Ars Praedicandi

Originally delivered as an address to the Theological College in Washington D.C.



Ars Praedicandi

Theological College


Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever!

Father Dominic, faculty, staff, and students of Theological College; my brother priests and deacons; religious women and men; distinguished visitors and friends one and all:

Thank you for your gracious invitation and warm welcome. It is an honor and a joy to be with you at this seminary I so respect, to speak on a matter at the very core of the mission of this house: preaching. It has always impressed me that, on the striking marble frame surrounding the high altar in the seminary where I studied, the North American College in Rome, are eight episodes: the seven sacraments, and, yes, a suggested eighth one, preaching.

A number of years ago, I had a sad duty, one that I have performed at least a half-dozen times before, one that never leaves you the same: I presided at the funeral of Michael Ollis, a Marine Sergeant, a committed Catholic, who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq. As is my custom, I arrived at Holy Rosary Parish on Staten Island about twenty minutes early to visit with his loving, grieving, faithful family, among whom was his brother, also a Marine.

As is likewise my custom, I mingled with the dozens of young Marines who had come to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. They had assembled in a spacious area outside the sacristy, and I greeted each of them. I thanked them, expressed sympathy to them, joked with them, and chatted about topics such the New York Mets, beer and hot dogs, their girlfriends, and listened to their good-natured banter.

But I waited for a certain moment, which past experience had shown me would certainly come. As the funeral was ready to begin, an officer crisply sounded a command: the persona of those Marines, their temperament, their bearing, almost, dare I say, their identity, was transformed. The chatting, swapping of anecdotes, ribbing, laughing, and levity vanished; they stood at attention, portraits, as it were, of honor, valor, duty. They now had a sacred mission: to honor a fallen comrade, to console a family, to represent a grieving nation, to personify the Marine Corps. They had a new vocation, a new identity. And as usual, they did it well.

I recalled this as I prepared this presentation.

For, my brother priests and deacons; for, beloved future priests, and dear friends who look to us for solid, sustaining, substantive preaching — when we in Holy Orders preach at the Eucharist, our persona is transformed. Like those Marines, we assume a new, elevated identity: we preach, not in our name, but in the name of Jesus and His Church.

Preaching at the Eucharist is an ecclesial vocation; it comes from and is an intimate part of the Person of Christ, and of His bride, the Church.

Like those Marines, once the command to “go to the altar of God” and to “do this in memory of Me” sounds, the banter, the levity, the personal agenda disappears, as we take upon ourselves another identity, to act in persona Christi.

Now, to be sure, I am not saying that our personality, our temperament, our humanity does not affect our preaching. You bet it does. As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted, “grace builds on nature,” and we bring our human nature with us — some of us with much more weight than others — every time we stand before God’s people and dare to preach. Never are we to be robots, empty shells, devoid of color, care, and character in the pulpit.

When I was a rector, a faculty member, during an evaluation session, praised a deacon for the substance of his preaching, but then observed: “But I will bring an oil-can with me to the sacristy next time you’re on, because in the sanctuary and in the pulpit, you are about as stiff and mechanical as the ‘tin-man’ in the ‘Wizard of Oz’.”

So, I am not saying that our ecclesial call to preach, not our person, but in persona Christi, turns us into mechanical “tin-men.” We gladly bring our humanity with us, to give warmth, color, naturalness, credibility, a heart, to what we preach.

But our person is — to borrow again from the Angelic Doctor — only the “accident.” The substance must be Christ! And I am afraid that too often today the “accident” of our own person, our own agenda, trumps the substance of the Person of Christ and the message of His Church. That injunction is as fresh as when St. Hilary of Poitiers prayed, “I am well aware . . . that in my life I owe you a most particular duty: to make my every thought and word speak of you.”

My observations this morning are not intended to eclipse the universal mandate to all the faithful to evangelize and offer witness, nor to exclude more precise forms of the Church’s preaching in the mission of catechesis, and even some ritual preaching properly allowed to the qualified non-ordained on specific occasions.

But my words on preaching today are meant for those in Holy Orders. When we preach at the Eucharist — a sacred task Presbyterorum Ordinis, the document of the Council on the priesthood, lists as the priority of the priest — to borrow from the Apostle, we never “preach ourselves, but Christ Crucified.” Preaching at the Eucharist is an ecclesial, not a personal, vocation. It comes from and is an intimate part of the Person, not of Timothy Dolan, but of Christ and His Church.

Thanks to the towering Magisterium of Pope Saint John Paul II, the theme of the identity of the priest as one who acts in Persona Christi has been revived and emphasized. At the core of our being, ordination so configures us, “re-orders” us, that we now act in the very person of the Second Person of the Most blessed Trinity, a concept developed especially in Pastores Dabo Vobis.

I don’t know about other priests, but I find it rather easy — awesome, to be sure, but simple — to see myself acting in Persona Christi when I utter the words of consecration at Mass, for instance, or absolve a penitent in the sacrament of reconciliation, or christen a baby or an adult. What I am proposing in this lecture is that we are also acting in the Person of Christ when we preach. Jesus preaches to His people in and through us. “He who hears you, hears me!” If this does not stop you short, I don’t know what will.

Let me elaborate on this in three points:

First, we are called, in the ecclesial charism of preaching, to preach Jesus. In my home archdiocese of St. Louis, there is a parish Church where, as you approach the pulpit to preach, you see an inscription from the gospels carved into the ambo. The passage? “Sir, we would like to see Jesus,” the earnest, direct appeal of the Greek visitors to the apostles as recorded in the Fourth Gospel. The first time I preached from that pulpit I was captivated by that statement. As I looked out at the hundreds of people before me, that was their plea, their desire, the mission statement they were giving me: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

My good friend and mentor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, tells the story of once being with Saint Mother Teresa behind stage just before she was to begin to address thousands of people eager to hear her. “Mother, what do you plan to speak about?” he asked her. She shrugged and replied, “Oh, I don’t know, but it will certainly be something about Jesus.” While I can hardly encourage not knowing exactly what we will speak about until moments before we do so, I can certainly encourage us to follow her example to make sure that it is always about Jesus.

I was at a wake service once where the funeral director, trying admirably to be helpful, introduced the parish priest by saying, “Now Father Mark will preach about the life of George, our beloved deceased.” The priest began, “Well, not exactly. I am going to preach about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how George is now part of that mystery.” Well said!

The late Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile recalls how, as a student at the Gregorian University, the class on the Trinity came to the end of the semester. The famed professor closed his notes, removed his glasses, and, for the first time all semester, spoke unscripted, and, in Italian, not Latin. He looked out at the hundreds of students in the aula and concluded, “When all is said and done, I do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity!” Gasps! Consternation throughout the hall! What? Such heresy at this pontifical university?

He waited for silence. “No, I do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe with all my heart and soul in the God who has revealed it to us!”

Archbishop Lipscomb goes on, “For the first time in my life, I realized that faith was not in a proposition, but in a Person.”

And we preach a Person, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ.

If, as I contend, preaching is an ecclesial charism, then, as homilist, we, representing the Church, speak lovingly of the Church’s spouse, Christ. While preaching, we speak with, from, and for the Church, often about her spouse, Jesus Christ.

I remember the weeks and months after my dad dropped dead at fifty-one, frequently visiting my mom. Purposefully, I would always get her to talk about him. She would, of course, tear up and cry. One day I said, “I’m sorry, Mom, I shouldn’t bring up Dad all the time. It understandably upsets you.”

She shot back, “No! Please! You’re the only one that gets me talking about him. Everybody else is afraid to upset me. Please let’s keep talking about him. I need to! I want to! Never stop.”

— a bride eager to speak of her husband;

— a Church itching to speak of her groom;

— a preacher always talking about Jesus and His bride, the Church.

I came upon this allocution of Pope Benedict XVI marvelously elaborating on this relationship between the priest and Christ:

Saint Augustine tried to make clear, for himself and his faithful, the nature of priestly service. It came to him from meditation on the figure of John the Baptist, in whom he finds a prefiguring of the role of the priest. He points out that in the New Testament John is described, with a saying borrowed from Isaiah, as a “voice,” while Christ appears in the Gospel of John as “the Word.” The relation of “voice” (vox) to “word” (verbum) helps to make clear the mutual relationship between Christ and the priest. The word exists in someone’s heart before it is ever perceptible to the senses through the voice. Through the mediation of the voice, it then enters into the perception of the other person and is then present likewise in his heart, without the speaker’s having thereby in any sense lost the word. This voice that carries the word from one person to the other (or others) passes away. The word remains. Ultimately, the task of the priest is quite simply to be a voice for the word: “He must increase, but I must decrease” — the voice has no other purpose than to pass on the word; it then once more effaces itself. On this basis the stature and the humbleness of priestly service are both equally clear: the priest is, like John the Baptist, purely a forerunner, a servant of the Word. It is not he who matters, but the other. Yet he is, with his entire existence, vox; it is his mission to be a voice for the Word, and thus, precisely in his being radically referred to, dependent upon, someone else, he takes a share in the stature of the mission of the Baptist and in the mission of the Logos himself.

Secondly, as a preacher, we speak for, with, and from the Church. It is an ecclesial act.

This follows logically, because, for us as Catholics, Christ and His Church are one. Just ask Saul of Tarsus, who found this out the hard way on the road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Not, notice, why do you persecute my Church, my people, but, “Why do you crucify me?”

Buckle your seat belt, future preachers, because this is a real challenge today. As Father Ronald Rolheiser observes, we live, not in a post-Christian era — people rarely have a problem with Christ — but we sure do live in a post-ecclesial era! The folks have trouble with the Church. They want the King without the kingdom, to be a member of God’s family, but the only child, Christ without His Church, a sheepfold where I am the only lamb, Christ as King in a kingdom of me alone. But, for us as Catholics, it’s a package deal. “For what would I know of Him without her?” as de Lubac asks.

So we hear, “Well, I’m a ‘spiritual’ person, but not religious.”

“I believe in God. I just don’t need the Church.”

But we are totally and unequivocally men of the Church as preachers. What St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote for his prospective Jesuits applies to us: we are resolved to serve “the Lord alone and the Church His Spouse.”

Remember his conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises, where he refuses to admit any discrepancy between the love of Christ and His Church? “I must be convinced,” he writes, “that in Christ our Lord, the bridegroom, and in His spouse the Church, only one Spirit holds sway, which governs and rules for the salvation of souls.” And, as Cardinal Avery Dulles, a renowned professor at the University across the street, concludes, “St. Ignatius’ allegiance is not to some abstract idea of the Church, but to the Church as it concretely exists on earth.” Referring to St. Ignatius, the cardinal concludes that the hierarchical and Roman Church is “the true spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy mother.”

So it is imperative that we speak lovingly, tenderly of the Church. Once again, as Pastores Dabo Vobis teaches, through Holy Orders, we are so configured to Christ that we act in His Person in loving His bride, the Church.

For some preachers it seems obligatory to criticize the Church in their homilies. Some claim she is hopelessly outmoded, patriarchal, oppressive, insensitive, corrupt, unenlightened; while others preach that she is too eager to embrace the spirit of the times, and has lost her beauty and moral __________, — both which really translate: unwilling to do what the preacher wants! She is the cause of every problem in the world, from global warming to male-pattern baldness. And so they say, we’ll be prophetic in the pulpit and chide her, berate her, criticize her! Listen to us, they say, not the Church.

Enough! We are in the pulpit not to speak against the Church but to speak about her, for her, with her, from her.

We’re hardly blind to the defects, flaws, and imperfections of the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda. We see her, warts and all. At times we can even agree with Flannery O’Connor and remark, “It’s not suffering for the Church that bothers me; it’s suffering from her.” A groom will still defend his bride’s dark side; a son well knows his mother’s eccentricities. But, in the words of the great Newman, our love for and trust in the Church, both our bride and our mother, is innate, and our preaching should radiate this.

In my days as rector, the first night in September when all were back, as we would gather in chapel for evening prayer, the deacons-to-be would make their required oath of fidelity and profession of faith. It was almost like the opening ceremony at the Super Bowl: This is what we’re all about folks! We are men for and with the Church, and our duty, now sealed by this oath, is to teach what she does, not to preach what we like.

“Love for Christ and His Church must be the passion of your lives!” as John Paul the Great told priests.

Thirdly, finally, as we preach of Jesus, as we speak with, for, and from His Church, we must speak of the Cross.

Years back, I had the “scourging-at-the-pillar” experience of an eighteen-hour non-stop mediation session with victim-survivors of sexual abuse by a priest. When I went in to meet the court-appointed mediator, he looked at the cross I was wearing, held it, and glared at me. “You Catholics,” he huffed, “you’re always showing off the cross!”

Oh, great, I thought. I’ve got some fundamentalist anti-Catholic on my hands as the judge! There goes the Cathedral!

But then he says, “And I’m glad you’re always showing off the cross. In my work, I daily hear the stories of people in pain, in agony, who have been hurt in soul, mind, and body. There are a lot of times I sneak to the Catholic Church down the block. I’m not even a Catholic, but am a man of faith, and I just stand and look up at the cross, and that gives me the strength I need, to know that our God is on a cross.”

Wow! Talk about a sermon! The power of the cross! “We preach Christ, and Christ crucified.”

The temptation is to soft-pedal the cross. We have a prominent couple back home who left the Church some years ago to join one of the popular, mushrooming, evangelical mega-churches in the area. Why? They claimed they wanted solid Bible-based preaching, and weren’t getting it at their parish. But, after a couple years, they came back to the Church. Alleluia! Why? Because, they reported, they missed the Eucharist, and, more to our point here, they found the preaching, in the new church, while skillful, effective, catchy, well-prepared, and exquisitely delivered, to be — to use their word — sanitized. Sanitized? What does that mean, I asked. That means, they replied, it was always feel-good, affirming, non-threatening, and — get this — absent the cross.

I’m afraid we face that in the Church, too. Sanitized . . . feel-good . . . affirming . . . nice . . . therapeutic . . . but, no cross.

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross,” in the oft-quoted words of H. Richard Niebuhr.

Well, in the words of that great American philosopher, Huckleberry Finn, from my home state of Missouri, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bothers me. It’s the parts I do,” and I understand the Bible to teach that the cross is an inevitable part of what we paradoxically call the “good news.”

I have always found it compelling that, the first thing Jesus did when he appeared to His apostles Easter night was . . . to show them His wounds. He showed them His wounds, yes, to let them know it really was He, the same one crucified the Friday before. But I wonder if He did not also show them His wounds because that’s what He wanted His newborn Church to do: to preach the wounds. Showing them His wounds, remember what He then remarked? “As the Father sent me” — and, see what happened, these wounds — “so I send you” — and you best get ready for the hammer, nails, and spear, too.

So, our preaching, if we preach Christ, if we preach with, for, from, and in the Church, must preach the cross.

Maybe the greatest threat to the Church is not heresy, not dissent, not secularism, not apathy, not departures, not even moral relativism, but this sanitized, feel-good, boutique, therapeutic spirituality that makes no demands, calls for no sacrifice, asks for no conversion, entails no battle against sin, but only soothes and affirms. Our preaching can then become cotton-candyish: a lot of fluff, air, and sugar, but no substance. As the columnist David Brooks comments, people today seem to want a comfortable, convenient, tolerant complacency; they do not ask, “What does the Lord expect of me?” but rather, “What will the Lord do for me, how will He satisfy my needs?” They aren’t looking for orthodoxy but what Brooks calls, “flexidoxy.” As he sums it up, “They aim at being decent, nice, not being saints. They prefer a moral style that doesn’t shake things up.”

Sorry, folks, but we happen to have a Master who enjoys shaking things up, who nags us to “cast out to the deep,” to embrace the cross, to strive for perfection.

If our charism of preaching is Jesus-centered, and ecclesial — as it must be — it must also hold high the cross of Christ.

The gracious organizers of this day also asked that I get a bit practical.

I already mentioned one hopefully helpful tidbit in my homily this morning, from the great Fulton J. Sheen, remember: soul — heart — mind — lips.

Here’s another one: S-A-S – NI. . . short; audible; simple; not I.

S – – short. You have already suffered decades of “homiletics’ abuse,” sentenced to endless droning on by a preacher, asking yourself, “When’s he going to land this plane?” Please don’t subject your people to the same fate!

Fulton Sheen also remarked that the secret of an effective homily was “a catchy beginning, a memorable conclusion, and keeping the two as close together as possible.”

He once observed, “If you want me to give an hour lecture, I need a week’s notice; if you want me to preach for ten minutes, give me a month’s notice.”

The more prolonged the sermon, the less the preacher prepared.

I get scoffed at for this, but . . . rarely more than 2 minutes on a weekday; never more than 8–10 on a Sunday.

As a young priest I was greeting the folks after Sunday Mass.

“Father, what’s the band-aid on your cheek for?”

“Oh,” I replied, “this morning while shaving I was rehearsing my sermon and, distracted, cut myself.”

“Next time, Father, think of shaving and cut your sermon!”

A — audible. Do you realize how many of our people say they can’t hear us or understand us? Speak up! Speak confidently! Oh, please, don’t shout! But, be audible!

S — simple. When I was a graduate student here at the university as a young priest, I went home for Christmas. Mom and I went to the parish for midnight Mass, and I concelebrated. The preacher went on and on telling the people that the Gospel they just heard, the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, should hardly be taken seriously, for it was mostly fantasy, myth, by St. Luke the Evangelist, what biblical experts call “midrash,” huffed the priest.

Can you imagine? On this sacred night, as families came to be inspired again, to hear of a young mother and her baby, of light in the darkness, and angels singing, of shepherds awed and the world made whole, he speaks of “midrash,” something they all think an embarrassing skin affliction you sneak up to Walgreens to get ointment for!

On the way home, I asked Mom, “What’d you think of the sermon?”

“Oh, we all stopped listening to him a long time ago!”

And, fourth, “not I.”

The purpose of preaching is not to draw attention to me but to thee, to Jesus. Go through your sermon and count how often you use the pronoun, “I.” Compare it to how often you use “He,” referring to the Lord.

Tricks, gimmicks, puppets, stories, anecdotes, jokes — okay, occasionally, as antipasto. Often, I’m afraid, these become the main course. People will applaud because these entertain. And we become the entertainer.

King Louis XIV of France had found the court preacher entertaining, soothing, flashy. Then came a new one, Father Massillon. After hearing his first sermon the king complimented him, “Up until now, I have been very pleased with the preacher. Hearing you, I am displeased with myself. Thank you!”

Unlike other Christian Churches, we Catholics do not publicize the name of the celebrant/preacher for Sunday Mass. There’s a good reason for that. In reality, there is a divine celebrant and preacher at every Mass, and it sure ain’t I!

A crusty-old-but-effective pastor told me he was assigned an associate who was flashy and entertaining at the pulpit and altar. This priest was popular. People would call and ask, “Oh, what priest has the 10:00 Mass?” wanting to attend Father Flashy’s Mass. The pastor would reply, “Jesus,” and hang up. Bad style; good answer.

S – A – S – NI: short, audible, simple, not I.

My brothers: we have an obligation in justice to preach well. I firmly believe that the answer to the nagging question, “Why have our people quit going to Mass?” is not some controversial matter of faith or morals, but because our Masses are way too long and our sermons mediocre at best, awful at worst. At one of our recent synodal sessions, I asked my table, “Why don’t our people come to Mass?” One fellow replied, “Because the Mass goes on forever, the sermon stinks, and you closed our parish.” Sorry I asked!

So we finish with the sobering words of Presbyterorum Ordinis: “The People of God finds its unity first of all through the word of the living God, which is sought from the lips of priests.”

Rewind to that funeral Mass of Sgt Michael Ollis on Staten Island a number of years back. At the end of the burial, at the grave, another Marine Sergeant takes the crisply, perfectly folded flag of our country that had draped the casket. He walks with impeccable precision to Sergeant Kryst’s mom, salutes her, and says, “Accept this flag from a grateful nation.”

Do you comprehend the boldness of what just occurred?

That Marine Sergeant dares to speak, not for himself, but for the entire country.

My brothers, as we exercise the ecclesial vocation of preaching, we dare to speak, not for ourselves, but for Christ, His Church, and His cross.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever!

Timothy Cardinal Dolan About Timothy Cardinal Dolan

Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan is the Archbishop of New York. Ordained to the priesthood in 1976, among other assignments, Cardinal Dolan served as the Rector of the Pontifical North American College from 1994-2001. In 2001, Pope Saint John Paul II appointed him as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, and, in 2002, as the Archbishop of Milwaukee. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as Archbishop of New York and created him a Cardinal-Priest in 2012. Cardinal Dolan holds the Doctorate in Church History from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.