"Consider the audience of an orator like Lincoln: even if his audience consisted of simple farmers, these farmers would have been exposed regularly to examples of oratory modeled on great orations of the past. County fairs often featured Ciceronian orations extolling the virtues of American agriculture; even country preachers modeled themselves on the sermons of great Protestant divines; eloquent, structured toasts and speeches were expected features of public events. American culture at the time of Lincoln, in other words, was one in which the average citizen encountered regularly acts of rhetoric that demonstrated sustained logic in elegant, gripping language, held up to the standards of great Western orators."
So writes Dr Sean Lewis on the blog for Wyoming Catholic College, concerning the decline of Rhetoric in the West. This is turn reminds me of a conversation which I had a few years ago with a good friend of mine, Mr Stephen Cheney. We had been discussing the relative decline of the art of homiletics (specifically), when he mentioned a style of homily which was once in wider use, but which has seemingly gone by the wayside. There was a time once when the preacher might on occasion choose not to write his own homily, but rather to present the homily of somebody else, a sort of "great homilies" approach.
Sometimes Fr Dullwind really does have a very good homily which truly illumines this week's readings, or at least a well-thought-out sermon which can somehow be tied into them. There are certainly more than a few priests who take great pride in their homilies, meaning that they put great effort into researching the material for a good homily, and then crafting an excellent oration which glorifies God and edifies the congregation. However, more often than not Fr Dullwind is the type who puts together maybe a half dozen such homilies during the year, and then the remainder are "self-help motivational talks or cutesy stories littered with bad jokes...little more than funny anecdotes poorly strung together."
Must Fr Dullwind prepare his own homily each week from scratch? Can he not look back to some of the great orators of the past, the homilists whose sermons shook the world, the preachers whose preaching can still be presented today fresh an edifying as it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago? Can he not present a homily from Saint Augustine, or St John Chrysostom, or even the commentary of St Jerome? Or, turning from the Church Fathers, can he not find anything from Saint Thomas Aquinas, or Saint Vincent Ferrer, or Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman?
Perhaps he can. Or perhaps we have lost the ability to follow such sermons to the lethargy which has beset our society in its rhetorical slumber. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that in looking to these great preachers of the past, we may help raise if but a little the discourse of the present. We may also find that the Faithful are more well-catechized as a result.