christ.  He exclaims: “And somebody or other is placing the boundaries of charity in Africa!” 52

3.  The Function of Swaying: Augustine employs the third function of rhetoric—swaying—to a lesser degree than the other two functions, but it is certainly present.  He regularly implores, rebukes, and stirs up his audience, trying to move them to act on what he is saying.  Near the end of his last homily on the First Epistle of John, Augustine implores his audience with these words: “See, the whole of this epistle speaks of these {two great} commandments.  Hold onto love, then, and be secure … As far as you yourself are concerned, love, and love with brotherly love.” 53  Augustine’s homilies are also full of words of rebuke, seeking to move the audience to correct wrong behavior.  He says in his second homily:

May the Spirit of God be in you, so that you may see that all these {created} things are good, but woe to you if you love created things, and abandon the creator… Don’t let Satan creep upon you, saying what he customarily says: “Enjoy yourself in God’s creation.  Why did he make those things if not for you to enjoy them?”  And they get drunk, and they ruin themselves, and they forget their creator. 54

Augustine also stirs up desire in his audience, saying things like: “Charity is being praised to you.  If it is pleasing, have it, possess it.  There is no need to steal it from anyone else.  There is no need for you to think of buying it: it is free.  Take it, embrace it: nothing is sweeter than it.  If this is what it is like when it is being spoken of, what must it be like when it is had?” 55

Amidst all of the teaching and delighting that fill the pages of these ten homilies, it is clear that Augustine’s ultimate purpose is to move his audience to do the one thing that this epistle urges, over and over again: to love with brotherly love.

Augustine understood well that preaching is ultimately about persuading; about moving a person to act, or rather, to respond to God’s action.  But, he also understood that persuasion is not a simple, one-step process.  The wisdom of the classical, rhetorical tradition taught him that the art of persuasion includes three elements: teaching, delighting and swaying.  Effective preaching, then, is preaching which is aimed at the whole human person: preaching which appeals to the mind through teaching, exposing, correcting and explaining; preaching which captures the imagination, adding delight to the presentation of the truth and making it memorable; and preaching which prods the will with words that implore, rebuke and stir into action.  This classical, tripartite schema offers a firm foundation for all preaching, because what has been true, for centuries upon centuries, about the art of persuading the human person, continues to be true today.

The New Evangelization calls us to “re-propose” the Gospel of Jesus Christ to cultures with deep Christian roots, suffering a serious crisis of faith due to increasing secularization. 56  Ultimately, however, evangelization is something that happens at the level of the individual.  We do not seek to persuade cultures, but persons.  In the challenging task of seeking to persuade the 21st century person, we would do well to employ the classical wisdom that Augustine has handed on to us.  In his own words:

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. 57


  1. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis (Vatican, 2007), #46,… (accessed August 14, 2012).
  2. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (Vatican, 2010), #60,… (accessed August 14, 2012).
  3. William Harmless, ed., Augustine in His Own Words (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 135.
  4. C. Colt Anderson, Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching (Mundelein: Hillenbrand Books, 2005), 20.
  5. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 19.
  6. Carol Harrison, “The rhetoric of scripture and preaching: classical decadence or Christian aesthetic?” in Augustine and His Critics, ed. Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (New York: Routledge, 2000), 214.
  7. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 19.
  8. St. Augustine, Teaching Christianity (De Doctrina Christiana), trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1996), IV.2.3.
  9. St. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.5.7.
  10. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.5.7.
  11. Harmless,  Augustine in His Own Words, 135.
  12. Quoted in Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.12.27.
  13. Harmless, Augustine in His Own Words, 135.
  14. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.4.6.
  15. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.4.6.
  16. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.12.28.
  17. Harmless, Augustine in His Own Words, 136.
  18. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.22.51.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Harrison, “The rhetoric of scripture and preaching,” 220.
  21. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 30.
  22. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.13.29.
  23. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 31.
  24. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.25.55.
  25. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.12.27.
  26. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.12.28.
  27. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.20.42.
  28. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 31.
  29. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.22.51.
  30. George P. Lawless, “Augustine of Hippo as Preacher” in Saint Augustine the Bishop: A Book of Essays, ed. Fannie LeMoine and Christopher Kleinhenz (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 29.
  31. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.22.51.
  32. Anderson, Christian Eloquence, 33.
  33. Steven M. Oberhelman, Rhetoric and Homiletics in Fourth-Century Christian Literature: Prose Rhythm, Oratorical Style, and Preaching in the Works of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 117.
  34. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.25.55.
  35. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, (Tractatus in Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos), trans. Boniface Ramsey, ed. Daniel E. Doyle and Thomas Martin (Hyde Park: New York City Press, 2008), 15.
  36. Allan D. Fitzgerald, “In Epistulam Johannis ad Parthos tractatus” in Augustine Through the Ages, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 311.
  37. Harmless, Augustine in His Own Words, 136.
  38. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VII.6.
  39. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VIII.6.
  40. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, I.8.
  41. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, II.5.
  42. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, IX.5.
  43. cf. M. Inviolata Barry, “St. Augustine, the Orator: A Study of the Rhetorical Qualities of St. Augustine’s Sermones ad Populum” (PhD diss., Catholic University of America, 1924).
  44. Barry, “St. Augustine, the Orator,” 37.
  45. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, II.5.  It should be noted that in the first half of the sentence the three phrases that begin with the word ‘begotten’ are examples of epanaphora only in the English translation.  In Augustine’s original text, the repetition of ‘genitus’ actually comes at the end of each of these phrases, making them an example of antistrophe—the opposite of epanaphora—the repetition of the same word at the end of succeeding clauses or sentences.
  46. Barry, “St. Augustine, the Orator,” 60.
  47. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, X.8.
  48. Barry, “St. Augustine, the Orator,” 92.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, III.2.
  51. Barry, “St. Augustine, the Orator,” 111.
  52. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, X.8.
  53. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, X.7.
  54. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, II.11.
  55. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VII.10.
  56.… (accessed August 14, 2012).
  57. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, IV.13.29.
Fr. Michael Dominic O'Connor, OP About Fr. Michael Dominic O'Connor, OP

Fr. Michael Dominic O'Connor, OP, is originally from Peru, IL. After studying music and working as a church musician, he entered the Dominican Order in the Province of St. Joseph in August 2006. He professed solemn vows as a Dominican in August 2010, and was ordained to the priesthood in May 2012. He is presently completing a licentiate degree in Sacred Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He is especially interested in the Dominican Order's charism of preaching for the salvation of souls.


  1. To speak of preaching as an art can be accurate, and misleading; it can be helpful, and counterproductive. It all depends, I think, on the presence or absence of the “one thing needful” for good preaching: the power and unction of God in the preacher. I have listened in anguish to well-trained and artful preachers who preached their art but not His Gospel. I have listened to inarticulate but nevertheless inspiring men who were beautifully transparent to the Christ they served and proclaimed.

    The three aspects of the homily that you focused on – teaching, delighting and swaying – reminded me of the descriptors of Christian life itself: truth, beauty and divine charity. Teaching is to be of truth; delighting is to be in the beautiful; swaying is to be in divine charity. But teaching can be merely of the factual; delighting can be merely in the subjectively satisfying; swaying can be merely in self-interest, and mercenary. What can save the preacher from being merely a good salesman? What can save the hearers from merely wanting entertainment? The one thing necessary for both is the life of God, and that ought not be presumed too quickly.

    The New Evangelization, I am convinced, must present the Gospel in fullness and with unction, in authentic and earnest conviction. There is a danger, in other words, that our preachers focus more on style, technique and methodology than on the transformative life of Christ. Well-trained preachers can seem to be effective, for a while. But well-formed preachers will bring forth fruit, in due season.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    The Catholic Church is a world Church. The classical ways of Greece and Rome continue to have value, but effective preaching must include the ways of many different cultures. Authentic preaching ultimately comes from encounters of love with Jesus Christ.

  3. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Augustine has given a worthy manner to preach a homily today and good advice for teachers and professors in all levels of education .


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