Fortieth Anniversary Letter on Preaching
A Letter from the Abbot Primate to all the Canons Regular of the Confederation to Mark the Fortieth Anniversary of our Federation by Pope John XXIII in May 1959
Christ Church Priory, Eltham, May 1999
As we draw near to our fortieth anniversary I want to send my warm greetings to you all. At first I thought of giving this letter the title Quadragesimo Anno Adveniente, but that at would be more than a little pretentious. I was advised that the fiftieth anniversary would make more sense. Perhaps, but forty years of life is not such an insignificant achievement and it is good to remind ourselves of the dedicated work of our founders and the hopes they cherished for the Order. We are still in place as a Confederation. More, we have grown and I believe as a result of our studies, the increasing cross fertilisation that takes place between the Congregations along with the mutual help and understanding that is evident in so many quarters, all this makes our existence something to celebrate.
Of course we are not content to celebrate the past achievements or point upon or two examples of Canonical cooperation, valuable though that is. We are part of the very active participation which is been made through the Church to welcome the new Millennium. I have been trying to focus my mind on a specific Canon Regular contribution. Our ideas and practices are shaped and honed by centuries of trying to deepen our understanding of Augustinian spirituality; and more importantly how we can live our Rule in the changing circumstances of modern life.
Is there any specific contribution we can make to the life of the Church as we enter the new Millennium and prepare to mark a significant step in our own history? I believe there is. It is something that emerges as a strong point in the Canon Regular spirituality particularly in the twelfth century; it is also an urgent need of our own time. That contribution is preaching.
Preaching in Canon Regular Tradition
Of course it can be very well argued that preaching is incumbent on all priests. All priests are commissioned by the ordaining Bishop to preach the word. And is there not an Order in the Church founded with the specific task of preaching? Yes, of course, but a hundred years before St. Dominic sent out his Friars Canons Regular were drawing attention to the fact that it is an essential strand of our spirituality to preach by word and example, within the cloister and beyond. According to Carolyn Walker Bynum concern for edification is found in virtually all canonical commentaries and treatise for novices in the twelfth century. This grew into a highly developed teaching on preaching as educational. She quotes from the anonymous compilation found in MS. Ottoboni Lat 175.
Since the Order of Canons seems to have been established especially this….. that is, to found the life of men in the Catholic faith, to instruct according to the laws and morals of the Fathers, to correct, comfort and rebuke disciples by the words of holy doctrine, and to establish and nourish them for the purpose of guarding it – it is right that they should be moved by fear, broadened by hope, inflamed by the charity, adorned with knowledge, outstanding in the light of faith and in purity of life. And it is fitting that they have within themselves what they preach to others, lest they displease God and become reprobate to men.
Silence: a prerequisite for preaching
What did our forefathers consider to be the necessary requirements of good preaching? Silence. Monastic authorities all taught that silence was valuable in itself as an essential ingredient for growth in the spiritual life. Canons by contrast considered silence as a necessary preparation for teaching. Bynum quotes the Vienna commentary on the rule of St. Augustine:
They (the early canons) were silent thus in secret so they might scatter the word of God in public; they appeared thus free from the acts of the world so that they, being careful, might rule the flock of people committed to them.
Silence as a preparation for speech. Silence as a necessary discipline, as a means of assuring that when we do speak what we say will be useful. Perhaps we could add that unless there is silence in our lives it will be impossible to “read the signs of the times” or hear the cry of the poor and needy. Value lessons theses particularly in an age which seems to value silence less and less, but worth considering when we take a look at our approach to preaching.
Authenticity: an essential ingredient
Our forebears laid particular emphasis on authenticity. What is spoken must be borne out by our way of life. More, our preaching will not be effective unless our hearers know that we understand and share. The first World War produced some remarkable writings – poems, novels, factual accounts. In them we learn what effect the war had on the faith of the men who fought. The ministry of the chaplain could make all the difference. Those who experienced the horrors of the Western Front had no time for those who confined their ministry to the rear stations, where they were safe, dry and fed. But they welcomed and respected chaplains who shared with them the mud, fear and horror of the trenches. That may be an extreme example, one now happily in the past, but I hoe it conveys my meaning.
The lot of many in the Church today is very difficult. There is a better chance of our preaching being heard if we genuinely share the lives of our people and understand their difficulties. It is the life which tells; without that preaching is of no use.
This was the basis of Augustine’s life and ministry. “With you I am a Christian, for you I am a Bishop.”
We are fortunate to have as part of our inheritance a substantial number of Augustine’s sermons. Some have been incorporated into the Prayer of the Church. May they be pondered by us and become an inspiration to us as we strive to shape our ministry to the needs of the men and women of the new Millennium.
Forty years ago, in May, 1959, our Confederation came into existence. Later that same year I was ordained to the priesthood as a Canon Regular and was given the task of preaching the Word. Part of the task that you entrusted to me last year is to deepen my awareness of our tradition, to seek ways of sharing it, making it known and perhaps to encourage our younger Canons to be aware of the part key figures in the Order have played in developing that tradition. In this anniversary year I would like to recall those members of our Order whose inspiration and hard work gave us the Confederation. In particular I think of Mgr. Haller, Abbot Koberger, Provost Emeritus Lovey, Abbot Egger. There are others too but many these be in our thoughts and grateful prayers as we seek to live out our calling and ministry in the new Millennium.
Anthony Maggs C.R.L.