November 2019 Allocutio
By Fr. Paul Churchill
At a recent Peregrinatio pro Christo Conference one speaker mentioned a number of people they met on their visitations who had claimed that the scandals by clergy were the reason their faith had collapsed. In another case the non-appearance of a priest who had been called upon for help also featured. This, needless to say, hit my ears and heart as a priest and my conscience bothered me. What bad example had I given? What example should I have given that I didn’t give? More important, what good example can I start giving?
This of course is an issue not just for priests but for us all. We are all called to witness, to give the best of example. Or as St. Francis put it, “Preach often and also use words if it helps!” In other words we do our best preaching and evangelisation by the witness of our example. Sometimes the kind act speaks louder than a doctoral dissertation.
That is not to say that speaking about the faith is not that important. As St. Paul says: “Unless someone speaks how are they to hear?” (Rm. 10:14). And studying our faith and growing in knowledge is not just good but actually essential so that we can give an explanation for the hope we have (1 Pt. 3:15). But no matter how eloquent any words we say, it can all be undone in one instant by bad example.
To go back a moment to those examples given by the speaker at the Peregrinatio pro Christo conference: it is just possible that this attitude of those visited was an excuse. The real motive lay elsewhere. I have worked for years at the frontline of many of those examples and I do not find my faith dented. Indeed I have come to a deeper compassion for all concerned. But as the author of the letter to the Ephesians put it, “Give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:27). The devil can work on bad example. Not all are strong in their faith and what they need is encouragement and building up and good example.
St. Paul understood this well. On one occasion people were scandalised after some Christians ate meat from the sacrifices offered to pagan gods (1 Cor. 8:1 ss). St. Paul could say that, while it is true that no pagan gods actually exist, in a way there is no problem in eating the meat that might be sold later; still if this is going to scandalise a weak person he would prefer to abstain. So sometimes even when we are doing no wrong we need to keep an eye out for the weak and become pro-active in giving good example.
Do not underestimate how many people know who you are. People are watching you. We all need to stop and think about what people see in us. In what ways can I be a better person? In what ways could my words be edifying and help build up faith in people (Eph. 4:29 ss). What ways of behaving act as counter-signs to our faith, maybe revealing the poverty of faith in us? For as Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that seeing your good works they may give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Our faith is not given us to hide, to put it under a bushel, but to be like a city on a hill for all to see. We need to continually examine our conscience on this. And we have to be careful too that, as Our Lord warned us also, to make sure that we are not projecting ourselves as the “holier than thou” ones who only seek to be noticed for themselves (Matt. 6:1 ss).
This leads me back to the great objective of the Legion of Mary, indeed its first principle. “The object of the Legion of Mary is the Glory of God through the holiness of its members developed by prayer and active co-operation.” That above all has to be our objective. And it is interesting that in the Handbook, just after this principle is enunciated, the next one put to us is that of Mary. From her good example, if you like, is put the following values: her profound humility, her perfect obedience, her angelic sweetness, her continual prayer, her universal mortification, her altogether spotless purity, her heroic patience, her heavenly wisdom, her self-sacrificing courageous love of God, and above all her faith.” We could all do a good examination of conscience on those values.
Humility is put first and rightly so. We need to get on our knees, at least interiorly, and admit we are creatures and sinners and, unless aided by God’s grace, we can do nothing. “Unless you abide in me you can do nothing”.(Jn. 15:4 ss). Mary knew that deeply as when she said: “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk. 1:49).
Mary, full of grace, had already shone out with good example by leaving her own home and concerns when she reached out to her kinswoman Elizabeth who was pregnant in advanced years and needed help. Her intention was to help her cousin. I wonder if it ever occurred to her at that stage that she was carrying God to Elizabeth and that this good example would be recorded? She would do something similar in Cana for a couple in trouble and free Jesus to carry out his mission. But you see if our motive is pure from a good heart living under the rule of grace, we will give enormous good example even when that is not our conscious objective. To quote Jesus again, “A good tree does not bear bad fruit”. In the same way a good person draws good things from the store of goodness in his/her heart. For the mouth speaks from the fullness of the heart” (Lk. 6:43 ss).
St. James puts it well, “Draw close to God and he will draw close to you” (Jas. 4:8). That is how we will become good people and in that way we will almost imperceptibly be giving good example. That is what Our Lady did, kept as close as she could to God. That has to be our first objective also as members of her Legion: keep coming closer and closer to God by every means we can and then God will do the rest.
All that said I think it is good to take a look in our examination of conscience to see what example we are giving. There is always room for improvement. I remember once speaking to an Irish football manager about this. Sometimes we seem to be in an activity that is neutral, like going down to the shops for milk or bread. Or we are simply taking a bus into town. Can we be alert to good we might do in helping someone across the road? Or by smiling and talking friendly to the cashier, open up doors of opportunity? As Frank Duff said we first make friends with them: “Real and extensive good can only be effected by the establishment of friendship” (Handbook, Chapter 36:16).
And as we move towards Christmas, which can become almost a pagan feast at times, let us ask how we might give a better witness, one that is truly reflective of Our Lady who brought us the light of the world. Like her and with her let us want only to give the best example so that we can all become lights in the world. Amen.