Mattia Preti, “Saint Veronica with the Veil”, c. 1657 (Public Domain)
God does not assess our guilt as it compares to others; God is not a college professor who grades “on the curve.”
After delivering a speech a few years ago, a member of the audience came up and told me that something I said to her decades ago had helped her tremendously. I remembered having met her, but had no idea that anything I said had such an impact in her life. I have experienced a few of these “George Bailey” moments, and it’s always amazing — Mr. Bailey might say “wonderful” — that a few random words of kindness and encouragement can have such a powerful effect.
But I sometimes also wonder about words of unkindness and discouragement that have escaped my lips over the years. How many people in my life have needed a smile, a pat on the back, or a kind word that I failed to deliver? It’s a sobering question to which I will never know the answer. That thought has me worried, but it also has me motivated to look in the mirror when it comes to problems in the Church — and do something about it.
In the past few years, I have been very critical of some members of the Church hierarchy. To be sure, some prelates have practiced a ghastly cruelty toward the innocent, accompanied by an inhuman lack of compassion and readiness to cover up anything that might indict them or embarrass the Church. The monstrous crimes of these men have made Catholic evangelization nearly impossible.
Their sins have caused another problem that is largely unaddressed, namely that — by comparison — our own lesser sins against neighbor seem quaint and whimsical. We might justify our actions by thinking, “So what if I said something uncharitable to a family member or cheated a stranger? Big deal! Look at what that bishop did!” It’s easy to see how that thought process can occur; after all, we live in a society that encourages us to compare ourselves to others. But God does not assess our guilt as it compares to others; God is not a college professor who grades “on the curve.”
Our own failures to love our neighbor — our own random acts of unkindness — can have a lasting negative effect on others. If we refuse to practice empathy, compassion, understanding, and kindness toward those around us, can we honestly call ourselves Christians in any meaningful sense? Are we evangelizing, or are we instead driving people out of the Church? We might congratulate ourselves on our knowledge of faith and dogma, but we should consider Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
We have it on the authority of Scripture: Faith without love is nothing except an empty cacophony of sadness. That sounds a lot like our world today.
Nearly every nation on earth is besieged with problems and various forms of unrest that seem to grow worse every day, but they all seem to originate in one common cause: we have failed to love. We have failed to love God; therefore, we have been unkind to neighbor. Perhaps we have forgotten that love of neighbor — and love of self, for that matter — extends from the love of God. But the inescapable truth is that love of God and love of neighbor are forever linked.
Because it is easy to lose sight of this fact, we need to restore our vision of who our neighbor is.
We have a choice. We can view others as existing merely for our own pleasure and utility, which is the basis of the question: What can he or she do for me? In our present pornographic culture, there is little doubt that we are being overrun by this utilitarian view. This view is the springboard for random acts of unkindness.
But, true to the message of Romans 12:21, we can overcome unkindness with kindness. We must choose to view each person as the unique and wondrous handiwork of God that he or she is. We Christians are called to look at others, in the words of Frank Sheed, “not for what we can get out of them but for what God has put into them, not for what they can do for us but for what is real in them.” Sheed explains that loving others “is rooted in loving God for what He is.”
Accompanied by grace, that is the recipe for restoring charity and kindness — seeing each person as the unique creation of God. Each person around us is a being of inestimable value whom God has loved from all eternity. As St. Alphonsus Liguori reminds us, “Children of men, says the Lord, remember that I first loved you. You had not yet been born, the world itself did not exist, and even then I loved you.”
Regardless of every mistake you have ever made in your life, God has loved you from all eternity. In a world suffering from terrible unkindness, that is the encouraging message we need to convey — to friends, to family, to strangers. And who knows? Twenty years from now, maybe someone will come up to you and let you know what sort of powerful impact you had on her life.