What Are the Three Greatest Speeches of All Time?

COMMENTARY: Look to St. Ignatius of Antioch for the answer.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Ignatius of Loyola”
Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Ignatius of Loyola” (photo: Register Files)

It is a daunting task to come up with the three greatest speeches of all time. But people love such lists, and I have my own. 

My choice for the three greatest speeches, in order, is Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat,” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” I did not include the Sermon on the Mount despite its monumental significance because I regard it as a “sermon” rather than as a “speech.” This list will not meet with universal agreement, but it may be a good starting point for animated discussion. Nonetheless, we may ask, what three speeches were more influential than the triad that I propose? I rest my case.

On second thought, however, and as the result of doing some investigative research, I must defer to that supreme list maker, Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, who was born in Syria around the year A.D. 35 and is believed to have been a student of St. John the Apostle. If there is any quarreling about the three greatest speeches, Ignatius has put the issue to rest for all time. The good bishop of Antioch has proposed that the three greatest speeches of all time belong to the same orator, namely, God.

Now, if God is the “Word,” we should expect that he would speak. Furthermore, his speaking would be arranged as speeches. And what are his three greatest speeches? The first speech was delivered on Day One and was rather lengthy both in time and in space. In fact, it is perpetually available to us. In a word, for Bishop Ignatius, it is Creation.

To listen to this speech, we must be silent. Creation is an unusual form of speech because we do not hear it directly, but through the animals, plants, stars and planets, in their various modes of limited expression. We hear the Speech of Creation indirectly through God’s creatures and everything else he created. 

The besetting sin of the modern world is the reduction of Creation to mere nature. This effectively shuts out God’s voice. Best-selling author Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, contends that at bottom, the universe is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, calls DNA a “mindless scrap of molecular machinery” that is “the ultimate basis of all agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.”

The second of the three greatest speeches for Ignatius is Scripture, in which God speaks directly to man. However, certain scholars have reduced the Word of God to a mere collection of historical texts that are no longer relevant in today’s world. Scripture, then, is liberally re-interpreted, revised and de-constructed. The Bible, for many, is out of date and its adherents may face fines or even imprisonment for quoting specific passages that do not square with contemporary preferences.

The Bible, consequently, is reduced to literature and is regarded as having no more authority than anyone’s opinion. And so, the modern world is blind to the fact that the Bible is a speech that is offered to us by God.

Finally, the third of the greatest speeches is the Incarnation. Here, the Word is given flesh in the form of Christ as a human being. It is the culmination of God’s speaking to us and responds to our deepest hunger. 

Unfortunately, those who understand this third speech are criticized as backward, illiberal and irrelevant. The “liberal” view of the Incarnation welcomes a remodeled Christ who emphasizes the importance of this world while downplaying the next.

God’s first speech speaks to man’s senses, the second to his intellect, the third to his heart. The rejection of each of these speeches is tantamount to a rejection of one’s self. Without the proper operation of his senses, intellect and heart, man ceases to be man. 

The three speeches affirm man in his wholeness. Willful blindness or deafness to any of these speeches is a rejection of both man and God. Here is the great tragedy of the modern world. “We are no longer able to hear God,” commented Pope Benedict XVI. “There are too many different frequencies filling our ears.” The only frequency to which we should tune our ears is the one that is broadcast from heaven.

God’s three speeches are important forms of communication. In ascending order, the first elicits reverence, the recognition that the created world is majestic and inspires awe. The second, in accord with the Ten Commandments, commands obedience to God’s law. The third speech directs us to love God and neighbor. Together they provide all that is needed for human beings to fulfill themselves and, at the same time, be united with their Creator.

Creative listening is our surest road to personal happiness. And yet, we persist in listening to the voice of the world urging us to be independent and do things “our way.”

In the silence that comes from humility, we begin to see the God-given beauty of nature, the wisdom of Scripture, and the love of Jesus Christ. We may begin listening to God by first listening to the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch.