Here is a summary of the method of preaching of Augustine was written by an Augustinian scholar and pastor.
Well do I remember an elderly parish priest in the town of my birth. He was greatly loved by all, always available to his flock, but obviously did not like preaching. Almost invariably at Sunday Mass, when the time arrived for the homily, he would look out the window and say: "Well, it looks as if it's going to be a hot day,.." or "It's looks like rain,.." "..so I won't hold you up by preaching a sermon." Of course, we were delighted.
To do this would never have crossed Augustine's mind. He summed up the ministry of a bishop in two Latin words - verbum et sacramentum (word and sacrament). In Sermon 214, preached at the handing over of the Creed to the elect, he reminds them that though he is preparing them to approach the sacrament of the Eucharist, they must first be prepared by his preaching. His life was spent preaching the word of God which he understood to be the instrument of conversion to Christ. For pastoral reasons he would shorten his sermons, such as when there had been a lengthy reading before it, (Sermon 319, 7), or when he was himself exhausted by the ceremonies (Sermon 223A, 1). But they were never omitted. Sacramental celebration was always preceded by an opening of the Scriptures for the assembly so that all might eat and be filled. Although the inherent value of words and the way they were used were treasured by him from natural disposition, this was enhanced by his training in rhetoric which he used in his ministry as priest and bishop.
With his emphasis on the importance of preaching, it is not surprising, therefore, that he devoted some space in his voluminous works to the technique of what he regarded as his primary ministry - that of preaching the word of God. This he did in the fourth book of De Doctrina Christiana ("About Christian Doctrine").
Purposes of a sermon
Following Latin oratorical method, such as that of Cicero, Augustine saw three purposes in preaching: (1) to explain (instruct); (2) to edify, or to make more holy (hold the attention); and (3) to convert (convince). A cursory reading of Sermon 17 illustrates these approaches to preaching. Sermon 17 was preached when Augustine was approximately seventy years of age. Therefore, it is a homily preached in his maturity both as a bishop and a Religious. It was preached on Psalm 49 (50):3, "He is coming, our God, and he will not keep silent," which seems to have been the response to the first reading of the Mass.
In introducing his subject - the second coming of Christ in judgment - he enunciates the theme upon which he will build, "The Lord is no longer silent," coming to us in the word which is read and preached each day in the liturgy. He indicates that we must open our ears and listen to what he is saying to us. This prepares his listeners for what follows.
Edification, Building the Argument
He begins by drawing their attention to the reality of God's judgment on them, both at the end of their lives and at the end of time. He appeals to them to desire salvation just as he does. From this, he proceeds to implore them not to make light of sin in their lives. When Christ comes, he will not be silent about their sinfulness, that about which they know full well, such as complaining, stealing, taking advantage of the weak people, violence against others or their property, false accusation, and so on.
Then begins the development proper of his argument in which he urges his listeners to know and to face themselves. To help them do this is the task of the preacher. Only when they are honest with themselves will they be able to beg for God's mercy. In the final thrust of his "edification" of the assembly, he endeavours to arouse their sense of sin by saying that many refuse to admit that they are doing wrong, like people refusing medication when they are sick. He goes on to state that he gives to his listeners correction in public for their doing of evil. Would it be better for him to accuse them privately? He decides that it would not.
Augustine brings home his final point by asking his listeners as to when they think their own judgment will be. The general judgment might be a long way off, but how about their individual judgment at the moment of death? "Many people have gone to sleep in good health and have been corpses in the morning….The living escort [the dead] to the grave, celebrate their funerals, and promise themselves life." Human life is short, he states. Yet people do not reflect on the reality that death could take them tomorrow. His final sentence is a tour de force: ""I'm looking for the deeds [of your conversion]. Don't make me sad with your vicious habits, because the only pleasure I have in this life is your good life."
Methods of Delivery
For Augustine, three methods of delivery are to be used in good preaching: (1) quiet, or peaceful; (2) moderate; and (3) grandiose (or full-powered). All styles of delivery can be detected in the sermons of Augustine. But he expressly warns against the exclusive use any one style, especially the grandiose. The listeners become exhausted, to say nothing of the preacher. No one should think that it is contrary to our teaching to blend these styles. On the contrary, delivery should be varied with every kind of style, in so far as this can be accomplished gracefully. When a speech is long and drawn out in one style, it does not hold the listener; when a change is made from one style to another, the speech proceeds more effectively, even though it is now longer (De Doctrina Christiana 22,51),
Remote and Proximate Preparation for Preaching
As well, Augustine speaks of the remote and proximate preparation needed for the effective preaching of God's word. Among these the following can be discerned:
(1) Preachers must live the word of God, according to their good conscience and life call.
For Augustine, it is evident that the life of the preacher and the message he preaches must be in consonance. "Someone who speaks wisely and eloquently, but leads a wicked life, does indeed teach many …, yet, as it is written, has 'not won the favour of the Lord' (Eccles 3:21)." The result of this dissonance is that the listeners end up despising both the word of God and the preacher (De Doctrina Christiana IV 27, 59-60).
(2) Preachers need to prepare themselves for preaching both by prayer and reflection.
Preaching or writing about the word of God must be preceded by the prayer of the preacher that God will enable them to preach according to the Will of God. This prayer must be for preachers themselves as well as for those to whom the preaching is directed (De Doctrina Christiana IV 30,60).
(3) Preachers need to study the texts upon which they are to preach.
Upon his presbyteral ordination, Augustine requested Bishop Valerius to give him one year without preaching duties in order, by studying the Scriptures, to prepare himself for the ministry of preaching. Even at this initial stage of his ministry, he recognized the essential link between effective preaching and study of the Bible. "Students of these revered writings are advised not only to learn the kinds of expressions in the Holy Scriptures, to notice carefully how they are customarily expressed there,…but also to pray that they understand them. This is chiefly and especially necessary" (De Doctrina Christiana III 37,56).
(4) Preachers need to establish contact between the assembly and themselves on both human and faith levels.
This is something which Augustine accomplished in a superb manner, probably through a combination of natural skill and his training in rhetoric. He went out of his way to identify with the assembly and asks them to identify with him. His preaching is a service to them. At the same time, he is preaching to himself as well as to them. In Sermon 17, 2,6, he states: "Why am I speaking? Why am I sitting here? What do I live for, if not with this intention, that we should all live together with Christ? That is my desire, that is my privilege, that is my pride. But if you do not listen to me and yet I have not kept quiet, then I will deliver my soul [to God]. But I do not want to be saved without you….What am I, after all? I am a man. I am the same as you. I am burdened with flesh. I am weak".
The identification of Augustine with those to whom he preached was achieved in various ways. His homilies were filled with examples taken from daily lives of his listeners - the excessive desires of these who were rich, the poverty in Hippo, the problems facing married couples, the violence besetting society, especially in view of the error of doctrine of the Donatists, the telling of rumours, and so on. He spoke to his people in an intimate fashion, often in dialogue, the essence of homily. In a sense, he held a familiar conversation with them, attuned as they were to him as their pastor. He freely used the popular language of his time. When he described a tragedy which had happened to someone, they groaned in sympathy and he would thank them for their concern. If they applauded him for something which he said (or the way he said it), he replied that the source of the good which he uttered was God, not him.
He had no hesitation in publicly speaking against those who led immoral lives and yet came to the basilica (church) in Hippo for worship. Society was inclined to dismiss improper sexual relations and activity, and many of his listeners who indulged in these did not enjoy his criticism. But as he warned them in Sermon 9, 3-4, "whether they like it or not, I will say my piece" (cf. Sermon 332, 4; Sermon 151, 8). His flock enjoyed hearing him speak on certain topical subjects. If there were an event which demanded his comment, they would flock to the church in Hippo anticipating to hear him speak about it, and would applaud when he did. Listeners to the homilies of Augustine particularly appreciated his clever use of words. Sometimes their applause would embarrass him and he would ask them not to tempt him to pride. At other times, he accepted their applause when he sensed that it indicated they had received the message he was endeavouring to preach.
Once he said, "You burst into shouts of delight, you made sounds of appreciation for it. Let us love that life greatly. May the Lord grant us to love it" (Sermon 302,7). And again, "You are pleased with words; I look for deeds" (Sermon 25A). His voice was never strong, and the effort expended in preaching wearied him greatly, especially in the heat of summer, or when he had to preach often, as was demanded during Holy Week. He would ask for greater attention, or if he did not receive it, he would continue on, saying that he would leave the teaching of the message up to the grace of the Spirit. But he had no hesitation in begging them for understanding, as is evident in Sermon 154, 1: "Beloved, be patient with me….Listen attentively so that my being tired may be profitable for you" (Sermon 154,1).
In no way can a sketch as brief as this do justice to the preaching method of Augustine. But it may perhaps whet our appetites to know more. I can recommend no better way than gradually to read the sermons themselves especially in the most recent edition of The Works of Saint Augustine: A translation for the Twentieth First Century, published by the New City Press. (See notice below.) He endeavoured to preach in such a way that the Holy Spirit might inspire his thoughts and words. This same Holy Spirit "breathes into us the love that makes us burn with desire for God, flee from the world, and rid ourselves of dross so that the heart is purified like gold" (Sermon 227). Patrick Fahey O.S.A.
The Works of Saint Augustine: A translation for the Twentieth First Century. In 1990, New City Press, in conjunction with the Augustinian Heritage Institute, began translating Saint Augustine's entire corpus into English. At that time, English was the only major Western language into which the Complete Works had not yet been attempted. Existing translations were often archaic or faulty, and the scholarship was outdated. Augustine's writings are useful to anyone interested in patristics, church history, and theology. New City Press is proud to offer the best modern translations available. St. Augustine's complete works will be translated into 49 volumes. To date, over 40 of a projected 49 volumes in the series have been translated and published by NCP. http://www.newcitypress.com/the-works-of-saint-augustine-1.html