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.
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