Saint Thomas the Preacher

Source: District of Asia

This title will come as a shock to some perhaps. They will think of the Summa Theologica as a mine for the preacher who knows how to use it and is prepared to work exceedingly hard. But we should have a very false notion of the "Angel of the Schools" if we pictured him simply as the University professor or the student pondering at his desk, or even as the contemplative engaged in prayer. For St. Thomas was a preacher and a copious one.

"Since," says his biographer, William of Tocco, "he was thus uplifted to God and hence full of charity toward his neighbor, he so framed his sermons, whereby he hoped to please God and profit his neighbor, that they might be, not models of human words and wisdom, but models of the wisdom and power of speech. Hence in his sermons he laid aside the subtleties of Scholastic disputation, with the result that his hearers listened to him with deepest reverence, for they felt that his preaching came straight from God."

Yet St. Thomas's claim on posterity is based so naturally and inevitably on his theological writings that his work as a preacher has always been neglected. In 1670 a volume of his sermons was published at Rome from MS. still in the Vatican library. In 1881 these sermons were republished in convenient form by Canon Raulx, who added another volume containing the more purely dogmatic sermons of the Saint, those, for example, on the Creed, on the Human Nature of Christ and on His Second Coming, on the Decalogue, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, etc. It is much to be regretted that these volumes are so little known. In an age of hurry when priests are often pressed for a sermon, and when a "skeleton" which can be digested and made one's own is an invaluable help, these sermons of St. Thomas would prove a veritable mine to the priest who is prepared to work. For one has to work at them. They have to be digested. But the thoughts are there. Moreover they are not buried in a wilderness of words. For these sermons, as we now have them, are for the most part little more than digests; they give one the impression that they are the actual notes the Saint framed preparatory to delivery.

It will be worthwhile to run through the contents of the first volume. It comprises no less than two-hundred and seventy-five sermons. There are sixteen for Advent; twenty- two for Christmas to Septuagesima; forty-seven for Septuagesima to Easter; twenty-four from Easter to Pentecost; seventy-nine for Pentecost and the following Sundays; fifty-eight for the feasts of Saints; eight for feasts of Our Lady, etc. Unfortunately, we are afforded very few hints concerning the time or place of delivery, though two of the Advent sermons were preached, one before the University of Paris, the other before that of Bologna. In the former St. Thomas contrasts the spiritual man with the worldly man; in the latter he shows the difference between works of darkness and works of light. But in either case we have the merest outlines preserved to us. Still it is good to see how the Saint worked, how he set out his thoughts and arranged his ideas. One feature of all these sermon notes will-we say it with all respect-prove a stumbling-block to many preachers: the notes are almost fifty per cent texts of Scripture. We can see that St. Thomas's mind was such a storehouse of Scripture that his thoughts naturally expressed themselves in the familiar words. He did not have to use a Concordance; he did not have to look up the appropriate passages; they simply flowed out from his memory. The consequence is that to us the sequence of ideas is often far from clear. When we try to preach these sermons we find ourselves hampered by our lack of similar familiarity with the text of Scripture, and, alas, by a similar lack on the part of our hearers. Yet it is worthwhile reflecting that the actual words of Scripture are "sacramental," that people recognize them as such, and that they do convey grace to human souls.

We shall get a fairer idea of these sermons however, if we take one or two practically at random. Here is a sermon, or rather a Gospel passage, on which we all have to preach at some time or another. It is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. St. Thomas gives us four sermons for that Sunday, the eleventh after Pentecost. The fourth is on the prayer of the Publican. How does he treat it? I shall give it in extenso.

God, be merciful to me a sinner! This is the prayer of a sinner begging mercy from God. First, he sets forth what may win God's kindly good will: God. Secondly, he states his petition: be merciful. Thirdly he assigns a reason for his petition: to me a sinner.

With regard to the first, note that for three reasons we can firmly trust that God will show mercy to all who ask Him: first, because He is full of mercy: God, who is rich in mercy, Ephes. 2:4. Secondly, because it is God's prerogative to show mercy, as St. Gregory says: "God, whose prerogative it is always to show mercy and to spare or, as Isaias says, Let the impious man leave his way and the wicked man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and He will show him mercy, Isaias 54: 7. Thirdly, because God has the long-standing habit of showing mercy; from eternity to eternity He pours out His mercy upon them that fly to Him: The mercy of the Lord is from eternity to eternity for them that fear Him, Ps. 102: 17.

With regard to the second point, note that the prayer he formulates is exceedingly good for three reasons. First, by reason of its brevity: When ye pray speak not much, as the heathens do. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard, Mt. 6:7. Secondly by reason of the necessity it expresses, for he is here asking for pardon, which all men need: If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, I Jn. 1:8; and, as Augustine says: "You will find nothing praiseworthy in a man's life if when you dissect it you omit the detail of mercy." Thirdly, by reason of the profit accruing from asking for the remission of our sins and the inpouring of grace, whence This man went down justified rather than the other.

As regards the third point, notice that a sinner who wishes God to be merciful to him must have the three things which this Publican had: first, deep humility and contrition of heart, A humble and con- trite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise, Ps. 1: 19; secondly, the actual confession of his sins: He prayed thus within himself: O God, be merciful to me a sinner; hence He that hideth his sins shall not be guided, but he that confesses them and leaves them shall find mercy, Prov. 28: 13; and again, I said I will confess to the Lord mine unrighteousness, against myself, and Thou didst forgive the iniquity of my sin, Ps. 31: 5; thirdly, punishment or satisfaction, he struck his breast, and, as saith Augustine, "he exacted punishment of himself ", or, bring forth fruits worthy of penance, Lk. 3:8.

This is the whole sermon. Clearly it could not be preached exactly as it stands. These then are merely notes to be filled out. Yet the whole outline is there. Anyone can grasp it and make it his own and deliver it as a practical sermon.

It will be of interest, too, to note the subjects of which St. Thomas treated when dealing with the various Sunday Epistles and Gospels on which we too have to preach. As we look through these Sunday sermons we find him dealing with such subjects as interior sanctity, the cry of the world for God, man's perfection, the search for God, hospitality, the leprosy of sin, the soul's union with God, the three things that go to make a saint, the three kinds of peace, true joy, etc. And these subjects are additional to the ordinary themes suggested by the seasons of the ecclesiastical year.

Most of these sermons are, as we have said, little more than skeletons. But some are much more fully developed. Thus there are two on the goodness of God in sending us the Holy Spirit, and in these we seem to have the actual words as the preacher delivered them. He begins by showing that without God we cannot think, understand, speak, or act; each of these points is developed, and then we are shown how the "Gift" of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by the five things which make a gift perfect, for it is given with care, efficaciously, generously, abundantly, and is an actually present thing. In what is termed "the second portion of the sermon," but which is apparently a separate sermon, St. Thomas shows how this gift meets the needs of the sinner and of the good man alike. The sinner is taught, assisted, and restrained from doing evil, his passions are extinguished and virtue is formed in his soul. The good man on the other hand is consoled during life and taught not to fear, at death he is assisted; in safety he is brought to God; it is the Holy Spirit who raises up his mortal body at the resurrection and who is the source of his happiness in heaven.

Even these two sermons, however, full and detailed as they are, can hardly have been preached as they now stand, for they seem too purely didactic. The truth is, of course, that we cannot judge of thirteenth-century sermons by present-day standards. However illiterate the people may have been they were in a very true sense far better educated than the ordinary congregation of today. They had an immense advantage in their inability to read. Their minds had not become atrophied by the empty ephemeral literature (!) of the present day. They had leisure to think; the spoken word was their food; probably-just because they were capable of hard thinking-they criticized sermons just as severely as the modern man thinks he does. But they could follow a stiff dialectical sermon and they could enjoy it. The proof lies in the fact that such sermons were delivered by Saints who were not fools and who would not "throw their pearls before swine". What more uncultivated auditory could one imagine than the crowds who thronged to St. Augustine's sermons at Hippo and at Carthage! Yet what dialectical and doctrinal sermons he preached to them! Did they understand him? Probably at times they did not. But as a general rule they must have understood, else we cannot imagine him preaching the same type of sermon to them for thirty-five years. Moreover as we read these sermons we realize what an infinity of pains he took to make them understand.

It must have been the same with St. Thomas. It would be idle to expect of him such "Missionary" sermons as those of St. Vincent Ferrer, with their homely illustrations and their pungent wit and humor. The "Angel of the Schools" might, as Tocco says that he did, lay aside Scholastic methods, but he must always have preached as the theologian par excellence. Yet it is precisely this feature of his sermons that makes them so valuable to us. First of all he makes you think. You can run your eye down the page and you have got-nothing! You can analyze his thought and you have got-a sermon? No, ten or twelve sermons! But you have to work. And it is the work which makes the sermon yours; it is the work, too, which enables your hearers to take away your sermon as theirs.

Take another example. We all have to preach on the Unjust Steward. Probably when we have done it once we dread doing it again, for the difficulties of the parable are notorious. Now St. Thomas has two sermons on it. They were preached on the same day and to the same audience. He calls the second one a "conference"; he would seem to have been giving a species of "retreat". We have no hesitation in saying that anyone who carefully analyzes these two sermons will have material for a ten-days' retreat-if any of his audience remained after the first day! How does the Saint proceed? The first sermon deals with the steward's master. He is depicted by Christ as a man, so as to help us. But it is really God who is set before us. Yet talking with us men He behaves as a man, "just as if," says St. Thomas, "you talked in French with a Frenchman, people would say ' Why, you are talking like a Frenchman!'". He then passes on to treat of God's wealth, and here he tells us a story: Two suitors sought a girl's hand in marriage; one was rich but a fool; the other was poor but no fool. The girl's father went for advice to a friend who said, "I would prefer a man without riches to riches without a man!" God, says St. Thomas, has both wisdom and riches, and on this thought he dwells at great length. At the close he touches briefly on those who are God's stewards and incidentally gives us another little story from a sermon falsely attributed to St. Chrysostom.

For the evening conference the Saint took the steward himself as depicted in the Gospel. But this steward stands for mankind in general to whom God has entrusted three things: himself-and this puts him apart from the rest of the animal creation; spiritual good things, and temporal possessions. He then deals with man's power to abuse his trust. Apropos of this he quotes the well-known words of Terence," Homo sum, nihil a me humani alienum puto," a sentence which, so St. Augustine tells us, "was applauded to the echo by the entire theatre, by wise men and fools alike." Lastly, St. Thomas dwells on the terrible danger of misuse of God's gifts.

In these two sermons, which are longer than most, we see the Saint and the University professor, who is always a man, and who from his profound study of God, and of God made Man for our sake, had learned the lesson of sympathy for man who would be made God!

Readers of St. Augustine's sermons must often have noticed the concluding formula, which is, so far as we are aware, never given in full in the printed editions, "Conversi ergo ad Deum". It is interesting to note the formulae used by St. Thomas and presumably customary in his day: "Rogemus, etc.", "Rogemus Dominum, etc.", "Quod nobis praestare dignetur qui cum Patre, etc.". These were evidently prayers well known to all, but alas not preserved for us in their complete form.