I remember going to confession as a teen and telling the priest that I had “cursed.” He asked me to clarify, and with no small sense of embarrassment, I told him the words I had used. He quickly pointed out to me that I hadn’t actually cursed anyone, but that instead, I had used vulgar language. He went on to point out to me - as I melted under his instruction - that to curse someone was to pray harm on them… for example, “may you fall and break your leg in twenty places.” Now that’s a curse. Or, one of the worst curses we might wish on someone in my native language: “Mallacht Dé ort” (God’s curse be upon you.) What I was trying to confess, however, was that I had used language that I would never use in front of my mother. I was soundly castigated by my confessor, who chided me for being too lazy to come up with creative language to express myself, and had settled for crass and vulgar language instead. That I can remember this story is a testimony to the care and to the powerful words that priest took the time to share with me more than three decades ago.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe words are important. Globally, language communicates the values of a society, and it shapes how we engage with the world. Personally, the words we choose to use express our personal values. They say a lot about our approach to life. In a very real way, the words we choose to use are expressive of who we are and the values we hold. “Whatever” doesn’t cut it when there’s a desire for clarity or for integrity in our relationships with one another. Intentionality and purposefulness communicate the care with which we choose to address one another. Or not, as the case may be.
There’s an old saying that goes “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I can’t even remember when I learned it, but it was an encouragement to me as a young person growing up to avoid letting taunts or words from other people get to me. There came a point, however, when the significance and the meaning of these words changed. They lost their power as a protective stance when I began to appreciate them differently. As I grew older, I’ve come to appreciate this children’s rhyme as more ironic than not. In my ministry with people over these years, I’ve come to appreciate that words spoken can be more cutting and painful than any physical beating with a stick or a stone.
How we speak with one another, how we talk about one another, is important. In our time, I would also add how we text, how we email, how we snapchat, how we instragram, how we facetime, how we facebook, how we communicate in whatever way, is significant. One of the challenges in modern communications is the phenomenon of fake news. I wonder how fake news can be so effective in disrupting people’s lives if it wasn’t shared by so many, or re-tweeted, or re-posted. What we pass on to others is our personal responsibility as surely as if we authored something ourselves. An example of the harm and damage our carelessness with words (and truth) might be the recent controversy involving the students from Covington Catholic High School. Following a viral video purporting to demonstrate the ugliness of racism in teens attending the March for Life in Washington D.C., condemnation was swift and judgment righteous. Except additional video footage exonerated the teens in question, and both liberal and conservative media alike found themselves trying to extricate themselves from the mess. Social media personalities and icons of the music and entertainment industry had to apologize for their part in fueling the spread of the false stories.
But the lesson in such experience is not just for others. We are all invited to consider how we use language for good or for ill. Do we participate in gossip and harm the reputation of others. There’s no such thing as harmless gossip, despite what we tell ourselves. We put others down, and we demonstrate our own lack of integrity, inviting others to distrust us. After all, how can I purport to be a person of my word (a person of integrity) when I have such little respect for others or for myself. Every time I gossip I am communicating that I find the behavior acceptable. I’d be naive in the extreme if I didn’t think my “friends” weren’t talking about me behind my back.
Our scriptures today remind us that how we use words holds real significance. The Book of Sirach instructs us that “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one's speech disclose the bent of one's mind.” (27:6) As I listen to others, do I find them always complaining, always finding fault? Or do I hear people actually looking to make a difference, willing to step in and step up? Do I experience the life and enthusiasm being sucked out of myself? Or do I experience a sense of purpose and resolve for the bettering of our parish, our school, our neighborhood, our community? Our words present a disposition, a state of being in the world. Our care for those words is important. As Luke’s gospel has Jesus teaching us: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” (6:45)