The Preacher Hugh of Saint Cher: Scripture Study and the Salvation of Souls

Author: Fr. J. M. Sullivan, O.P.

The Preacher Hugh of Saint Cher: Scripture Study and the Salvation of Souls

Fr. J. M. Sullivan, O.P. Dominican House of Studies Washington, DC

I. The Life and Works of Hugh of Saint Cher

The Dominican Order was founded as an order of preachers, which sought to evangelize and renew the faith of the Church. The zeal for their mission led the friars to a deepened and productive study of the Scriptures. At the same time that the Order was founded the rise of the medieval university was underway. The convergence of the Order's mission and the development of the university led to a remarkable renewal of the study of the Bible. Among the forerunners who undertook an intense study of the sacred page was Hugh of Saint Cher.

Very little is known of Hugh's life before he entered the Order. He was born c.1195 in the town of St. Cher near Vienne in southeastern France. After completing his early studies at a local monastery near his home, at about the age of fourteen, Hugh went to the University of Paris to study both canon law and theology. He quickly rose in the Law Faculty and already by 1224 he was both a Master of Law and also a Bachelor of Theology. The Order's first record of Hugh concerns itself with the date he received the habit, that is, February 22, 1225. One of his more famous students, Humbert of Romans, who would later become the Order's fifth Master, was one of Hugh's students at the University of Paris. When Humbert decided to enter the newly formed Order of Friars Preachers at Saint Jacques he went to seek the counsel of one of his teachers, Hugh of Saint Cher. The story is told: He then called upon his professor, who was afterwards known to the world as Cardinal Hugh de St Cher and acquainted him with his determination, begging him at the same time not to put any hindrance in his way. On hearing this his master thanked God, and assured him of his best wishes for success: "Learn, besides, that I have made the same resolve, but am at present only hindered by my pressing business from carrying it out, since it demands my fullest attention. Go with confidence, and be assured that I shall follow you." The student then entered the Order on St Andrew's Day, and in the next Lent Master Hugh followed his example, taking the habit on the feast of St Peter's chair.

The Order's recognition of Hugh's talents and intellectual ability was almost immediate. Within two years of his receiving the habit Hugh was elected provincial of the Province of France for a two year term. In 1230 Hugh returned to the University to become the Order's second Master of Theology. He replaced Roland of Cremona who had been transferred to the Dominican convent in Toulouse. Three years later in 1233, Hugh was elected prior of Saint Jacques, a position he would hold until 1236 when he would again be elected provincial. Hugh served as provincial until 1244 when on May 28 of that year he was made a cardinal by Pope Innocent IV. Hugh then left the University of Paris never to return but his influence continued in the works which he had completed during his time there.

Hugh of Saint Cher is best known for his work in Sacred Scripture and during his years at Saint Jacques he completed three monumental undertakings. These three works are his Postillae, his Correctorium, and the Concordance of Saint Jacques. For anyone else, any one of these projects by itself could have represented a lifetime achievement. For Hugh these works were necessary for the preaching of the Gospel and so each was needed for the new Order which was founded for this explicit purpose.

The Postillae is a commentary on the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to the Apocalypse. The name of the work itself, postillae or postilla in the singular, derives most likely from post illa verba. This was a supplement to what had already been said about the verses of Sacred Scripture by the Fathers; Hugh wanted this work to be "after those words" found in the patristic tradition. In his commentary, then, Hugh drew not only from the wealth of the Fathers but also from the most current sources of biblical research. "His gigantic work is especially noteworthy in that it is the fruit of his own meditation...Hugh's originality was one of the chief characteristics of his commentary." Never before had a work attempted to include current trends in theology next to the reigning influence of the Fathers themselves. This was a truly bold adventure. Hugh was able to accomplish his aim by including notable authors of the previous centuries. Included among his constellation of great commentators were: Andrew of Saint Victor and the Victorine School, Peter the Chanter, Stephen Langton, and William of Auvergne alongside Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, Bede the Venerable, and the great Saint Augustine. The work proved valuable for centuries. It was reprinted until the seventeenth century. No reputable late medieval library was without the Postillae of Hugh of Saint Cher.

Hugh's second major scriptural work, the Correctorium, relates closely to his preaching. As the name clearly suggests Hugh attempts in the Correctorium to correct the various mistranslations of the Vulgate which had crept into many circles of Scripture study. Because the Vulgate had been copied and re-copied so many times mistakes were unavoidable. The need for serious research is this matter had become apparent a century before Hugh but no one undertook the task until the Dominicans of Saint Jacques stepped forward. Hugh's method for re-establishing the original Vulgate was to work almost exclusively with the oldest manuscripts he could find. Some of the earliest manuscripts dated from the fourth century. In addition to these Latin texts of the Vulgate, Hugh also used Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac manuscripts. The difficulty with Hugh's Correctorium, however, is that he was working with the current assumption of the day, which was that the Vulgate was not the product of Saint Jerome. Hugh would therefore pass over a comment of Saint Jerome to select another source, which he believed to be closer to the original. This misapprehension would cause his work to fall into disrepute when later discoveries authenticated the authorship of the Vulgate to Saint Jerome. Hugh's Correctorium though remained ahead of its time in terms of critical thinking and inspired numerous other Dominican scholars to undertake the same task.

Hugh's dealings with the Vulgate did not end with his Correctorium, however. He also compiled its first verbal concordance, known as the Concordance of Saint Jacques. The immediate purpose of this work it seems was to provide the student of Scripture with a quick word reference. "In place of the present division into verses, Hugh divided each chapter of the Bible into seven equal parts, indicated by the first seven letters of the alphabet." The limitation of Hugh's concordance was that it listed where the word could be found in Scripture without listing it within the context of the verse. Despite this methodological shortcoming Dominican scholars were eager to follow in Hugh's footsteps and compile even more helpful concordances which were to list not only the word and the verse but also the meaning of the word in a particular passage

These three scriptural works, the Postillae, the Correctorium, and the Concordance of Saint Jacques were by no means Hugh of Saint Cher's only endeavors. Hugh also wrote a Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, since commenting on The Sentences was a prerequisite for all Masters of Theology at Paris. This work most likely was composed just after his first term as provincial, somewhere near 1230-1232. Among his other more famous theological works are De Doctrina (sive Preparatione) Cordis and Tractatus Super Missam seu Speculum Ecclesiae. In addition there are almost four hundred and thirty of his homilies extant in manuscript form. These sermons are all firmly grounded in Scripture as one would suspect from Hugh's academic background.

Hugh's regency at Paris ended when he was elected provincial again in 1236. This election, however, did not end his academic interests; he continued to direct scholarly efforts at Saint Jacques even during this period (1236-1244). Then in 1244 as was noted above Hugh of Saint Cher was made a cardinal and began a new phase in his life. He was never to return again to the scholarly work which was the hallmark of his life before becoming a cardinal. While his experience as provincial would have given him wide exposure to the world of his day his service to the pope as cardinal and later as papal legate would far outweigh any of his previous travels.

These final years of Hugh's life (1244-1263) reveal his great diplomatic skill, certainly already evidenced in his earlier roles as a superior. Because of previous political problems, Pope Innocent IV was forced to reside in Lyons and there he made Hugh a cardinal. At Lyons Hugh fulfilled many duties and even participated in the Council of Lyons. One of Hugh's most well-known endeavors during this period was his organization of the Rule and liturgy for the Carmelite Order. He was then appointed to serve as the papal-legate to Germania (an area which today would includes such countries as Belgium, Poland, Germany, and Holland). This assignment involved a great deal of traveling, but in the end Hugh had accomplished a great deal both politically and ecclesiastically. He not only strengthened the Church's alliance with the German royalty, but he also brought needed reform to many dioceses and monasteries. Hugh then returned to Rome in 1254 and was soon after appointed the Sacred Penitentiary. In Rome he remained a papal advisor and confidant. After faithfully serving three popes, Innocent IV, Alexander IV, and Urban IV, he died in 1263. It is a great testimony to Hugh's accomplishments that the Order of Preachers should recognize his achievements by ascribing to him the same suffrages due a Master of the Order.

II. Hugh of Saint Cher's Spirituality of Preaching

To answer the question, "Why did Hugh of Saint Cher preach?", is complex and could be the subject of a lengthy discussion all its own. Preaching after all was the very reason for his mission as a Dominican. He entered the Order to undertake this specific task. He knew that his calling required him to be first and foremost a preacher. Hugh's entire life was dedicated to the tireless preaching of the Gospel. His range of preaching was wide and varied. One finds him preaching in the classroom at the University of Paris, the cloister of Saint Jacques, and in the papal court of Rome. Every project he undertook had preaching as its central motivating force. This is certainly evident in all of Hugh's work in Scripture, which appear to create an "ideology of preaching." This "ideology of preaching" is so evident that one scholar writes: :[T]he value of preaching and the responsibilities of the preacher were advertised with great persistence in the biblical teaching" of Hugh of Saint Cher. Hugh could not conceal his identity as a preacher.

The effective preaching of the Gospel required tremendous resources and tools, which needed to be developed. Hugh was able to orchestrate the talents and zeal of the Dominicans at Saint Jacques toward developing a vast array of preaching tools and resources. As one scholar rightly observes: "The first thing the Paris Dominicans did was to provide the requisite library and classroom equipment for the study of Scripture. They could not buy it, since it did exist. They had to make it for themselves." Hugh of Saint Cher, with the help of his fellow Dominicans, compiled a commentary, a concordance, and a list of corrections to aid his preaching and the preaching of all the friars.

The Concordance of Saint Jacques best exemplifies this work of the friars in Paris. The Concordance was the product of the entire community of friars. The title obviously comes from the name of the convent where the Friars Preachers lived at Paris instead of bearing the name of any one individual friar. The Concordance was such an immense undertaking that it required the expertise of many hands or as one scholar writes it was "under the inspiration and guidance of Hugh of Saint Cher, [who was] assisted by a great number of Dominicans." This is also true for Hugh's Postillae and his Correctorium. This fact, however, does not diminish the scholarly ability of Hugh but rather reveals his ingenuity by enlisting the aid of his brothers. One can imagine the group of friars pouring over the pages of Scripture in search of a reference for the Concordance of Saint Jacques or paging through the Hebrew texts to help finish the Correctorium. This communal activity did not only produce the work in less time but it furthered knowledge of Sacred Scripture among the friars.

There scriptural projects were daunting undertakings. Hugh was not cowed by its magnitude, for he was amply supported by the resources of the entire community of friars who were engaged in these projects. Certainly as a superior, Hugh considered these efforts the responsibility of the entire community itself. The community, in turn, fervently dedicated itself to these endeavors just as it had to the preaching of the Gospel. As another author relates, no doubt it "was the needs of the preacher that promoted the preparation of scriptural commentaries, and led to the compilation of verbal biblical concordances."

A number of observations may now be made. At the outset it must be affirmed that the Scriptures and the extensive study of these Scriptures were at the heart of Hugh of Saint Cher's preaching. That his study was nurtured by his own Dominican life is clear from passages of his Postillae. Hugh, as might be imagined for an early member of any order, took his Dominican life seriously. He understood well that keeping the evangelical counsels contributed greatly to the study and preaching of the Gospel. He embraced its poverty, welcomed its obedience, and grew in its chastity. Hugh took every possible opportunity to explain the life of the preaching friar. One author writes: The primacy of preaching is nicely brought out in Hugh of Saint Cher's wry comment on the word pedestres in Mark 6:33: 'we find only one prophet coming into the land of Syria on horseback, and he was devoured by a lion.' (Though the text he is commenting on is actually about the crowds that followed Jesus, it seems certain that Hugh had preachers in mind, or at least mendicants in general, because this was where horse-riding was an important issue). It is because you are a prophet that you must not ride horses (unless you want to end 'feeding ruddy lions'). It is the practice of the vita apostolica that makes you an apostle; it is because you are an apostle that you have to follow the apostolic rule.

Hugh's zeal for the Dominican life is obvious. Hugh's remark is reminiscent of the story told of the ineffectiveness of the first preachers sent to convert the Albigensians. The monks arrived in town with their very elaborate entourage. They dismounted from their horses and began to preach about the necessity of poverty. Needless to say no one was converted by their Gospel message because it was not mirrored by their actions. To be a mendicant, however, was to be a traveler and an itinerant who begged for his daily bread and lodging. No Dominican would be food for the "ruddy lion" if he faithfully followed the evangelical counsels.

One can see how Hugh could take a verse, and building on the meaning, use it to show its application to the life of the friar. Commenting on John 20:21-3, "as the Father has sent me, so I send you...receive the Holy Spirit," Hugh explains this to mean: "He sent me and I send you, and it is the same work in each case that we are sent to do, namely, preach." These verses reveal Hugh's great reverence for preaching and also his understanding of that authority which comes with the charge to preach. The previous remark on the vita apostolica should be repeated: "It is the practice of the vita apostolica that makes you an apostle; it is because you are an apostle that you have to follow the apostolic rule." Just as none of the Apostles chose on their own to be an apostle so also a man does not choose for himself to become a preacher. Hugh with his constant references to preaching is reminding the friars who would have been the immediate audience of the Postillae that theirs is a sacred duty. They are called to live as apostles and it is by living this life that they are made apostles. It is an important reminder for any age of the Order.

Commenting on Romans 10:15, "How shall they preach unless they are sent?" Hugh is quick to caution the friar about his formidable preaching task. Natural ability is not enough to preach, the friar needs to rely on grace. Hugh writes: "if a man is known to be without the grace for it (si sciatur quod sit sine gratia) he ought not to be sent out on any job of public preaching." The gift of preaching is a particular grace. This reminder can only further cause the reader to cherish the great gift of his Dominican vocation. The opposite can certainly be imagined, namely, one sent out to preach who does not have the "grace for it." From the earliest days of the Order of Preachers even novices were sent out to preach. There was an inherent confidence that the Order graced with the name of "preacher" would certainly be graced with the ability to accomplish this task.

In addition to commenting on Dominican life, Hugh also protected the life that would produce a Dominican preacher. "Already in 1257 Hugh of Saint Cher is complaining that no one is paying the slightest attention to the formation of the novices, with the result that they are exposed to all kinds of hazards without being given the chance to 'mature in the cloister'." This excerpt is taken from a letter to Hugh's former student, Humbert of Romans, who by this time was serving the Order as its Master. Even though Hugh was a cardinal, who was attentive to the needs of the larger Church, he remained observant concerning the observances of his Order. This "maturation" of which Hugh speaks can be no other than that maturation which forms the novice into a present-day apostle. Hugh was not only concerned with the novices, however. In another letter to Humbert, Hugh also charges that some friars too readily leave the cloister "to undertake journeys for the wrong reasons."

III. Hugh of Saint Cher's Relevancy

The value of doing research on a Dominican friar from the past allows one the opportunity to see the Order of that time period though the life of one of its sons. The Order at the beginning of the thirteenth century was exploding all over Europe. Although Hugh of Saint Cher pioneered many innovative means to accomplish effective preaching, he never lost sight of the importance of returning to the cloister so that he could "mature" into the apostle that he was called to become. The faithful living of the evangelical counsels provided Hugh with the spiritual impetus that undoubtedly made his preaching enterprise so fruitful.

There are three factors which make Hugh of Saint Cher a relevant figure to study and imitate even now at the end of the twentieth century. First, Hugh believed that preaching must be scripturally based for it to be effective. The testimony of his entire life's work confirms this. His efforts to develop the Postillae, the Correctorium, and the Concordance of Saint Jacques all point to preaching as the end for his scholarship. He understood that Dominican preaching must be firmly rooted not only in Scripture but also in the serious study of Scripture. His drive to complete the Correctorium affirms such an intelligent approach to Scripture. Hugh wanted the full power of the Word to take root in the hearts of his listeners. His wanted that Word to be preached in all its pristine splendor. To aid the preacher in effectively finding a word, the Concordance itself gave the friar what could be compared to a key for Scripture. The scriptural parallels drawn with the aid of a concordance, continue to make for powerful homilies to this day.

Second, Hugh's preaching resulted from something more than just a life of Scripture study. He firmly believed that the cloister of the Dominican convent provided an environment that produces a preacher. Preaching was a communal enterprise that needed to be cultivated within the context of community life. This point is clearly reflected in his cooperative efforts at composing his scriptural works. Although the Dominican life is a mixture of study and of preaching, it also includes a life of choral office and common fraternity. Hugh valued each of these aspects of the Order.

Third and perhaps the most relevant piece of advice from Hugh of Saint Cher could be derived from his commentary on Ecclesiastes 2: 7, "I acquired male and female slaves..."

Hugh's explanation deals with the power of the preacher.

[T]he servants of Solomon are the preachers who serve the whole Church. These are the cupbearers who set before the bridegroom and bride the wine of sacred doctrine. It is said of them in 3 Kgs. [= 1 Kgs.] 10 that they were clothed with the adornment of a uniform garment, and seeing them the queen of Sheba no longer had any spirit: because the Church of the gentiles (ecclesia de gentibus), seeing the apostles and their followers preaching the same thing and doing the same thing, no longer had any confidence in the doctrine of its own philosophers.

Preaching the truth brings with it a certain authority, confidence, and audacity. The truth will change hearts. It will do away with error. It will unseat the philosophies of the world. Hugh's great emphasis on preaching must "have helped prevent the attractions of pure thought from eclipsing the sense of pastoral vocation among the friars studying at Paris." Hugh clearly understood the unity of truth. Truth to be understood fully must be both studied and lived. Dominican preaching of Gospel truth is the foundational reason for Dominican study.

Hugh of Saint Cher then remains an important figure in the history of preaching, not only because he was one of the first members of the Order of Preachers but rather because he gave so much of his talent for the enhancement of the preaching task. The modern-day friar can learn much about Dominican life by heeding the counsel of Hugh of Saint Cher. Hugh's life is a testimony to the development of a Dominican preacher who is formed by the exercises of the friar's life, i.e., choral office, assiduous study, the common life, and preaching for the salvation of souls. "How shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:15) Hugh knew that the Dominican is sent simply by the grace of his vocation. The Dominican is charged with preaching just as the Apostles were charged, and it is by living the vita apostolica that the Dominican remains faithful to this divine command.

(Taken from