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How to Achieve Brevity in Sermons

H. T. Henry, the erudite Monsignor who articulated the material we have been quoting in this series, ends his piece by giving practical counsels to preachers on how to achieve the goal of brevity. We believe is worthwhile to reproduce his conclusion for the benefit of so many priests nowadays, as well as countless mortified audiences.


Msgr. H.T. Henry


How to achieve brevity? It is partly a gift of nature, partly an acquisition of art. But art can do much.

First of all, it can remove irrelevancies. In the flush of composition, we are apt to write amplifications of thought that are quite unnecessary, illustrations that fatigue at length by their over-abundance, commonplaces of thought that are futile for our purpose.

Robert Louis Stevenson objects to such additions for a peculiar reason: "To add irrelevant matter is not to lengthen but to bury." The kernel of thought is hidden in the shell. Remove the shell and people will find the kernel. Incidentally, brevity is achieved.

Michelangelo beautifully describes the process: "The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows."

Again, the language of our essential thought may be condensed by art. Southey, when he declared that "if you would be pungent, be brief," assumed that brevity was at the command of the conscientious writer. "It is with words as with sunbeams," he said, "the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." It might seem curious to reflect that the process involves the use of magnifying glass. Even so – for in condensing the language you really magnify the essential thought.

Finally, clearly defined purpose in the sermon, a well-arranged order of exposition, a fairly rapid plunge in medias res [intermediary topics] and a snappy conclusion will assist wonderfully in achieving the brevity so desirable in sermons.

H.T.Henry, "The Short Sermon" in
The American Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 66,
Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1922, p. 273-274
Posted October 1, 2016