And When Necessary, Use Words

Pope Francis at Casa del Marmo, the Juvenile Detention facility in Rome

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

Fr Austin’s words to me after Easter Sunday mass yesterday, quoting St Francis of Assisi.

I was having a short conversation with him on the subject of priests and their sermons, having been asked by BBC Radio Ulster to go on air this morning to talk of how priests might improve their weekly homily.

Ironically, in an example of miscommunication, Radio Ulster had been led to believe that Pope Francis had called upon priests to up the ante with their weekly homily. As it transpired the new Pope didn’t say this at all. It referred to a much earlier comment by Cardinal Ravasi back in November 2011 for priests to embrace new media in their communications. He pointed to the likes of Twitter as a media that would appeal to the younger generation. The Catholic Herald reported:

“A Vatican cardinal has appealed to clergy to liven up “dull, flavourless” sermons in an address at a conference in Rome.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, claimed that homilies had become “irrelevant” to worshippers who were used to the thrill and excitement of modern technology such as the television and the internet. He said: “The advent of televised and computerised information requires us to be compelling and trenchant, to cut to the heart of the matter, resort to narratives and colour.”

Fr Austin’s comments on St Francis immediately steered my thoughts to our modern day Francis. Certainly the new leader of the Church is aware of the power of words, but his signature so far has been actions, not just what he has said. Both bear close scrutiny. Since the announcement on 13 March he has dispensed with much of the starch, stiffness and conservatism that Pope Benedict brought to the office.

Last Thursday he said mass and washed the feet of juvenile inmates in Rome’s Casal del Marmo juvenile detention facility. This in turn prompted a series of open letters from young inmates in an LA Correctional Facility including the following:

Dear Pope Francis,

When Jesus washed the feet of his friends he gave an example of humility. I have been raised to believe that it is only with respect in hurting your enemy that you are a man. Tonight you and Jesus show me something in this washing of the feet something very different. I hope we kids learn from this.

Dear Pope Francis,

I have never been to Rome. I do not know if it is near Los Angeles because all my youth I have only known my neighborhood. I hope one day I will be given a second chance and receive a blessing from you and maybe even have my feet washed on Holy Thursday.

Since being elected, the Argentine Jesuit has eschewed the trappings of office. He has declined to wear the elaborate red, ermine-trimmed Mozetta favoured by Benedict. His choice of residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than the expansive top floor Papal Apartment in the Vatican. He has gone walkabout to meet real people and ventured off script frequently. His message at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday was an appeal to Priests to go to the outskirts to minister to those at the margins. A challenge for the times we live in, if ever there was one.

Returning to Cardinal Ravasi’s original exhortation on the Priest’s weekly sermon, those people at the margins may not be present in the Chapel every Sunday. Nor are they necessarily open to the appeal of social media. Many feel they no longer form part of the broader Church. And, the institutional Catholic Church in turn has damaged itself with them, with its failure to adequately address the failures of priests and religious implicated so disastrously in child abuse and the subsequent failure of the Institution to deal with the victims in a meaningful way. A culture of us and them has evolved and developed and grown exponentially. The communication has been poor.

Priests in Ireland that have dared critique aspects of the institutional Church’s behaviour have been censured and silenced. Often they are respected local clergy, men and women whose stock clearly doesn’t rank high in Rome with the Curia. Little to commend there, in examples open communication, clarity of message and freedom of expression. It has become unhealthy. A case of ‘do as I say not as I do’. The Curia in Rome under the Benedict regime has been allowed to strengthen its hand, and instead of showing openness, welcome and forgiveness it has closed ranks. Benedict in some of his keynote addresses has used Latin. That in itself is anti-communication and displays however unintentionally a Church that is out of touch and not of its time.

The New Pope Francis on first impression, offers an alternative and possibly a last chance for the Church reinvigorate its true mission. He is thus far an inspiring Shepherd. The excellent blog Whispers in the Loggia allows watchers to absorb word and deed from Francis. Although aware of the strengths of modern communication, he has shown himself thus far to have mastered the art of the simple message irrespective of the medium. It harks back to a simpler Church with a more powerful mission.

Fr Austin’s reflection on the words of St Francis have never been truer.

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

‘It’s about what you do Joe’ he said to me as a parting remark, ‘not what you say.’ As an Easter message from the Pope, or in this case the local Parish Priest, it couldn’t come simpler or more relevant than that.

Speechwriting – The Heightening Alleghenies

Of all the pieces of work I am given and of all the assignments I take on, speechwriting is one job that I always enjoy. It is challenging and rewarding.


Very many people are uncomfortable with the very thought of speaking in public and if that isn’t terrifying enough, the additional weight of having to say something coherent in a public arena can turn the most confident person into a nervous wreck.


I have written speeches for all sorts of events, prize giving ceremonies, graduations, honorary graduation citations, product launches, fundraisers, charity events, awards ceremonies, weddings, you name it. I cannot disclose the names of any clients for whom I write speeches, the fact that someone may have a person like myself to write their remarks can be a matter they don’t like to discuss publicly. To me it is logical, if I can help them express their view in a better way then why have them subject themselves to the trauma. It is a service I provide, I enjoy and I am happy to do.


During my time at the University I was involved in graduation speeches at a secondary level. My then boss drafted and crafted the main speech by the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor depending on who was the presiding officer. The one amusing part of this task was his penchant for obscure erudite quotes. He would have to explain to the particular Orator, for example who Primo Levi was in case the attributed quotation used might provoke a question or two. So, the use of quotes has to be managed carefully and pitched to the occasion, the audience and the speaker.


In my role at the University I introduced the concept of the student speaker replying formally at graduation on behalf of the student body. I was also responsible for drafting the speech the student speakers delivered. Surprisingly most student valedictorians (as they are known as in the States and elsewhere) did not take up the opportunity to write their own address. A few did but in the main they ran with what we provided. I remember one ceremony where between myself and my boss we had written the entire content of the speeches, the main address, the provost’s remarks, the honorary graduate’s citations, and the valedictorian’s address. The exception was the honorary graduate, and I had spoken to him to give him a steer on what to say. So we even had an input on this. The general public was none the wiser. But that’s the way things were done. And the message was consistent.


During my time there and since, I have written numerous addresses. In preparation I will typically find out a bit about the audience, the venue, the time of the speech (after dinner etc), the preferred duration. I will also try to gauge the way in which the person speaks and have in the past listened to a recording of a speaker to understand the way they actually talk before I put pen to paper. I will also have various ideas rattling around in my head, these I write down in a notebook, type into iPhone notes or dictate to myself.


When it comes to writing the speech, having let the whole thing ferment and stew for a while, I will sit down and write it in one go, before leaving it overnight to set. The second edit normally involves a fair bit of copy removal, proving Dr Johnson’s maxim:


Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’


Again in the case of a recent submission, I was required to write to specific time duration and I listened to several recordings of the likely speaker, working out the average number of words he spoke in a minute to establish the word count for the time required.


In business, a formal speech may be a central part of the proceedings, whether to raise funds, launch a product or a campaign/initiative. I have written material where the theme is consistent for the entire event so the people involved receive the same message. That backfired at a fundraising function once when one of the organisation’s officials took my carefully drafted words somewhat grudgingly and opened his remarks by saying ‘They told me to read this out’. Which of course he duly did.


In terms of famous speeches Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ address delivered at Washington has many lessons for speechwriter and speaker alike. The use of repetition of phrases at the start of sentences and again at the end powerfully reinforces the themes he touches upon. Also the alliteration used for effect. The biblical references and inflection. The use of the Negro spiritual lyric. The combination of sermon and civil rights themes. It is a heady, infectious and overwhelmingly engaging mixture that rewards listening for the full seventeen minutes.


That Dr King went off script at the end of the speech was no hardship to him as an experienced and inspirational preacher, but it demonstrates the value of injecting personal passion and experience into an otherwise brilliantly crafted piece of rhetoric.


The effects are most noticeable in the rising cadence and repetition as the address reaches its climax:

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

It is a supremely inspiring piece and one to which any would be public speaker should listen as an example of the art of Rhetoric. We may not be able to speak like that or indeed write like that, but we can learn from it.

In the teaching of Rhetoric there are five Canons: Invention; Arrangement; Style; Memory; and Delivery.

From my perspective as a writer, I generally have control over the first three of these as often for obvious reasons I won’t even be present when the piece is delivered.


For those curious as to the meaning of the five Canons, I will return to this topic if and when the spirits move me.


But for now, the end is near, and the fog is rising. Let us go in.