Transposing this principle – called by me “the principle of concreteness” – to another field, that of preaching and presenting the moral and faith teachings of the Catholic Church, we can understand what should be the characteristics of a truly beneficial exposition for those who listen: clarity, concreteness, and a motivating tone.
I recalled all of these while listening to the sermon on modesty in attire delivered by a priest from the Fraternity of Saint Pius X last Sunday. The clear manner in which he spoke, the concrete examples he proposed, reminded me of the sermons of that extraordinary saint, John Chrysostom (347–407). Considered a true model by Saint Thomas Aquinas, his qualities as a preacher were encapsulated in the epithet – “golden-mouthed” – attributed to him, a title indicating the power of his words. In the age of lies and widespread hypocrisy, it is worth remembering the power of the true words of a preacher who did not spare his listeners.
Without false modesty, he describes sin by capturing its negative essence, capable of killing the soul.
If we peruse the homilies of the great Archbishop of Constantinople, we often encounter stirring words through the boldness with which he denounced the sins of those who listened to him:
“By what then, tell me, am I to recognize the believer in you, while all the things I have mentioned give the contrary sentence? And why do I say, the believer? Since I cannot clearly make out whether you are a man. For when you are like an ass, kicking, and like a bull, wantoning, and like a horse neighing after women; when thou dost play the glutton like the bear, and pamper your flesh as the mule, and bear malice like the camel; when you prowl as a wolf, art wrathful as a serpent, sting like a scorpion, and art crafty as a fox, treasure the poison of wickedness like an asp or a viper, and war against your brethren like that evil demon; – how shall I be able to number you with men, not seeing in you the marks of man’s nature. Why, while I am seeking the difference of catechumen and believer, I come near not to find even the difference between a man and a wild beast. For what shall I call you? A wild beast? Nay, the wild beasts are possessed by some one of these defects, but you heap all together, and far surpass their brutishness. Shall I then call you a devil? Nay, a devil is not a slave to the dominion of the belly, neither does he set his love on riches. When therefore you have more faults than either wild beasts or devils, how, I pray you, shall we call you a man? And if you art not to be styled a man, how shall we address you as a believer?”[ii]
Let us admit it: we simply are not accustomed to hearing sermons of a severity similar to the words of Jesus Christ, who called the priests of the old Law “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23:27), a “generation of vipers” (Matthew 12:34), or sons of “their father, the devil” (John 8:44). Many who have read and continue to read such verses in the Bible probably wonder about the purpose of such harsh words. After all, Saint John Chrysostom does not seem too polite, does he? However, his answer comes clear as a diamond:
“For this cause I also have made my language the stronger, that by cutting deeper I might free you from the venom of them that intoxicate you; that I might bring you back to a pure health of soul; which God grant we may all enjoy by all means, and attain unto the rewards laid up for these good deeds.”[iii]
So “the pure health of the soul” – in one word, salvation. This is the reason why the great John Chrysostom used such harsh words. In another famous sermon dedicated to the sins of impurity committed through sight, the Doctor of the Church analyzes in detail one of the common sins of his time: looking at naked women in public baths (or theaters). Without hesitation, with utmost clarity, specifying the exact place and type of sin, John Chrysostom gives us the opportunity to contemplate an earnest attack against immorality when his words become a cry:
“Fly the sea of hell, and the flood of fire, I mean the pool in the theatre. For this pool introduces to that sea, and kindles that abyss of flame.”[iv]
The first element that we notice is the eschatological picture in the context of which the sermon unfolds. Hell, eternal fire, the condemnation of wicked souls – none of these terrible realities is avoided. Without showing the faithful why the mortal sin is the greatest possible evil, without making explicit references to the ultimate realities of the unseen world, no catechesis, no sermon can achieve its goal. Unperturbed, the analysis of the saint continues:
“Since if ‘he that looks on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery’ (Matthew 5:28), he who is forced even to see her naked, how does he not become ten thousand fold a captive? The flood in the days of Noah did not so utterly destroy the race of men as these swimming women drown all that are there with great disgrace. For as to that rain, though it wrought indeed a death of the body, yet did it repress the wickedness of the soul; but this has the contrary effect; while the bodies remain, it destroys the soul.”[v]
We can imagine what a catechesis or a sermon of his would look like before believers today, when the world is globally affected by the consequence of the so-called “sexual revolution.”
Grounding his exegesis on the teachings spoken by the Savior Jesus Christ, as we find them in the Gospel according to Matthew, we observe the concreteness of the words of the great preacher of the church in Constantinople. Without false modesty, he describes sin by capturing its negative essence, capable of killing the soul. With expressiveness, he thus prepares the proposal for the remedy:
“Form then in your mind an image of that amphitheatre, and hate this, which is the devil’s. Neither condemn the severity of my speech. For I neither forbid to marry (1 Timothy 4:2) nor hinder your taking pleasure; but I would have this be done in chastity, not with shame, and reproach, and imputations without end.”[vi]
Resuming the entire text of Saint John Chrysostom, we can imagine what a catechesis or a sermon of his would look like before believers today, when the world is globally affected by the consequence of the so-called “sexual revolution.”
Instead of a conclusion, on the one hand, let us remember that the Holy Virgin Mary revealed to the little Saint Jacinta from Fatima (1910–1920): the sins that lead most souls to hell are the sins of the flesh. On the other hand, let us meditate on those words of the Holy Virgin Mary transmitted to us, words that should make all Catholic believers, whether bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or laity, reflect:
“Those who serve God should not follow the fashions. The Church has no fashions. Our Lord is always the same.”
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[i] The full French title of the book is Méditations religieuses : la perfection de l'état religieux fruit de la parfaite oraison (Religious meditations: the perfection of the religious state – the fruit of the perfect prayer).