Aristotle was a pagan. He died more than three hundred years before the Incarnation, and so Dante put him in the first circle of hell along with his great teacher, Plato. Yet St. Thomas Aquinas consistently referred to Aristotle as “The Philosopher,” and the Catholic intellectual tradition is steeped in Aristotelian thought. Although Aristotle never once heard a homily, he offers an excellent study of public speaking in his treatise titled Rhetoric, which can tell us a lot about what makes a homily good, or not so good.
According to Aristotle, a good speech—and in our case, a good homily—is built on three pillars: ethos, pathos, and logos. So let’s examine each pillar to see what Aristotle is up to.
ETHOS: This first pillar deals with the credibility and the character of the preacher. Do you believe what the preacher is saying? Is he trustworthy? Is he worth listening to? Does he practice what he preaches? Does he have integrity and virtuous character? In other words, is he holy?
If you’ve seen the 2008 film Gran Torino, you’ll remember the character of Fr. Janovich, the newly ordained priest who gives an extremely banal funeral homily in the first scene of the movie. Theologically his sermon is on target, but as a preacher he lacks credibility, especially concerning the mysteries of suffering and death. Clint Eastwood’s character doesn’t trust him because Fr. Janovich is simply preaching from the book of knowledge and not hard-earned, real-life experience and understanding. In other words, the young priest lacks ethos. (Fortunately for Fr. Janovich and his congregation, by the end of the film he garners tremendous growth in this important pillar.)
A contemporary example of a preacher who has plenty of ethos is Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. Dolan is a seasoned priest and bishop who is not afraid to share his love for Jesus and his Church. He speaks with authority, and not just the authority that comes from his office, but the authority that comes from his character. Catholics and non-Catholics alike respect him and trust him. And thanks to his ready wit and self-deprecating humor, he has even won over the tough New York media. The Cardinal that everyone wants to have a beer with (and he likes his beer) is the same man that people trust at the pulpit. Cardinal Dolan is credible. He’s got ethos.
PATHOS: Aristotle’s second pillar deals with the preacher’s ability to appeal to his congregation. Can the preacher move the heart and not just the head? Is the preacher able to engage the imagination? Is he able to make the faith real? Can he make the Gospel “come to life”? Does his homily soften your heart for conversion? Does his preaching make you fall deeper in love with Jesus and his Church?
Blessed John Paul II was a master of pathos. I heard him preach a few times at World Youth Days and have watched many videos of his homilies. The Polish Pope had heart, and you felt his passion when he preached. His preaching made you want to be a better disciple. He made you want to be holy. One of my favorite homilies was the one he gave to the young people of Chile on April 2, 1987, which you can find on YouTube. To this day it makes me weep. And even in his old age and frailty, he never lost his ability to move the heart. Recall one of the last things he said as he was on his deathbed, directed to the youth gathered in St. Peter’s Square: “All my life I came to you. Now you come to me.” I still get chills.
LOGOS: The final pillar would seem to be the most important, especially for a philosopher like Aristotle. Logos deals with content, reason, and the truth. Does the homily make sense? It is logical? Is it true? Does the preacher understand the Scriptures? Does he explain them adequately? Is he preaching what the Church believes and teaches?
A wonderful example of the logos pillar is found in Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict is one of the brightest minds in the Church today. The Pope Emeritus is theologically brilliant, and so are his homilies. He preaches in a very clear and logical (German) style, and he is easy to follow. His homilies make sense. And there is no doubt that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) preaches what the Church believes and teaches, as the person of Jesus Christ is constantly at the center of every one of his homilies, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The interesting thing about logos is that Aristotle believed that it should be the most important of the three pillars. But according to Aristotle, all three pillars are of equal value. He argued that logos alone isn’t enough. And this claim deserves some attention.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we’ve all heard homilies that have been theologically accurate, consistent with Church teaching, grounded in Scripture—and yet have been very boring. And this is Aristotle’s point. It is not enough for the homily to be true, to have logos alone. Since preaching is a live act, it needs more than logos to be efficacious. A good homily is good not simply because it’s true, but because it contains ethos and pathos as well. A homily is good when the preacher is credible and virtuous and when he preaches with such passion that the heart is moved to conversion. A good homily appeals to the whole of the human person, not just the intellect.
(Of course, it is also true that a preacher with great ethos can give a dog of a homily if he’s not prepared and hasn’t organized his thoughts, that is, if his homily lacks logos. Moreover, a preacher can have loads of passion and zeal while preaching heresy, which is especially dangerous. In the early church, Arius had tons of pathos, but without logos, he led many of the faithful astray with his troubled Christology.)
Several recent surveys have told us that one thing that Catholics in the pews want more than anything else is good preaching. And they deserve it. The Gospel is not dull, lifeless, or boring, and neither should a homily be.
The great Flannery O’Connor once said, “You can’t expect every priest to sound like Newman, but you can expect to feel that the sermon is fresh and that it has at least passed through the head and heart of the preacher recently.” She’s right. But Aristotle is right too. Good preaching is always credible, passionate, and true; it includes ethos, pathos, and logos. Even a pagan knows that.