St. Anthony of Padua’s eloquent preaching earned him the appellation “Hammer of the Heretics.” St. Ambrose is known as the “Honey-Tongued Doctor” because of his sweet, pleasing oratory. The brilliant preacher St. John Chrysostom was given his surname because it means “golden-mouthed.” St. Vincent Ferrer, the “Preacher of the Judgment” who had the gift of tongues, converted thousands of Muslims from his pulpit. St. Bernardine of Siena was known as the greatest orator of his time. And in our own day, the charismatic Venerable Fulton Sheen captivated millions of listeners with his weekly program, “Life is Worth Living.” One can only imagine the staggering number of souls that these saints and blesseds brought to the Faith.
But it was in the pagan culture of ancient Greece that the art of oratory originated. There, training in public speaking was considered necessary for a citizen to fully participate in society. With the eventual rise of democracy in Greece, the art of rhetoric, or persuasive speaking, became popular. Citizens practiced rhetoric, the “civilized substitute for harsh authority and ruthless force” (R.T. Oliver), in legislative assemblies and other forums. While the power of Greece declined and the Roman Republic emerged, rhetoric grew to become the foundation of a good education, and in the face of changing trends, retained its importance beyond the fall of Rome. In the first century, celebrated orator and rhetorician Quintilian (35-95 AD) recognized the value of rhetoric as a moral force when he said “God, that all-powerful Creator of nature and architect of the world, has impressed man with no character so proper to distinguish him from other animals, as by the faculty of speech.“
Four hundred years later, St. Augustine promoted rhetoric as a means of service to God and the Church. He believed that the obligation to spread Christ’s message belonged to every Christian in every age.
That means you. And me.
And who are we to argue with St. Augustine?
But if you’d rather take a flying leap than take the podium…take heart! You aren’t alone. Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, is the most common of all phobias.
Enter the Holy Mackerels Catholic Communicators.
A group of Texas Catholics within the Diocese of Austin, the HMCC chartered the “Holy Mackerels Catholic Toastmasters of Central Texas,” whose stated mission is to “provide Catholic faithful with training and support in communications skill development, and to enable articulate proclamation and defense of the Faith.” Its club meetings follow the incremental program of Toastmasters International, an organization that teaches public speaking skills.
Larry Odom, president of the Holy Mackerels Catholic Toastmasters club, says that “many Catholics with a strong faith would love to be able to discuss their faith and share it more, but they don’t have the confidence in their speaking abilities to do so.”
The first step towards acquiring that confidence, says Odom, is to realize that, for a Catholic, facility as a speaker is of secondary importance.
“Faith, or the desire for Faith, is what drives the other factors,” notes Joe Condit, founder & CEO of the premier Catholic speakers’ bureau CMG Booking. “One must have the desire and passion to learn and love his Faith first, and then everything else will fall into place as God intends.”
Catholic writer and speaker Mary Lou Rosien agrees that a lively faith can give confidence to the least experienced speaker. The regimen she follows prior to giving a talk includes “Mass, the Eucharist, and whenever possible, Adoration. And of course, I pray, “’Come, Holy Spirit!’”
Assistant Professor Fr. John Baptist Ku, O.P. of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception agrees that prayer is indispensable to the Catholic speaker: “A man becomes an orator in the world by learning how to orate; a man becomes an orator of Christ by learning how to orare (pray).”
Odd as it may seem, “how to pray” is one of the first things that a new member will learn at a Holy Mackerels Catholic Toastmasters meeting. Explains Odom, “Most Catholics are really good at standard prayers – the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, etc. – but ask them to just ‘lead us in prayer’ and they’ll probably fumble and stumble and get tongue-tied. So club members take turns as ‘Invocator,’ the person who starts each meeting with a prayer. This allows members to break that invisible barrier. “
The renowned Catholic communicator Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen was a master at breaking barriers. Despite his very hectic schedule, he would manage to spend one hour every day before the Blessed Sacrament, no matter how difficult the circumstances. It’s said that the first thing Sheen did when he once arrived late at night at a remote African mission was to ask to be brought to the chapel so that he could make his Holy Hour. Sheen also overcame barriers to people’s acceptance of the Faith by helping to dispel widespread misconceptions about the Catholic Church. One of the ways he did this was by telling stories.
“The masses want to hear a good story about faith that they can relate to,” says Condit, and that’s good news, not only for Catholics who are professional speakers, but for every one of us. “A person who is passionate and has a story he believes in can be far more effective than an experienced speaker who just goes through the motions.”
Adds Odom, “We all have a story to tell. One person’s story may be exactly what someone else needs to hear. We’ll never know whom we might have touched with our stories if we allow fear or lack of experience to hold us back.”
Those stories don’t have to be faith-based. Odom notes that, even among the Holy Mackerel Catholic Communicators, “it’s not required that all speeches pertain to faith and morals.”
“In fact, the first speech given by a new club member is his own story. You don’t need to know Scripture or the Catechism to tell your own story – to introduce yourself. But we can become much more effective in our evangelization when we gain confidence in speaking on general subjects.”
Clearly, storytelling isn’t only for kids. And neither is public speaking just for adults.
“We need our youth to be good ambassadors for Christ,” says Salvatore Rizzo, speech and debate coach at Notre Dame High School in Easton, PA.
Rizzo points out that there are many resources available for students who want to develop their speaking skills in order to “articulate their beliefs in a confident, intelligent, and compassionate manner.”
The following organizations serve private, public, and parochial school students, as well as homeschooled students:
The NCFL sponsors a variety of communications events. Students research, develop, practice, and deliver performances which include speeches, literary interpretations, and debates.
Scouts can earn a Public Speaking merit badge by meeting requirements under the direction of a merit badge counselor. To help you locate a Catholic troop in your area, contact the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.
4-H produces a Communications Curriculum for use by 4-H leaders and other facilitators. Check with your local 4-H club to find out whether it is offering a Communications class.
The Youth Leadership Program is a workshop consisting of eight one- to two-hour sessions. Its goal is to help students develop communication skills through practical experience.
Whether designed for youth or adults, most public speaking programs share the same basic objectives: to help a speaker overcome nervousness, develop confidence, organize his thoughts, and deliver his message clearly and convincingly.
Condit says, “The Baltimore Catechism teaches us that God made us ‘to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world so we can be happy with Him forever in the next.’ Catholics who are good communicators and try to live out their faith are great examples of what it means to carry out this mission.”
It’s a charge that belongs to every one of us. As the Holy Mackerels’ mission statement states, “Let others stand up and be counted. We [Catholics] will stand up and be heard.”