From Benedict to Francis

A Brief Survey of Papal Teaching on Preaching, 1917-2013

On the fifteenth of June in 1917, Pope Benedict XV issued the encyclical, Humani Generis Redemptionem, “On Preaching the Word of God.” This is the most recent papal document which was devoted specifically to preaching, at least at the level of an encyclical or an apostolic exhortation. In the years following the publication of this encyclical, each of the Bishops of Rome has addressed the subject of preaching, to a greater or lesser degree, in various documents. This brief survey, limited to encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, will examine papal teaching on the subject of preaching—from Pope Benedict XV to the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

Pope Benedict XV
The reign, writings, and person of Pope Benedict XV are nearly forgotten to history. Elected in 1914, as the guns of the First World War were being loaded, Giacomo Della Chiesa left the See of Bologna, and returned to the Vatican where he had served for over thirty years in the Secretariat of State. He had been named a Cardinal by Pope St. Pius X only a few months before his election. During his many years in the Curia, he celebrated Mass and was one of the regular preachers at the Church of St. Eustachio. Many years later, the faithful of this parish erected a beautiful marble pulpit in the Church in memory of his years of preaching. The inscription on the pulpit reads: “Lest it be forgotten that on this spot, Benedict XV, Supreme Pontiff, exercised his priestly functions for a long time, this pulpit was erected in 1937.”1 In the exercise of the Petrine ministry, he demonstrated his deep commitment to the ministry of preaching with the second encyclical of his pontificate.

When he issued the encyclical, Humani Generis Redemptionem, “On Preaching the Word of God,” Pope Benedict XV addressed the crisis in preaching, and his responsibility to attend to it, noted the three principle causes of this problem, and the methods to correct them, and presented St. Paul as a model for the preachers of his day. Beginning with the concept that preaching continues the work of salvation, and brings renewal to creation, he noted that in the world “there is a general disregard and forgetfulness of the supernatural, a gradual falling away from the strict standard of Christian virtue, and that men are slipping back, more and more, into the practice of paganism.”2 In order to address this circumstance, he continued stating that:  “it must be our earnest endeavor everywhere to bring back the preaching of the Word of God to the norm and ideal to which it must be directed.”3

The causes of the poor state of preaching enumerated by Pope Benedict XV are three: poor selection of preachers by bishops, deficient intention for preaching by priests, and poor performance of the preaching act. The Holy Father reminds bishops, at length, of their responsibility for selecting and sending suitable preachers for work in their dioceses. He notes that only those priests with the permission of the Bishop are allowed to preach, and that this permission is granted only after a thorough examination into the learning and character of the potential preacher. Pope Benedict XV warns each bishop of the cost of negligence in this matter, cautioning that “on him will fall the responsibility of the errors which the untrained preacher may spread, or of the scandal and the bad example which the unworthy one may give.”4

The second cause of the poor state of preaching discussed in the encyclical is the intention of the preacher. As ambassadors of Christ, preachers “ought to have the same purpose in discharging their office that Christ had in conferring it on them.”5 Preachers testify to the truth so that their hearers may have life. The Holy Father warns against preachers who seek applause, or seek to acquire fame, or other earthly benefits. Of these preachers he says, “They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as ‘having itching ears’.”6 He instructs the bishops to remove, at once, any preachers with such motives, saying that “the man who does not scruple to defile so holy an office by such an unworthy perversion of its end, surely will not hesitate to descend to any indignity, and will bring the stain of ignominy not merely upon himself, but upon the sacred office also which he so unworthily administers.”7

The third cause noted in the document is that preaching is not carried out in the right way.    Here the Holy Father presents the example of St. Paul as a positive model. St. Paul was very well prepared for the ministry of preaching through intellectual preparation. He possessed knowledge of self, of God, and of the duties of the preacher. These three areas of knowledge enable the preacher to forsake his own benefit, lead others to the knowledge and love of God, and fulfill his own responsibilities, while teaching others to do the same. Pope Benedict XV writes, “If {the preacher} lacks these three kinds of knowledge, whatever other learning he has, will only puff him up, and will be useless.”8

St. Paul models spiritual preparation for the ministry of preaching by uniting his will to the will of God, by suffering hardships in the conduct of that ministry, and by living in a spirit of prayer. These essential spiritual components enable the preacher to devote himself completely to the salvation of others, give witness to the primacy of the Gospel, and live in union with God. Of the importance of the spirit of prayer, the Pope writes that the preacher who neglects prayer “vainly spends his time and labor in preaching, for in God’s sight, his sermons profit neither himself nor those who hear him.”9

The final aspect where St. Paul is presented as a model for preachers concerns the content of preaching. Pope Benedict writes: “To make men know Jesus Christ better and better, and to make that knowledge have bearing, moreover, not only on their faith, but on their lives as well, was the object of that apostolic man’s every endeavor.”10 The Pope encourages preachers to present the entire content of the faith, including those teachings which are most challenging, with the courage of St. Paul. However, the Holy Father also notes: “The test of the orator’s power and skill is his success in making his hearers accept the stern truth he is preaching.”11 This demonstrates an apostolic concern for the hearers because he recognizes that the presentation of the preacher, as well as the acceptance by the hearers, is part of the preaching event.

The Encyclical concludes by reminding the bishops of their responsibility to carefully select and train preachers so that “there should now be no lack of preachers who are men after God’s own heart.”12 The papal ministry of Pope Benedict XV concluded on January 22, 1922 with his death.13

Pope Pius XI
Ambrogio Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI, was elected to the papacy in 1922, only a few months after he was appointed Archbishop of Milan, and elevated to the College of Cardinals.14 His contribution to papal teaching on preaching is seen in three documents: Rerum Omnium Perturbationem, “On St. Francis De Sales,” Rerum Ecclesiae, “On the Catholic Missions,” and Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, “On the Catholic Priesthood.”

In his encyclical on St. Francis De Sales, published in 1923, Pope Pius XI encouraged priests to “learn to assimilate thoroughly the teachings of St. Francis, and to imitate the kindly qualities which characterized his preaching.”15 Of his sermons, the Holy Father noted that “since they were largely made up of the teachings of the Bible, and the Fathers, they became not only a source of sound doctrine, but were agreeable and persuasive to his hearers.”16 As Pope Benedict XV did with St. Paul, Pope Pius XI presented, in a more limited way, St. Francis De Sales as a model preacher.

In his encyclical on missionary activity, published in 1926, Pope Pius XI discusses the importance of cultivating a native clergy in the mission lands. He notes, in particular, the difficulties foreign missionaries experience in the ministry of preaching. Of the foreign missionary, the Holy Father writes that “because of his imperfect knowledge of the language, often finds himself embarrassed when he attempts to express his thoughts with the result that the force and efficacy of his preaching are thereby greatly weakened.”17 Pope Pius XI also mentions to the missionaries the importance of following the model of Jesus, who healed the sick before he preached to them.

In his encyclical on the priesthood, published in 1935, the Holy Father mentions preaching as part of teaching the truths of the faith. However, in this document, his greatest concern is that the life of the preacher conforms to the message that he preaches. He writes:, “The priest must preach the Gospel; but for that preaching to be effective, the most obvious and, by the Grace of God, the most persuasive argument, is to see the actual practice of the law in him who preaches it.”18 He also states: “A preacher who does not try to ratify by his life’s example the truth he preaches, only pulls down with one hand what he builds up with the other.”19

The reign of Pope Pius XI ended with his death in 1939 as the Second World War was beginning.

Pope Pius XII
After the death of Pope Pius XI, the College of Cardinals elected as Bishop of Rome, Eugenio Pacelli, Cardinal Secretary of State, who chose the name Pius XII. Pope Pius XII contributed to papal teaching on preaching in the encyclical, Mediator Dei, “On the Sacred Liturgy,” published in 1947. Unlike the writings of Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII discussed preaching in a liturgical context. He both describes and contextualizes the preaching event stating: “The homily or sermon in which the official head of the congregation recalls and explains the practical bearing of the commandments of the divine Master, and the chief events of His life, combining instruction with appropriate exhortation and illustration of the benefit of all his listeners.”20 This document represents a considerable development in the understanding of preaching as it places the preaching act within the context of the liturgical act. This brief statement also addresses the specific content of preaching which includes both instruction and exhortation. Additionally, the sermon or homily provides practical implications for the listeners.

It would be anachronistic to see a contemporary understanding of the homily completely present in this writing. However, this is certainly an example of early anticipation of later understandings in the development of the theology of preaching.  Pope Pius XII died in 1958 after nineteen years on the Chair of Peter.

Pope St. John XXIII
Following the death of Pius XII, the College of Cardinals elected as Pope the seventy-six year old Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII. He called the Second Vatican Council only a few months after assuming the Petrine ministry.

Pope St. John XXIII exhorted priests in the ministry of preaching in his encyclical, Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, “On St. John Vianney,” published in 1959. The Holy Father focused his comments on the importance of continual study for the ministry of preaching and teaching. He noted that those who had received ordination “should gain an adequate knowledge of human affairs, and a thorough knowledge of sacred doctrine that is in keeping with their abilities.”21 In this encyclical, Pope St. John XXIII encouraged priests “to improve the religious training of both youngsters and adults by presenting it in a variety of forms that are specially adapted to local circumstances and needs.”22

This document focuses on a particular preacher rather than on preaching. However, these brief statements demonstrate that continual study is essential for effective preaching, and that the method of presentation in preaching and teaching must be adapted to the particular needs of the hearers.  After a brief, but eventful reign, the papacy of Pope St. John XXIII ended with his death on June 3, 1963.

Pope Bl. Paul VI
Following the death of Pope St. John XXIII, the College of Cardinals elected Giovanni Battista Montini, the Archbishop of Milan, who chose the name, Paul VI. He contributed to papal teaching on preaching with two documents in particular: the Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, “On the Church, and the Apostolic Exhortation” and  Evangelii Nuntiandi, “On Evangelization in the Modern World.”

In his encyclical regarding the Church, published in 1964, Pope Bl. Paul VI powerfully affirms the importance of preaching. Of it he says, “no other form of communication can take its place; not even the enormously powerful technical means of press, radio, and television.”23 He states that the primary apostolate of the Church is preaching, and encourages both clarity and simplicity in presentation. The Holy Father includes preaching among the catechetical teaching of the Faith, and instructs that it “be characterized by the aptness of language, the wisdom of its method, the zeal of its exercise, supported by real virtues [which will lead to] a realization of the intimate connection between the Divine Word and life.”24

In his document on evangelization, published in 1975, Pope Bl. Paul VI discusses the content of preaching, and emphasizes its necessity, importance, and indispensable nature. This is at the heart of his teaching on the subject, seeking to restore confidence in the power of preaching. He writes: “The fatigue produced these days by so much empty talk, and the relevance of many other forms of communication, must not, however, diminish the permanent power of the word, or cause a loss of confidence in it.”25 He encourages preachers to look for the work of the Lord in the events of the life of the community, and to devote themselves to their sermons as a work of love. Noting the importance that the faithful place on preaching, and its unifying power for a community, Pope Bl. Paul VI states that preaching should be “simple, clear, direct, well-adapted, profoundly dependent on Gospel teaching, and faithful to the Magisterium, animated by a balanced apostolic ardor coming from its own characteristic nature, full of hope, fostering belief, and productive of peace and unity.”26 He also notes that “if the preaching of the Gospel is to be effective, [the Church] must address her message to the heart of the multitudes, to communities of the faithful whose action can and must reach others.”27

The teaching of Pope Bl. Paul VI regarding preaching reminds priests of the power of this ministry. He seeks to restore the confidence of preachers in light of changing cultural and technological circumstances, while offering some characteristics of effective sermons.

After a little more than fifteen years, the papacy of Pope Bl. Paul VI ended with his death on August 6, 1978.

Pope St. John Paul II
After the brief reign of Pope John Paul I, the College of Cardinals elected Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Cracow, who chose the name, John Paul II. In his lengthy and productive reign, Pope St. John Paul II commented on the ministry of preaching in three principal documents: the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate, and the Apostolic Exhortations Catechesi Tradendae, On Catechesis in Our Time, and Pastores Gregis, On the Ministry of Bishops.

In his document on catechesis, published in 1979, Pope St. John Paul II writes: “The homily takes up again the journey of faith put forward by catechesis, and brings it to its natural fulfillment.”28 He also notes that the homily gives encouragement to the faithful, is centered on biblical texts, and is also an opportunity to familiarize the faithful with the doctrines of the Faith, and moral exhortation. On the subject of homilies, he says, “It should be neither too long, nor too short; it should always be carefully prepared, rich in substance, and adapted to the hearers, and reserved to ordained ministers.”29

In his encyclical on missionary activity, published in 1990, the Holy Father wrote that preaching is part of an invitation to conversion. He says that “preaching constitutes the Church’s first and fundamental way of serving the coming of the kingdom in individuals, and in human society.”30 He boldly claims: “Faith is born of preaching, and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response of each believer to that preaching.”31 He also reminds the whole Church that the ministry of preaching is carried out by those who are willing to labor in the vineyard.

In his document regarding the ministry of bishops, published in 2003, Pope St. John Paul II notes several characteristics of preaching: it proclaims the promises of God, encourages and gathers the faithful, and provides a vision of the future. He also states “Preaching is, in fact, ordered to our sharing in divine life, which we receive from the double table of the word and the Eucharist.”32

Pope St. John Paul II contributes to papal teaching on giving sermons by providing a vision of preaching that is catechetical, evangelical, and unitive. He echoes several of his predecessors with regard to the importance of preaching, and also foreshadows the contribution of his successor.

After a reign of over twenty-seven years, the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II ended with his death on April 2, 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI
Following the death of Pope St. John Paul II, the College of Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who took the name Benedict XVI. He contributed to papal teaching on the subject of preaching with two Apostolic Exhortations: Sacramentum Caritatis which concerns the celebration of the Eucharist; and, Verbum Domini, On the Word of God in the Life of the Church.

In the document, Sacramentum Caritatis, published in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI calls for improvement in the quality of homilies. Noting the liturgical context of preaching, he writes that the homily “is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful.”33 He instructs preachers to avoid abstract and generic homilies. The Holy Father specifically asks preachers “to preach in such a way that the homily closely relates the proclamation of the word of God to the sacramental celebration, and the life of the community, so that the word of God truly becomes the Church’s vital nourishment and support.”34 He notes the appropriate use of the homily to teach the faith, and to provide moral exhortation. He also suggests the possibility of thematic homilies, in accord with the lectionary cycle, to provide instruction to the faithful.

In the document, Verbum Domini, published in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI writes about the nature and context of the homily stating:

The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy.35

The Holy Father echoes the comments of Pope Benedict XV, regarding the intention of the preacher, in stating that: “The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily.”36 He encourages preachers to prepare for the homily with meditation and prayer. Additionally, they should seek to cultivate the art of good preaching based on the Lectionary. Benedict also asks for practical resources, and a directory on the homily to be prepared to assist preachers.

Pope Benedict XVI provides a synthetic vision of preaching, combining scriptural, liturgical, catechetical, and pastoral concerns. He emphasizes how the homily impacts the members of the assembly, enabling them to grow in the knowledge and practice of the faith. He also notes the need for practical aides for those involved in the ministry of preaching. The reign of Pope Benedict XVI ended with his resignation of the Petrine Ministry in February 2013.

Pope Francis
Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the College of Cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergolio, S.J., the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who chose the name Francis. He issued the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, in November 2013.

In the second section of the third chapter of this five-chapter document, Pope Francis writes about the homily. He explains that: “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people.”37 Given the liturgical context of the homily, the Holy Father notes that the sermon surpasses catechesis, and should not appear to be a lecture or a speech. Also, in the liturgical context, the homily is an act of worship. He encourages the use of images, and stresses the need for preparation for preaching.

Above all, this section of Evangelii Gaudium is a letter to preachers on the dignity, obligations, and privilege of preaching. Pope Francis offers a profound meditation on the relationship between the preacher and the assembly, giving further expression to the thoughts presented by Pope Bl. Paul VI. He echoes the concern for the quality of preaching expressed by Pope Benedict XV, and others. Along with Pope Pius XI, Pope Bl. Paul VI, and Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis places preaching in the context of the Church’s mission. Francis expounds on the liturgical context of the homily, noted by Pope Pius XII and Pope Benedict XVI. Along with Pope St. John XXIII, Pope Francis demonstrates concern for the teaching of the faith, and the witness of the life of the preacher. Our present pope receives, appropriates, and amplifies the papal wisdom on preaching that precedes him.

From Pope Benedict XV to Pope Francis, each pope contributes to the understanding of preaching. While each of them wrote in response to the needs of their particular time, there are three common features presented. First, preaching is a fundamental activity of the Church through which salvation is announced, and the content of the faith is taught. Second, the authenticity of the preacher which is formed by prayer, study, and the example of other preachers, is an essential component for effective preaching. Finally, the content and style of preaching responds to the needs of the hearers. These three components provide a solid basis on which to build an understanding of preaching for every generation.


Benedict XV. Humani Generis Redemptionem. [Encyclical Letter, 1917]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1917.

Benedict XVI. Sacramentum Caritatis. [Apostolic Exhortation, 2007]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2007.

Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini. [Apostolic Exhortation, 2010]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2010.

Francis. Evangelii Gaudium. [Apostolic Exhortation, 2013]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2013.

John XXIII. Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia. [Encyclical Letter, 1959]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1959.

John Paul II. Catechesi Tradendae. [Apostolic Exhortation, 1979]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1979.

John Paul II. Pastores Gregis. [Apostolic Exhortation, 2003]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2003.

John Paul II. Redemptoris Missio. [Encyclical Letter, 1990]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1990.

Paul VI. Ecclesiam Suam. [Encyclical Letter, 1964]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1964.

Paul VI. Evangelii Nuntiandi. [Apostolic Exhortation, 1975]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1975.

Peters, Walter H. The Life of Benedict XV. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959.

Pius XI. Ad Catholici Sacerdotii. [Encyclical Letter, 1935]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1935.

Pius XI. Rerum Ecclesiae. [Encyclical Letter, 1926]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1926.

Pius XI. Rerum Omnium Perturbationem. [Encyclical Letter, 1923]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1923.

Pius XII. Mediator Dei. [Encyclical Letter, 1947]. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1947.

Pollard, John F. Benedict XV: The Unknown Pope and the Pursuit of Peace. New York: Continuum, 2005.

  1. Walter H. Peters, The Life of Pope Benedict XV (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959), 23.
  2. Benedict XV, Humani Generis Redemptionem (Encyclical Letter, 1917), (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1917), n. 2.
  3. Ibid., n. 4.
  4. Ibid., n. 8.
  5. Humani Generis Redemptionem, n. 9.
  6. Ibid., n. 10.
  7. Ibid., n. 12.
  8. Ibid., n. 14.
  9. Humani Generis Redemptionem, n. 17.
  10. Ibid., n. 19.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Humani Generis Redemptionem, n. 20.
  13. John Pollard, Benedict XV: The Unknown Pope and the Pursuit of Peace (New York: Continuum, 2005), 211.
  14. Peters, 201.
  15. Pius XI, Rerum Omnium Perturbationem (Encyclical Letter, 1923) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1923), n. 30.
  16. Ibid., n. 32.
  17. Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae (Encyclical Letter, 1926) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1926), n. 22.
  18. Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii (Encyclical Letter, 1935) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1935), n. 36.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Pius XII, Mediator Dei (Encyclical Letter, 1947) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1947), n. 21.
  21. John XXIII,  Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (Encyclical Letter, 1959) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1959), n. 78.
  22. Ibid., 84.
  23. Paul VI,  Ecclesiam Suam (Encyclical Letter, 1964) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1964), n.  90.
  24. Ibid., n. 91.
  25. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Apostolic Exhortation, 1975) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1975), n. 42.
  26. Ibid., n. 43.
  27. Ibid., n. 57.
  28. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (Apostolic Exhortation, 1979) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1979), n. 48.
  29. Ibid.
  30. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (Encyclical Letter, 1990) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1990), n. 20.
  31. Ibid., n. 44.
  32. John Paul II, Pastores Gregis (Apostolic Exhortation, 2003) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2003), n. 32.
  33. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis (Apostolic Exhortation, 2007)(Washington: United States Catholic Conference), n. 46.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (Apostolic Exhortation, 2010) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2010), n. 59.
  36. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (Apostolic Exhortation, 2010) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2010), n. 59.
  37. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Apostolic Exhortation, 2013) (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2013), n. 135.
Fr. Benjamin Roberts About Fr. Benjamin Roberts

Fr. Benjamin A. Roberts is a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte and Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Monroe, NC. He holds a DMin in Preaching from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis and is the author of the recently published book The Voice of the Bridegroom: Preaching as an Expression of Spousal Love, from Wipf and Stock.


  1. Absolutely love this!