Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In the midst of World War I, Pope Benedict XV issued the papal encyclical, Humani Generis Redemptionem, addressed to Catholic bishops throughout the world. In this encyclical, Benedict addresses the matter of Christian preaching. He quotes extensively from the Bible and draws heavily on the example of Saint Paul.
Benedict emphasizes the momentous place of preaching in the Christian life and redemption by noting that Jesus Christ relied exclusively on the preaching of the apostles to spread his religion throughout the world. “It pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believed” (I Corinthians 1:21). Preaching is the means God chooses not only to spread Christianity but also to preserve and fortify it. However, surveying the situation of the Christian world, Benedict concludes that the state of preaching had declined precipitously, contributing to the misfortunes of the world at that time, and the decay of Christian virtues and popular morals.
To restore the efficacy and the perfection of preaching, Benedict diagnoses three causes for deviation from ideal Christian preaching and the correctives for each. The three causes are that the preaching employs the wrong person, the wrong intention, and the wrong method.
As to the first cause, the wrong person, Benedict notes that the highest duty of a bishop is to preach the Gospel. The apostles embraced preaching as among the powers that they received from Christ and a power that they in turn passed on to the bishops as their successors in church office. To assist in this task, bishops delegate their duty of preaching to others, especially priests. Those not selected and approved by a bishop are not authorized to preach. A bishop should exercise the greatest care...
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Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Preaching the Gospel is at the heart of Christian life. In declaiming the level of preaching in his day, Pope Benedict XV in Humani Generis Redemptionem emphasizes the central and historic place of preaching the word of God. Christianity is unique among world religions, even world movements, in the centrality of preaching. Preaching is central to its life and the growth of its believers, and hence to their salvation. “Go ye into the world and preach the Gospel” (Mark 16:15). As Benedict notes at the beginning of this encyclical, the preaching of the apostles “renewed the face of the earth.”
Throughout the encyclical, Benedict draws on the Bible and the Church’s great theologians to illustrate what preaching means for the Christian Church. Preaching is, of course, of fundamental importance to all Christian denominations; in fact, it is with Protestant churches that the term “preacher” is more commonly associated. Nevertheless, the centrality to Catholicism of preaching is exemplified by this encyclical.
In this context, we can understand the connection Benedict draws between preaching and the clerical state. He counts preaching as a preeminent function of the bishop; for practical reasons, priests share in this ministry. The criteria Benedict sets out for choosing priests applies as well to preachers, or perhaps more accurately to priests in their role as preachers: holiness of life and acquisition of formation and knowledge. Benedict understands the office of preacher in the context of the church hierarchy; priest and preacher are usually united in one office. Likewise, too, the office of missionary, not necessarily held by a priest but central to Christian preaching, is ultimately approved by the bishop.
A final distinctive characteristic of the encyclical, one with which all Christian denominations can concur, is the prominent role of Saint Paul, to whom Benedict refers to with great respect as “The Apostle” and “The Preacher of Truth.” Saint Paul had the most exalted view of the preached word, which he described as more piercing than any two-edged sword. Paul, who by his preaching began the conversion of the Gentile world, is the model of all preachers.
Shortly after the promulgation of Humani Generis Redemptionem, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Consistory issued a decree embodying many of Benedict’s proposals (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, IX, 1917). Rule 21, for example, urged that priests’ sermons be founded on sacred Scripture.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Edwards, O. C. A History of Preaching. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2004. This exhaustive history of preaching, spanning all Christian centuries and denominations, traces developments in Christian Churches through their proclamation of the preached word.
Peters, Walter. The Life of Benedict XV. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1959. This biography of Benedict XV emphasizes the importance of Humani Generis Redemptionem in calling for a return to Scripture-based preaching and in urging an elevation of the importance of quality preaching in the life of Catholic priests.
Pollard, John. The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV (1914-1922) and the Pursuit of Peace. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999. This recent study of the papacy of Benedict XV recounts his pacific efforts to achieve a truce in World War I, a role Benedict alludes to in the beginning of Humani Generis Redemptionem.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Dogma and Preaching. Translated by Matthew O’Connell. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983. An anthology of essays, meditations, and homilies addressing issues of Christology, liturgy, and pastoral ministry. Cardinal Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II to the papacy in 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI.