February 7, 2011

Bede Jarrett (1881-1934) on the Art of Preaching


Bede Jarrett, O.P., 1903
"Since Blackfriars was the theological study house it was the custom for the students there to have an hour’s lecture a week on preaching. This was given by Father Bede. It was the first time that he was technically a lector in the studium though it was over twenty years since he had taken his lectorate. His detailed lecture notes are still kept at Blackfriars and suggest very clearly both the theory and the practice of his own preaching. He held that the first essential in any sermon was an act not only of faith but of realisation of the subject of the sermon. It was not enough merely to believe what one preached, it had somehow to become a part of oneself. Only when it was part of oneself could it pass to become a part of others. Phrased theologically, therefore, each sermon should flow from an act of contemplation, a simplex intuitus veritatis in St Thomas’s phrase, a clear sudden vision of the truth. Literally, a good preacher is giving to others that which he himself has seen. But in sermons vision could never be enough. The second necessity must be the command of sufficient words to convey something of the quality of what is seen. This is all the more important in the tradition that Father Bede was helping to found for he was opposed to the set written compositions which had been common in his own youth. He held that spontaneity and vividness and freshness all increased when the preacher or lecturer improvised his words. He held also that once a young preacher or young lecturer had formed the habit of preaching or lecturing from a carefully written script the habit would probably stay with him all his life. He had his own suggestions as to how the Blackfriars students should increase their vocabulary. He believed, perhaps not justly, that this was normally limited. He attributed this to the scholastic training in the study houses and the use of technical Latin terms. He proposed that every student should find at least one English author whom he really enjoyed and read him constantly. It made no difference, he said, whether this author was Lord Macaulay or P. G. Wodehouse.

Only it was not enough to possess vision and some mastery of words. A sermon was useless unless audible. In consequence many pages of his note book are filled with suggestions on pronunciation and on voice production and the use of the sentence and the paragraph in preaching. He realised very clearly that the methods of improvisation he encouraged had their particular dangers. It was not enough to see and to speak and to be heard; the sermon had also to be shaped. He urged that a detailed scheme should be drawn up and memorised; such a scheme could be plotted in skeleton form on the back of a postcard or an envelope, but it must contain a development of ideas. He recommended that it should be written out clearly and in some detail. This had been his own practice as a young man when he first began to preach without a script...

In his own life time he held a recognised position as the greatest preacher in Catholic England. In the light of his own teaching it is easy to understand the reason. Behind all his sermons there lay a personal vision and a personal love. He always preached to the individual: it made no difference to him whether these were many or were few. He would seem to put the same care and thought and vision into each of his sermons and his lectures for with him the lectures were in fact sermons. It appeared to make no difference whether these were to be delivered in Westminster Cathedral, or the Albert Hall or Our Lady of Victories, New York, or in some small church or class room. The author of the obituary in The Times noted that “he has been called the best Roman Catholic preacher in this country, and he was perhaps the most popular English preacher in the United States, his sermons being marked by their intellectual quality, their appositeness to the times and their incisiveness”. All this seems true enough. Much of his success as a preacher was due to his clarity of thought and of word and of voice. But it was Father Vincent McNabb who perhaps came closest to the secret of his influence: “His light was a spiritual flame that fed itself, increasing day by day–but alas a bodily flame that fed upon itself until the day when it made an end to its powers. I need not say that if he was on fire it was with the master-flame of love.”

From Bede Jarrett of the Order of Preachers, by Kenneth Wykeham-George, O.P., and Gervase Mathew, O.P. (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952) 140-142.