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Written by Fr. Joseph Ellul OP

Translated by Fr. Dominic Scerri OP

Think of he ministry you received from God, to carry it out in a good manner (Col 4:17)

This clause from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is found in the Introduction of the Treatise on Preaching of Humbert of Romans (+1277), the fifth Master of the Order (1).  The grace to preach is a talent and a call lived by all those in whom,  and by whom,  the Spirit of God speaks.  Those about whom Jesus says: “It is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.”(2).  Therefore it is not a question of being able to say the word, but to preach it with the authority given to you by the Spirit of God.


One of the antiphons  in the Dominican tradition and so dear to us calls Saint Dominic: Broadcaster of Grace.  In fact, Pope Onorius lll (+1227) in November 1206, in one of the many letters he wrote to Saint Dominic and to his religious brothers, explained the goal of the Order in theses words:


The one who always enlarges his Church with new sons, wanting to bring the past up to date and, at the  same time, goes on  to preach the catholic faith, roused in you the blessed love so that, while  embracing  poverty  and  regular life, you will be able to embark   on   preaching  by going  all over  the  world  announcing the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (3).

 Already early in his apostolic work, and in the light of the recommendations of Pope Innocent lll (+1216), in November 1206, the preaching of Saint Dominic was essentially “an example of a life enlightened with doctrine”.  This meant preaching and living the cross of Christ.  Like every theologian of his time, educated in the teaching of Saint Augustine, the message of Saint Dominic to the Albigensis (4) was the same as the answer that this Doctor of the Church gave to the disciples of Pelagius (5): ‘You are rendering the cross of Christ to nothing”.

He and his colleagues used to preach “Jesus Christ crucified”(6).  First and foremost it was a sermon of faith which he used to share with all whom he met.  Taking this into account, Blessed Jordan states:


Irrespective of with whom he is, whether on the road with his colleagues, or in the company of those who received him at home with their family; likewise among the hierarchy and princes and prelates, he had kind words and numerous good examples with which he softened the hearts of his listeners and drew them to the love of God, and the world’s calumnies.  With words and deeds, he proved himself an evangelist (7).


But the sermons of Saint Dominic were not only words of encouragement for penance or for conversion or for a better life of devotion.  Movements toward this end already existed.  He wanted the sermons to be the spreading of the Word of God resulting from a great and strengthened love for the Holy Scriptures.  He wanted to reply to the needs of the Church which gives doctrinal and moral formation to clerics and laymen.


Go to preach

Preaching is the identity and the office of the Order set up by Saint Dominic.  There is a sound tradition concerning the formulation of the bull Gratiarum omnium largitori of Pope Onorius lll on the 21st January 1217 with which he confirmed that preaching was the goal of the Order.  The bull opens saluting: “Onorius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to our beloved sons, the Prior and Brothers of Saint Romanus (8), preachers in the district of Tolosa, peace and an apostolic blessing.” It has been said that originally the Pope addressed the Brothers with the word praedicantibus (to the preachers in the district of Tolosa).  When Onorius was asked the reason for this change, it has been reported that the notary replied that praedicantibus was only an adjective (therefore it considers local and temporary circumstances), while praedicatoribus is a substantive which brings out in the open both the name and the activity of the Order.   In the light of this answer, the Pope approved the change.  The correction can be seen clearly in the original document.  This confirmation of the name and the role of the Order spelled out not only the mind but also the determination of Saint Dominic who, in all this, sees God’s hand of providence.


It was amazing how the servant of God Master Dominic, while sending the religious here and there in the  Church of God did all in faith blindly while others believed  he should not have done so.  He carried out everything as if sure of the future, or as if the Spirit enlightened and showed him all (9).


All of this goes on to be  witnessed by Brother John of Spain who, in the Acts of the Canonisation Process of Saint Dominic held at Bologna, stated: Confident of God’s help, he used to send also those who were not trained, (while putting their mind at rest) saying “Go in peace because the Lord will give you words to say and will be with you, and you will not need anything”.  Then they would leave and what he foretold would be realised (10).


Humbert of Romans, in his Treatise on Preaching, states that it is not easy to preach.  He knew there was who stood back for whom  he gives various reasons which include three that seem to be the main ones:

  1. There are those who think they are not prepared enough.  In this regard, he replies that spreading the Good News is an urgent call; there is no time to be lost.

  2. There is also him who brings the excuse that he loves silence and contemplation.  Here he replies that whoever keeps back for this reason should be affronted because he could have done so much good and instead chose to keep silent.

  3. Then there is one who fears that he is open to sin.  It is a fact that the more one is present in public life the more is the danger to sin.  On this point he answers that it is better to work and get dirty than to stay at home keep clean doing nothing.  He then adds: God will not keep back his mercy to him who is all out to preach (11).


The preacher, like the prophets, was always and will remain an uncomfortable person.  He is uncomfortable to himself and to someone else.


He is uncomfortable to himself because he realises that he is speaking in the name of God who is Blessed, while he will always be weak and sinful.  This was observed by the Prophet Isaias while he was contemplating the glory of God: “What a wretched state I am in!  I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips(12). 


The reply is that the force of the word of who spreads it is found in the strength of God; his courage to speak is his fullness of God.  The grace of God is the core of each vocational history.  Because of this, Saint Paul boasts with the Corinthians and admits: By God’s grace that is what I am and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless (13).  And he goes on to praise the Thessalonians because they accepted the word “ not like the word of man, but as God’s word as in truth it is” (14).


Blessed Humbert of Romans  always stressed the fact that if preaching had to stop, man would not bear good fruit anymore, and therefore sin would multiply not decrease (15).


But the preacher is also unbearable to those who hear him.  In the words of Saint Paul he is sent to insist if needs be and also if not, to affront, warn, alert, in patience and teaching (16).  No one enjoys facing his own truth.  The price is high, but it is the same price paid by all those who accepted God’s call.  We have examples of Amos, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and none the less than Jesus Christ himself.  All were disowned because of their mission.  It is the price still being paid today by all those who express openly, and by means of their life the faithfulness to the Gospel.

In the core of the Church

Saint Dominic always considered the grace of preaching he was given as a grace within the Church and aimed to its  building and growth.  He made his own Saint Paul’s warning written to the Corinthians: “Since you aspire to spiritual gifts concentrate on those which will grow to benefit the community” (17).  Everyday we salute Saint Dominic as Lumen Ecclesiae, not Lumen Ordinis.  He understood the need to shine as a light in the Church so that she would be able to enlighten the world.                    


He realised what the needs of the Church were in his time and the earnest wish of the Popes to reawaken christian life. These needs he made his own.  This was the reason why he enjoyed the full trust of both Pope Innocent lll and of his successor Pope Honorius lll.


In one of the stories portraying his life which still enlightens and encourages his children, we find  written that during his visit to Rome in 1215, at the basilica of St Peter, while praying to God for protection of the Order that he had just set up, he saw in vision St Peter and St Paul.  St Peter handed him a walking stick (a symbol of his walks preaching along Europe) while St Paul gave him a book (a symbol of the Gospel) with both saints addressing him: “Go and preach as God chose you for this ministry.”  At the same time, he saw his brethren spread all over the world, walking in twos preaching to the people of God (18).


At that time, the Lateran Council lV was in session and Saint Dominic could see

the leaders of the western and eastern European nations and those from the Middle East meeting to discuss the necessary reform  the Church needed in order to be a true witness of the mission entrusted to her by Christ.

In these two leaders, he saw men who fulfilled their office of shepherds with the greatest seriousness.  They regarded their authority as a service, as Saint Peter says in his first letter: “Never be a dictator over any group that is put to your charge but be an example that the whole flock can follow” (20).


The office that Dominic exercised in the Order was carried out in the name of, and through, the Church.  He never worked on his own.  He was a priest having a very high academic grade.  We should not forget that, in those days, seminaries were non-existent.  As we have already seen, he did not need anyone to force him to study the Word of God and the truths of Faith resulting from it.  There were many instances when he showed the strength of the doctrine he preached, and also his personal power to convince his audience.


As a priest and a man of the Church he knew what his responsibilities were and which he carried out with the greatest seriousness.


At the same time, as we have already said, he knew how to foster the grace he was given to  everyone’s  sainthood and salvation.  His request for the Order   to be established as an Order of Preachers was a moment of grace for the Church.


That is why the office to preach was given to the Order by the highest Church authority and under its responsibility.  The reason is that Saint Dominic did not want to preach behind the Church’s shepherds back.  He wanted that the approval and confirmation of the Order he set up would be a clear sign of the mission entrusted to him.  He wanted to show that his work was carried out hand in hand with the Christian Tradition which dates back to the times of the Apostles.


On the other hand, the Church, through the Pope, realised this act of his obedience and entrusted him with the ministry of preaching.  Becuse of this strong link with the Church’s higherarchy, Saint Dominic could also enjoy the experience of men trained in ecclesiastical sciences who realised that he was in fact Dominic,  that is a man of God, and sent by God, and that the gift given him would easily fix in the framework of the Church’s mission.


Saint Dominic did not want preaching to be something added or foreign to the life of the Church.  He wanted sermons to have their roots in liturgy and in sacramental life.  Therefore he joined sermons with the sacrament of Penance that frees man from his sins, and also with the sacrament of the Eucharist that causes a union with Christ and the Church.  If it is true that the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist, it is equally true that preaching makes the Church and the Church makes preaching. 


In a sermon he preached to the Brethren gathered for the Elective General Chapter in Rome in 1983, the saintly Pope John Paul II, among other things, stated:

You Dominicans have the mission to preach that God is alive, that he the God of the living, that in God one finds the root of dignity and of the hope of mankind who is called to life. ... Your Constitutions give the prime place to the ministry of the Word by word of mouth and also by writing, and the link between the ministry of the Word and that of the sacraments is its core (21).


For this reason, our Order is, of its nature and essence, a clerical order (22).  It is here worthwhile to add that Pope Gregory IX called the Dominicans to give their share as inquisitors, not because they were trained for such work but because they were excellent confessors.  They knew how and what to ask for, and they also knew how to arrive to conclusions from the answers they received.


Blessed Jordan writes that Saint Dominic “with full encouragement was all out to win for Christ as many souls as he could; it’s unbelieveable and  amazing how he felt so anxious for the salvation of souls” (23).  The eagerness he showed is evident of his holiness, during his prayer to God, and in the way he spoke “either with God or about God”(24).

The challenge of our call

The society we live in is becoming more and more a-Christian and, in certain circumstances, anti-Christian.  There will never be a day without  journals or news lacking declarations against the Christian faith and against believers or whoever spreads the faith.  Everyone talks about the liberty of expression as a sacred right but in practice it is so until thoughts and behaviour do not go against social currents.  In a secularised world that speaks “with or about God”, this is considered a “darkened” and “ anti-progressive” practice, not to say irrelevant.


We hear more about the Gospel as a “packet of values” among other packets offered to modern society as if there is a  supermarket of religions where one can select that which befits oneself.  


The mentality, not to say obsession, wanting to be like others has been deeply rooted in our country, and is forcing us to forget who we are.  With this mentality, the eagerness, again not to say obsession, to use a neutral language is, as time goes on, suffocating the religious language which is characteristic of our identity as a Maltese nation.  Considering past experience of other European countries, we should realise that if are to let our main door ajar, we could have left it wide open.


We need to ask ourselves whether our sermons are aimed to please others or to manifest the truth.  We need to ask ourselves whether our obsession for statistical attendance is  the cause of a haze on our sermons.  When Jesus spoke about himself as the bread of life, many of his disciples left him saying ,”This is intolerable language?  How could anyone accept it”? (25)  The reply of Jesus was clear; He turned to the twelve and asked whether they too wanted to leave.

Nowadays, on many occasions, men hide behind shades and shadows, but the Gospel message does not.  The Gospel is not an electoral programme.  Woe to us preachers if we weaken, twist or change the message of the Gospel to please public opinion or to enjoy popularity.  Woe betide us if we follow “the world’s trend” (26), and give the impression that the one and only sin is that of naming the same word “sin”.


One cannot become interested in the human situation or study the ideas which mark those cultures that are developing outside the influence of faith, if one does not consider the tear stains on the faces of those who are the victims of this society.  The compassion characteristic of St Dominic urges us to work for the delivering of humanity from the bewitching enchantments of the present world.  Mercy, active compassion, relate us to St Dominic.  It ought to revive prayer in us, as it did in him (27).


People are not won by what we say but by our way of life individually and as a community  ...  actions speak louder than words.  This was, above all, the warning of Christ to the Apostles: “You are witnesses to this ... you wil be my witnesses” (28).   Whether the Gospel will be effective or not depends on how much our behaviour as Preacher Brothers is coherent or not to our teaching. Diego and Dominic knew well this reality when they confronted the delegation of the Cistertians who were sent by Pope Innocent III, and the archbishops and prelates of the south of France during the regional council at Montpellier.  Their teaching was complete and without any errors but the overall brilliant clothing on their horses and personally, and the expenses undertaken would bring to shame the message they spread.  It would not be the  glittering to bring back to Church the heretics but the humble and evangelical life.  Among other things, bishop Diego stated:


I feel that these people will not be made to return to the faith simply by words, but the need is for words to be backed by examples.  Look at heretics: externally they pretend to be good, they deceive by an example of leading a tough life according to the Gospel, forcing the simple follow their ways.  Therefore, if you have come to show yourselves contrary to all this, setting up little and dismantling much, they will not heed you.  Remove one nail with another, win the sainthood they pretend to have by your religious life, because their pride in pretending to be apostles will only be won by humility (29).      

Yet, it is worthwhile to state that  neither Diego nor Dominic considered poverty to be a goal in itself.  In this context, poverty was being intended as freedom from all that could stand in the way of spreading the Gospel news.


As brother preachers we have to show that the message of the Gospel was. Still is, and will be relevant for human life.  With faith and courage, we have to confront the threats we face.  St Peter warns us: “Always have your answer ready for people who ask you  the reason for the hope that you all have but give it with courtesy and respect.” (30).


We need to ask if we left space for compromises in our life, compromises which brought contradiction between the profession of faith in Christ who called us, and which on one side we stated orally, and our thoughts and manners on the other.  If the difference between us and the laity has ceased to be the radical threat of the Gospel, we cannot expect to have neither better christian families nor determined religious persons.


Our sermons have to join the Gospel with life of man at all times in the same way Christ did.  Our preaching has to answer the most profound questions which result from the heart of man.  This means that to preach in a good way, first and foremost we need to listen and pay attention to the movements and to political and social currents which are developing in a world that is all the time undergoing changes.  If we want to realise and respond to the needs of man today, we have to share their sorrows and happiness.  Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes reminds us:


The joys, hope, sorrows and worries of man today,  above all of the poor and the suffering, are also the joy and hope, the sorrow and worry of Christ’s disciples, and there is nothing that is proper to man that they do not also feel in their hearts (31).                                                                                                                         

Like the Albigensis of Saint Dominic’s time, society today preaches and lives its dualism.  Yet, instead of a war between the eternal spirits of good and bad, it is living in a continuous state of contradiction, where  torture on an animal is put on the same level as that on mankind, where one defends the rights of those who do not have a voice but then tries to silence those of a different insight.   The behaviour of man is also no longer being seen in the light of established principles, but in the light of pubblic opinion.  To admit that certain actions are good and others are bad is being considered by the religious side as a threat to  the independence and the right of the state and of the individual.  Discussing sin is considered as fundamentalism; to admit that the family is made up of the union between man and woman and by their offspring, is considered as a violent attack on the liberty of choosing an alternative life style.  The christian teaching is, as days go by, being treated as something that is cut off from the reality of life, as an extra weight, and as a slavery.  Together with all this, the mentality that everyone is to give his or her version of Christ’s teaching  is making inroads.


Today’s society has a right to ask unbearable questions but then it should also prepare itself likwise for replies.  Our mission as Preaching Brothers is to teach that which is necessary for salvation, and this  is not necessarily that which one would wish to hear or that which would sound nicely to hear.  Regarding this matter, no one is to pretend to dictate to us which are the subjects we have to discuss, and which are those subjects, where in the consideration of some, we should keep our mouths shut.  Jesus always showed that his teaching was clear and without compromise.  There is nothing wrong in hearing what  the people want the Church to be.  But then we have to see if what the Church, the people, and us included wished, is the same Church Christ wanted it to be.


Like Saint Dominic, we have to realise that, as a community of preachers we should be a prophetic and apostolic community.  As St Paul states to Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of terror, but a spirit of strength, love and balanced” (32).  In a society where values are in crisis, in a society where before there was


God, and where  a  void has started to be felt, like Saint Dominic we have to show that man has a dignity, and this dignity was given by God who created him to his image and saved him through his Son.  Christian faith does not only go against human rights, but itself shows man that he has rights because of the dignity God gave him.  But these rights go hand in hand with responsibilities.  These show the greatness of man and his aim.


As preaching communities, we have to show that today man is no longer respected according to what he manages to produce; the family: a mother. father,  and children  - the natural environment wherein one starts to learn to love; where the daily little deeds can be the best sermon which raises hope in those set aside.  Like Saint Dominic, we all are called to accept and practise the grace of preaching.    


1. Humbert de Romans, De eruditione predicatorum.

2. Mt. 10:20.

3. Honorary lll, Letter to St. Dominic and his Brethren, 18 January 12 17.

4. St Augustine was born in Tagaste (today, Algiers) in 354.  He spent a rough life, both in matters of faith and way of living.  Staying In Milan, he was coverted to the catholic faith and was baptised by Bishop St Ambrose in 387.  He returned back to his native land and embarked on an ascetic life and found a community dedicated to contemplation and the study of the scriptures.  He was later created Bishop of Ippona and for 34 years led the diocese in an exemplary fashion.  He was known as an exceptional preacher and writer attacking vigorously the heresy of his time and expressed the faith wisely’.  He died in Ippona in 430.

5. Pelagius (Vth c.) stressed the liberty and responsibility of the individual who wrks and gains salvation on his own will by grace and as a result of the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Thus he renounced the need of baptism for babies.

6. 1 Cor 2:2.

7. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, The Beginnings of the Order of Preachers.

8. This was the church cared for by Saint Dominic and his Brothers.

9.  Blessed Jordan of Saxony, op. cit., n.62

10. Witness of Brother John of Spain, Acts of the Process of Canonisation at Bologna, no.26.

11.  Humbert de Romans, De eruditione praedicatorum, 4:2.

12. Is 6:5.

13. 1 Cor 15:10.

14. 1 Tess 3:13.

15. Humbert de Romans, De eruditione praedicatorum, 5:3

16. See 2 Tim 4:2.

17. 1 Cor 14:12.

18. Constantine of Orvieto, Legend, n.25.

(19) Pope Innocent lll, who called the Council, had encouraged Saint Dominic so that together they share that which Saint Paul called “the thought of all the churches” (19).  Then, when Pope Onorius lll confirmed the Order of the Brother Preachers, he was giving the initial drive to carry out his project.

(20) 1 Pt 5:3.

(21) The official text in Italian can be found on: father/john paul ii/speeches/1983/september/documents/hfip-iispe 19830905 frati-praedicatori it.html

(22) See Fundamental Constitution, no. VI

23. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, op. cit. 3no.34, p.15.

24. Witness of Bro Stephen of Spain, Process of the Canonisation at Bologna, no 37.  The description is also dound in the life story of hermit Stephen of Muret (m.1124).

25. See Jn 6:60.67.

26. Rom 12:2.

27. Vincent de Couesnongle, "The Contemplative Dimension of Dominican Life," A letter to the Order published March 1983 reproduced in To praise, To bless, To preach, p.144.

28. Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8.

29. Se Blessed Jordan of Saxony, op. cit., n.20.

30. 1 Pt 3:15b-16a.

31. Gaudium et Spes, n.1.

We should note the weeping of victims that society is leaving behind based on unchecked technological research, and on economical politics deprived of every kind of sense of ethics and mercy.  This should lead to asking ourselves: what does it mean to be a preacher not anymore  in the beginning of the 13th century, but at the beginning of the 20th century?

32. 1 Tim 1:7.

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