In Dialogue with Fr. Maurice
It can be a horrible experience to drive through Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles or New York City during the rush hour. If you do, you’ll see and hear all sorts of crazy and impatient drivers. If a meter could tally the record-high of the amount of cursing or bad language imposed on the world—it would be during those hours in those cities—where foul language is used with reckless abandon. I imagine people do not reflect on why they take holy names in vain! Or why they curse a driver of another vehicle with words or signs or maledictions. These in no way improve their stressful situation.
How about those who curse just to feel good? For them, cursing has become a tranquilizer; like a drug to ease off stress, tension and anxiety. When they feel bad about anything or anybody, they curse. They think they are just blowing off steam, but they’re actually cultivating a very bad habit.
Wouldn’t it be better—in these less than tranquil situations—to say a word of blessing? Of course it would. Bless your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5:44). Bless! Don’t curse. Even when your mother, father, husband, wife, child, sibling, friend, neighbor or a troublemaker gets on your nerves, bless them, don’t curse.
When your employer stands in your way, or a supervisor fails to show appreciation for your work and services, bless, don’t curse. When your children don’t show respect for your age and experience, bless, don’t curse.
The fact is bad language is a trait of worldliness, the undesirable fruit of lack of self-control, which manifests itself in various dark forms and shades. It can be through misusing God’s name—blasphemy, swearing, profanity—and foul language (vulgarity). It includes cursing and the use of four-letter words which all have something in common—they demonstrate blatant indecency in speech and contempt of the person addressed.
When bad language is used in direct relation to God or sacred realities, it is blasphemous. It is a grave sin because it directly attacks and dishonors the name of God, or the Holy Names and, by that fact, directly dishonors our loving God (cf. CCC 2148). And when used in relation to our fellow human beings, it is a sin against charity.
So do not be too quick to use bad language, curse or swear. If you find yourself doing so, my friend, you have some praying to do. Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind and my humble suggestion is, don’t dismiss it with, ‘it’s just a bad habit.’ It is much more than just a habit and shows how much “dirty junk” the mind has been fed and how much has been allowed in.
“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).
When our hearts and minds are pure, they generate pure thoughts and words, but when they are not, bad language can be one of the vices; this is a sinful default. As a missionary, I have yet to see anyone prone to bad language who does not have challenges with a healthy moral life.
Wry jokes in poor taste such as, “I can’t stand cursing, it sounds like hell!” are immediately put into a sober perspective when we understand the words of Jesus:
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the Day of Judgment” (Mt. 12:36 Douay-Rheims Bible).
And yet, we must consider the possibility that hell may be plagued with an endless stream of profanity. Cursing may sound like hell more than people realize.
Scripture and the Church’s Sacred Tradition condemn bad language in all its forms. “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exod. 20:7).” The second commandment forbids the abuse of God‘s name, i.e. every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ, but also of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (CCC 2146).
Scripture reminds us to respect God’s Holy name: “Let not your mouth form the habit of swearing, or becoming too familiar with the Holy Name…[O]ne who swears continually by the Holy Name will not remain free from sin” (Sir. 23:9).
In this perspective, may everyone become advocates, if you will, of the Holy Name Society!
(Culled from my book, Word For A Wounded World, Vol. 1, pp. 108-110)
I met Chris (not his real name) during a recent social function. He is a tall young man, very sociable and engaging. Our minds clicked. He was looking for a part-time job to support himself while working his way through school and planning for his future. Although his parents help him out with tuition, he has not been consistent with his schooling. We started talking, from petty stuff to weightier matters. Evidently, he is a smart kid, fun to interact with.
Chris requested for my office contact address, and I gave it to him. “Are you from this city,” I asked.
“Yes, but I don’t live in this city. My parents live here in a big home, completely paid off, with enough rooms for all their kids, and two rooms for visitors but I don’t live with my parents. I live in a rented apartment in a neighboring city because my parents are unnecessarily too strict.”
Too much information than I had asked for. He may have carried a burden for too long, and it is heavy in his heart. He had to vent. It’s healthy to do so. People have different ways of venting; some to strangers, others to friends. It wouldn’t be improper to follow his lead and allow the discussion to go the direction he wanted. Maybe healing will take place.
For a while I thought, “I hope I am not talking to a minor.” Chris is very tall, about 6.3ft, muscular and seemed to be in his mid twenties. But I wouldn’t like to presume. “If I may ask, how old are you?”
“I am twenty one.”
“Um!,” I squeaked. “You are really young.” At least he is more than eighteen. I wondered why it was a big deal for a USA-born kid of the fifth generation who is above eighteen to believe he is doing something extraordinary by living in his rented apartment and not with his parents. In Africa and some other continents like Asia and South America, it is a different story, I know but here….
“You may correct me if I am wrong,” I suggested. “Isn’t it the norm here in the States for many kids to find their homes once they are eighteen or so? Isn’t it ordinarily the expectation, sort of unwritten code?”
“It is,” he agreed. [I heaved a sigh of relief]. “But in my family,” he continued, “it isn’t because my siblings live with our parents, though one is twenty three and the other twenty five.”
This seemed unfair to me and I suppose the boy may be right in feeling he is treated differently. Straightaway I understand why he is venting his frustrations. Favoritism from parents over one child against another is not a good example, not good for the family. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t jump to a rash conclusion. Better to hear the reason he thinks his parents are being unfair.
“Why is your case different?” I wanted to know.
“Eh, eh, you know… they have these rules that don’t make sense to me.”
“What rules? Would you like to give me concrete examples so I will understand where you are coming from? I come from a family too; sometimes my parents give us instructions that seem not to go down well with us. I have been there before but would you mind sharing your story,” I pleaded.
“For instance, in my parents’ house, you have to be back home before 10.00pm everyday otherwise they will lock you out until the next morning. There are other disciplinary rules like this one which I find unreasonable and unnecessary. Are they the only parents in town? Why don’t other parents do the same….” He went on and on.
I pondered what would be wrong with this his family decision. “Do your siblings keep to those rules?” I inquired.
“They do. But they have different preferences. People are different. Think about it: I can’t even go to the bar or the club. Most good bars around this place don’t open until 10:00pm and they run mostly into midnight. Does it mean I can’t go to night club or to the bar because I live with my parents?”
As this young man was talking, I was wondering why he is thinking the way he does. When I met him during the start of the event, he seemed to be a gentleman, or at least a man with fair sense of responsibility but the more he talked, I couldn’t reconcile my first impression of him with the fixation about nightclubs and bars. I kept imagining why going to club and bars are his priorities at this stage of his life. Maybe I should find ways to lead him to think of his parents’ decision differently. Opinion from a neutral person, someone not related to his dad or his mom may do it, I supposed.
“I remember when I was about your age,” I began; “Some of the choices I made were wrong and I thought I understood modern life better than my parents. Unfortunately, over the years I have come to realize I didn’t. I could have done certain things differently. Some of my actions were wrong – thank God I am making up for them now. But there are others I can’t undo. [I paused] … Remind me again how old you are?” I asked.
“I suppose your parents are above fifty.”
“Mid fifties,” he interjected.
“Great! Consider how many years of experience they may have had. They worked hard so as to have the beautiful home you have described, completely paid off. Don’t you think they may have some advantage of experience and may have good reasons to make rules concerning domestic issues? Or do you suppose they are happy to see you sleep outside because you like to go to nightclubs? Do you think, if they were out and about at clubs and bars when they were in their twenties, they would have been successful as they are today? ”
Chris didn’t say a word. I may have voiced what he didn’t want to hear. I knew the discussion would soon come to an end. A prolonged silence followed… Finally, he muffled, “I hear you,” and walked away. In my mind, I prayed for him, asking the Good Lord to make him be the best He has created him to be, and to give him grace to make the right choices in life.
It was Sunday morning. I received a distress call about a woman who had stillbirth. She wanted a priest to pray for her and help her spiritually deal with her trauma and pains. No sooner had I finished praying with the woman, offering her God’s consoling words and warmth of human compassion she needed at her moment of trial, than I met with another girl around the vicinity of the hospital. She could be in her late twenties or early thirties.
“Are you a minister, pastor or what?”
I looked in her curious eyes and saw some interest, maybe to talk with this stranger, whose attire was different from many men she may have met.
“I am a priest,” I replied.
It seemed my answer was not satisfactory, the girl wanted more details.
I knew at that moment she was coming from a Christian background – Christians meeting each other for the first time often ask same or similar questions.
“Catholic,” I replied. I had to develop an interest in her, or at least seem to do so by inquiring about her too. You don’t want to be ungentlemanly. Reciprocal dialogic conversation in this sense is politeness.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Me”, she said, “I don’t believe in religion, I belong to the kingdom.”
Her answer came as a surprise to me. I wondered why she would answer my question by a refutation of something else. Was she trying to say I do not belong to the kingdom or what? Prejudging? Well, I would engage her I decided.
“I belong to the kingdom too and I do not believe in religion also.”
This came as a shock to her. I could see it in her eyes at the mention of “I do not believe in religion also.” But I would not allow her to steer the ship.
“Do you mean you belong to the kingdom of God,” I continued.
“Yes, of course.”
I thought so; at least we were on the same page since she was referring to the kingdom of God. She must believe in life after death too.
“You would likely believe in Jesus and may be a Christian,” I suggested.
Her emphatic yes was reassuring and made me feel good that our phatic communication has become something more. I wasn’t talking to a non-believer or somebody from another faith. I was talking to a fellow Christian. Now we can talk.
“I am a Christian too. And as a Christian I do not believe in religion, I believe in Jesus, in the Trinity.” I would have ended the discussion at that moment but wanted her to educate me on what she meant by saying “I don’t believe in religion,” I felt we might not mean the same thing. I was very curious and open to tap from her insight.
“For me” she began, “religion has to do with tradition – for me, it is a cult and I don’t believe in a cult. This is my opinion; it is religion for me.”
I observed how in two sentences she had used ‘for me’ ‘this is my opinion’ four times. I engaged her on that, wanting to know why she was emphasizing ‘for me.’
“If ‘for me’ means your personal opinion, you are entitled to it. Who am I to suggest otherwise. But if you want it to be what has been the consensus denotation, I will suggest it isn’t.”
“How,” she asked.
When she asked the question, I saw she was willing to listen to see the bigger picture than the ‘for me’ alibi. A good way to go.
I started. “Religion is simply a concept developed by a given society to express a reality. Just like the concept ‘America’ represents a people and a particular geographical location. But the concept is conventional, developed by the people and there is some consensus on what the concept means; otherwise it would not represent ‘America.’”
I asked her, “Do you suppose you are right when you say ‘For me, I don’t accept America to mean what it is but I will call it something else I like?’”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I suspected you wouldn’t,” I continued.
“Though the concept of America was developed in time to represent a particular reality, the concept would not mean anything to anybody without reference to the reality it represents. When people decide to develop their concept which is not related to what a particular concept is understood to mean by convention, they may as well have some explaining to do or do some massive publicity so as to convince anyone else to change the old concept with their new favored one. But if the rejection of the concept has to do with a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of what the original concept means, it is known in education as ignorance. Do you follow this much?” I asked.
Ok. We can go further, I thought. “Back to the concept of religion, religion is from Latin religare – which literarily means ‘a connecting tread’. It was a common concept used by folks of the time to explain the reality of anyone who has connection with the sacred or God or gods. Later the meaning was expanded to mean, those who have recognizable ‘cult’ (a worship system) to distinguish it from people who do not believe in the spiritual, or in God or in the gods and who do not have an organized system of worship. Hence, anyone who believes in God, the Sacred, in the spiritual, or in gods is said to be religious; but anyone who does not isn’t. It is a concept that identifies a group of people of ‘faith’, distinguishing them from another group, those who do not believe in the Sacred or spiritual. Atheists and agnostics are not religious. Do you understand that much?”
“I do,” she concurred.
Then I continued, “And when the American constitution talks about freedom of religion, it means to express those freedoms enjoyed by those who believe in the Sacred and who have an organized way of expressing their beliefs as must be protected by the state irrespective of their different ‘cults’ (the different ways they express their religious aspirations provided they operate within the confines of the constitution). Hence, religion is an umbrella concept for ‘believers’ in God, the Sacred, gods or the spiritual as contradistinguished from the purely material, physically experimental world, no matter what their understanding of the sacred is. And if I may ask you, by saying you don’t believe in religion and you are not religious but spiritual, do you mean to say you do not believe in God?”
“Not what I mean. I mean I do not belong to any religion.”
“There you go! But you are Christian?”
“Does the fact that you don’t want to accept the consensus understanding of the concept of religion change the meaning of the concept?”
“I don’t think so,” she answered.
“Good you know. Similarly, if you are not religious but spiritual, what is the difference between you and an Asian religious, who is a member of one of the numerous Asian religions? Did you know their religions are truly spiritual, because they do not believe in a particular Person(s) as the Sacred but in the spirit world and they try to connect with that spirit world. If you say you are spiritual, you may want to affiliate with them who are in that sense the truly spiritual.”
“What religions are you talking about?” her sense of curiosity was raised.
“Have you not heard about the Asian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and many other mystic spiritualities practiced by many from the Asian culture?”
“Not heard of them.”
“I am not surprised. Even they know they are religious people as well. But they do not believe in the Person(s) of divinity as we Christians believe. If we claim we are spiritual but not religious simply because we want to emphasize we do not belong to any organized Christian Church, are we really representing what the Lord and the Founder of our Faith wanted? I am a Christian, a Catholic and I do not believe in the spirit or even in religion as my God. I do believe instead in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior. In fact, I believe in the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Isn’t this belief our central belief as Christians?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
“I also believe in the Body of Christ, the Church, because my faith is a faith personal and in the community of faith, in the body of Christ as our Lord taught us and Paul emphasized. Thus, all those who have this faith, within the law of the state are called religious as well. But it doesn’t mean they are not different from other religious groups. Christianity is completely different because of the belief in the Trinity and in a relationship with God who has revealed Himself in Christ Our Lord and Savior, and who through the Holy Spirit gives us the power to daily relate with God as a Person.”
“You have the choice: Is your Christianity spiritual and therefore like the Asian spiritualties or is your Christianity religious because you believe in the reality of God who is beyond physical empirical test? Do you ever think you can be a Christian without connection with the body of Christ, the Church? Doesn’t the Church have an organized system of worship – say, reading and sharing the bible together, worshiping on Sundays, praying together and communion? Aren’t these aspects of organized Christian worship? Or do you think it is a disorganized set of believers?”
She didn’t answer my questions but simply said, “I never looked at it this way. I never even knew Catholics believed in the Holy Spirit or in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I never knew they were Christians. I was taught they were religious and not Christians.”
As she said this, I could see her become a little emotional.
“Can I have a hug?” she requested.
“Sure, you can.”
“God love you,” I said to her as she walked toward her car and I to mine.