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A lesson to learn from the Doctor of Homilies (even if you’re not a priest!)

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Today's saint, Peter Chysologus, has a lesson to teach us, which was learned well by leaders from Shakespeare to Coolidge.

There are many aphorisms and pithy sayings about the value of a few words. Shakespeare gave us the poetic statement that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Woodrow Wilson reportedly said that an hour-long speech took a few hours to write, but a five-minute speech would take a week or two. But none can top comedy legend George Burns, who said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and have the two as close together as possible.” Today’s saint is one who endeavored to do just that, and is today remembered as the “Doctor of Homilies.”

St. Peter Chrysologus lived from roughly 380 to 450, and was the bishop of Ravenna in Italy for nearly 20 years. This was the time when bishops were still elected by the clergy and people of the city, but St. Peter was hand-picked by the pope over the people’s choice.

As Ravenna was the imperial capital at the time, this also placed St. Peter in a very prominent position. Christianity was not only a legal religion in the Roman Empire—by this time, it was the official religion of Rome. So St. Peter was suddenly thrust into the seat of power of a Christian empire as its shepherd, and among his congregants was the imperial family itself!

Fearful of losing his hearers’ attention, St. Peter tended to keep his homilies short. But they were not only brief; they were powerful and inspiring. This prompted the empress Galla Placidia to give him the nickname Chrysologus, which means “golden-worded.”

This title is fitting in two ways. First, the quality of his homilies was such that his words shone brightly like precious metals. And second, like gold, St. Peter’s words were more valuable precisely because they were scarce. The Church’s instructions today suggest homilies should be between 8 and 12 minutes in length. In times past, it was not uncommon for homilies to last up to an hour. But St. Peter’s homilies on average were only five minutes long!

See here a brief example of his potent preaching:

Listen to the Lord’s appeal: In me, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human?

You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death.

These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love.

I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.

Sometimes we mistake eloquence for loquaciousness, and think that if we want to say something important, we’ll have to expend many keystrokes to do it. Perhaps call it the Treebeard Rule: “We do not say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” But sometimes the most important things are said simply. “I love you.” “I forgive you.” “Jesus saves.” Embellishing such ideas with too much verbal adornment can actually detract from them, like placing an ornate golden frame around the Mona Lisa.

One more story about economy with words, this one about President Calvin Coolidge, who was nicknamed “Silent Cal.” A man came up to him at a social event and said, “I have a bet with a friend that I can get you to say three words.” Coolidge responded, “You lose.” A point made memorably, emphatically, and humorously, in just two words. I’m not sure whether to call Chrysologus the Coolidge of Church Fathers, or Coolidge the Chrysologus of presidents, but either way, the point stands.

(I would say more, but that would defeat the point!)

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