In a series of autobiographical Notes, written in the summer of 1890, Cardinal Manning entered into a most searching inquiry into the 'Hindrances' which stand in the way of the spread of Catholicism in England. In these Notes Cardinal Manning relates, with admirable force and directness, the difficulties which he had to encounter, not so much from opposition on the part of the people of England, as from apathy, ignorance, and prejudice on the part of Catholics themselves. Although written more than a century ago, the essence of what he says could be applied today and for that reason it merits an attentive reading.
July 19th 1890.
A still greater obstacle to the spread of the Faith is the shallowness of our preaching. This appears to me to come - first, from a want of wise choice of the subjects we preach upon; and, secondly, from a shallow mode of treatment.
As to the choice of subjects: compare the Epistles of St. Paul with a volume of modern sermons. The chief and prominent topics of St. Paul are - God, the Incarnation, the Holy Ghost, that is, the Eternal Truths from which all other truths descend. These are always present. Whatever details follow, they are as consequence from the theology, which is always present as the sun at noonday.
St. Paul tells the Corinthians that he knew nothing among them but ' Jesus Christ and Him crucified.' This truth contains and justifies the whole faith and piety of the Gospel. But how often do we hear it preached upon? If the great Truths are not perpetually held up, all consequent truths seem to be arbitrary and mere assertion; e.g. the title 'Mother of God' is incomprehensible without the explicit knowledge of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation itself without the explicit knowledge of the Holy Trinity.
A French priest of Pontigny published a book on " The Deified Soul " of our Lord, because he had found the Apollinarian heresy so widely held by pious Catholics. The articles of the Apostolic Creed ought to be so continually held up before the intelligence of the faithful that all other subjects, such as the dignity and sanctification of the Blessed Virgin, the real and substantial presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, may be seen to be direct and evident consequences.
There is also a majesty and greatness in these divine and eternal realities that subdue and attract the intellect and conscience. It would seem inevitable that our preachers should preach the Gospel in all its length and truth and depth and height.
The confraternities of the Sacred Heart and the Most Precious Blood, the devotion of the Five Sacred Wounds, the mysteries of the Rosary and the Crucifix, all are the Gospel in its fullness. So also the work of the Holy Ghost, the Sanctifier and the Absolver, with the Sacrament of Penance, enable us to preach and to out-preach all Evangelists, Methodists, and Salvationists that were made. Why then do we not draw men as Spurgeon and "General" Booth or Hugh Price Hughes? I am afraid that there are two obvious reasons. We choose topics unwisely, and we are not on fire with the love of God of souls.
Nevertheless, when we give retreats or missions our priests preach the Eternal Truths and the Gospel as fully and as powerfully as anybody. But why reserve these vital and sovereign Truths to once a year? Surely they ought to be proclaimed "upon the housetops." If they were, the English people would feel that we are more scriptural and more evangelical than their own preachers. When we preach pieties and controversies it does not touch their souls. They are neither won nor moved by us. But surely we ought to win and move, and draw and soften the souls of men as our Lord did, and by the same truths. His preaching of the Eternal Truth was "as fire, and as the hammer that breaketh the rocks in pieces."
So also was the preaching of the Apostles, when they preached in the name of Jesus. This preaching converted the world, and no other will convert England. The English people as a whole, still believe in our Lord, His love, His passion, His absolution, His most Precious Blood - and also in repentance, grace, and conversion. Why do not we meet these Truths in their minds and the needs of their souls, by offering to them all these things in greater freshness and beauty? They come to hear us hoping for these things, and they go empty away, saying that our preaching does not come home to them, and is not what they need. When we have got them to confession we can teach them Rosaries and the use of Holy Water.
The other cause of our shallowness is our shallow treatment of the subject we have chosen. No doubt overwork is the reason with some. But a priest who is overworked in the saving of souls can never be much at a loss to preach the Gospel. He is always habitually speaking of God, His will, His kingdom, and he has only to think aloud. Our difficulty is in ourselves. It is what we are that preaches, and we are not only what we know but what we feel, what we realise, what by experience has become a part of ourselves.
Every man speaks readily of that which chiefly fills his mind. If we lived more for God, with God, and in God, we should have little difficulty of speaking about Him. But is this true of us? Even good priests preach daily: and choose dogmatic or moral subjects rather than mystical or ascetic. By mystical I do not mean in the sense of St. Teresa’s visions – but on such texts as Quam magna multitudo, etc., or Gustate et videte quonium suavis est Dominus. Is not this because our wells are shallow, or dry?
Another cause is hurry and haste. I have known men who have not even chosen their subjects or their text until they are on their way to the church. Surely this is tempting God; if not doing His work deceitfully. Others again take the first subject that comes to their mind, or that comes most easily to them because they have so often talked about it. But surely we ought first to think about what our people most need."