Convent Thoughts

The Beauty and Truth of the Catholic Church
Vol. IV
B. Herder, St. Louis, MO, 1816

Fr. Edward Jones
With Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, 1916 

Sermon XXIX:
The Influence of Example

"Be you therefore perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect."-----MATT. 5, 48
    It is generally asserted that the world today is governed by public opinion. Men of science and of literature, men of deep religious convictions, tell us that public opinion is created by the press. There is undoubtedly much truth in this assertion, but it does not contain the whole truth, for there is another power that generates public opinion far more effectively than the press and that is simply, "example."

   Good or bad example exercises an almost unlimited sway over the minds of men. It reaches where the literature of the press cannot. It exercises its influence over the educated and uneducated alike. It is a matter of daily experience in the higher and lower circles of society and when brought to bear upon the religious and moral element of man's life, produces the most surprising effects. The most profound religious convictions are often completely undermined by the bad example of those among whom men live. And they who were once indifferent to matters of religion, are not infrequently led to think seriously on the subject, and end by gaining the Church through the edifying conduct of those by whom they are surrounded. Thus it happens, that the example we see brings forth results which other means would have failed to produce.

   This, my dear friends, is a most important truth. It clearly shows that each one of us has it in his power to benefit, or to harm his neighbor; to be the occasion of the salvation or ruin of souls, redeemed by the Precious Blood of Jesus. It teaches us, that each one, however illiterate he may be, can become a powerful champion or a dangerous enemy of the Church. He may assist her in the glorious work of saving souls, and he may render her efforts useless. If the bright light of his example shines before men, they will see her good works; they will enter into themselves, and prejudices against the Church will be dispelled. They will examine her claims, and surrender themselves to her, and thus he has helped to save his brother's soul. Or he may lead a scandalous life, and thus confirm men in their prejudices against the Church, cause her to be despised and persecuted and paralyze her efforts for the salvation of souls. His brother will live and die in unbelief; his soul is lost, and that bad Catholic is responsible before God for the loss of that immortal soul.

   My dear friends, to deliver you from this terrible responsibility, that you may be ministers unto salvation and not to death to your fellow beings, I will endeavor to show you the effects which "example" produces on those outside the Church.

   1. There is nothing more certain than the fact that the world is very wicked. The fell spirit of atheism is rampant. It pervades the science and literature of the day, and intrudes itself into politics and business transactions and even the ordinary affairs of daily life. It would seem that men had grown tired of God's revelation, and agreed among themselves to banish religion out of the world into the vast regions of the unknowable. They are not willing to grant it shelter even within the hallowed precincts of the church or cloister. The very men who at present rule the world, and are expected to give a tone to society, practice religion only so far as it subserves their own sordid interests. In theory and practice, they deny the fundamental principles of morality. The Ten Commandments are rejected as men would worn-out garments, they have done their duty and are now out of fashion. Sordid self interest and a regard of what the world will say are the great laws by which men regulate their conduct. Charity and chastity and humility, as inculcated by Christ, are all but unknown virtues, and at no period of the world's history was man more completely of the" earth earthy" than in this age of boasted enlightenment and social progress.

   Yet, however deplorably man may degenerate, he will never erase from his mind the knowledge of good and evil, nor will he pluck out of his heart his natural respect for virtue and aversion to vice. His conduct may be at variance with the principles of morality, but in his heart, in his inmost soul, he will never call evil good or good evil. Neither will he say that vice does honor to a man, nor that virtue degrades him. He is convinced that the very contrary of all this is true. Society may, therefore, degenerate, men may throw off all moral restraint, and corruption may become frightfully prevalent, yet virtue will not cease to command respect. The just man may be persecuted by the wicked, his virtue held up to scorn, men may say that silly scruples have turned his brain, yet it is certain, that in their hearts they will entertain a very profound respect for him. In their sober moments, when the intoxication caused by unbridled passion is over, they will enter into themselves, and acknowledge that the man whose virtue they held up to scorn and ridicule is, after all, a better man than they are.

   When men see, therefore, that the priest is the first to respect the sanctity of his state; that the statesman and politician study not their own personal aggrandizement or sordid interests, but the country's welfare; that the lawyer does not prey, like a vulture, on the substance of his client, and undertakes not the defense of an unjust cause; that the magistrate sells not justice to the highest bidder; when they see that the merchant is scrupulously exact in his business transactions, and that the rich man is not an extortioner of the poor, but loves to be their friend and protector; that the employer pays honest wages for work performed, and that the laborer is conscientious in the discharge of his duties; when they see that the young man is industrious, and avoids places of dissipation and company in which no respect is paid to virtue; that the looks and the dress and the spirit and the whole deportment of the young woman betray modest reserve and a delicate sense of honor; when they see, in fine, that parents are solicitous to train their children to habits of virtue, and that they, in turn, take pride in doing honor to their parents and in giving them pleasure; when men see all this, they will respect the conduct of such as these, and regard them as model men and model women, and they will think how happy the world would be, were it peopled with such men and women. And if, with all this, they see that these persons, though they make no parade of their religion, nor try with unreasonable importunity to force it on every one with whom they come in contact, are yet deeply religious persons, and show on every occasion a profound respect for their religion; when they see that they frequent the church, assist at Mass, listen reverently to the word of God, devoutly receive the Sacraments, observe the fasts, and, in short, scrupulously comply with all the observances of their religion; when they see that though they boast not of their faith, that they are neither afraid nor ashamed to confess it, almost without being aware of it, men transfer the respect they have for these persons to the religion which they profess.

   2. It is in the province of religion to raise men in the scale of moral excellence and to train them to habits of solid virtue. When men see that our Catholics are penetrated with a deep sense of religion; that the sharpest scrutiny discovers in them nothing worthy of blame, but everything that commands respect and admiration, they naturally conclude that it is religion which has made them what they are, and then they will say that a religion which can form such men and women is a necessity to man's moral wants: that it is a friend and benefactor of the human race; that they who despise its teachings and yet more they who persecute it, are enemies of our race, since they undermine the whole moral order, and the very foundations on which prosperity is based. Thus by the irreproachable conduct of our Catholics, men are led to respect our holy religion, to admire and love it, and not infrequently seek shelter within her sanctuary from the desolating skepticism and brute materialism of our age.

   How many are there not, in fact, among our converts who trace the history of their conversion to the edifying conduct of some Catholic with whom they often came in contact? There are thousands who would never have given a thought to the claims of the Catholic Church, were it not for the bright example of virtue which they saw among some of our good people, and, it may be safely asserted, that the Church has acquired a greater number of converts through the virtues of her saints than the learning of her doctors. Our age is too material and superficial to delight in grand theological disputes; men, as a rule, prefer the flimsy, if not the filthy article of the newspaper, or the silly story of the novel to the ably written works of controversy. And they who do read and are interested in religious matters, read, as a rule, only such as serve to prejudice them against our religion, works in which our teachings are misrepresented, our practices ridiculed, our aims criticized, and our public actions judged unfairly, ascribed, perhaps to motives which have about as much influence over us as the Sultan of Turkey. It is, then, true, that Catholic books do not exercise any great influence over those outside of the Church. Yet Truth should be made known everywhere, in season and out of season. Indeed, it seems hard to understand how he can be a true disciple of Christ, animated by the spirit of religion, who does not ardently sigh for the happy day which shall witness the true faith of Christ flourishing all over the world, and all men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants and Infidels gathered into the one true fold, brought into the Church of Jesus Christ. The Catholic who does not desire this, and who endeavors not, as far as in him lies, to cooperate in this grand work of conversion is, at least, an indifferent and drowsy Christian, and though he may call himself a Catholic, he is certainly a stranger to Catholicity.

  3. And now, my friends, if we are to cooperate in this grand work of saving souls, how are we to do it? In the simplest manner, by letting the bright light of our example shine before men that they may glorify our Father Who is in Heaven.

  Good example is more powerful than mere learned words; it makes an impression where words would be thrown away, and speaks to those whom our words could never reach. Men must see us whether we will or not. If our conduct is correct in every detail, they will notice it, and respect us for it; if, on the contrary, it is scandalous, they will be shocked and treat us with the contempt which we so richly deserve. In either case, our religion will gain or suffer; men ordinarily judge the tree by its fruit, and the impression exists, that religion is intimately connected with our moral conduct; religion is the tree which bears the fruit of our works.

   The irreproachable conduct of our people is, therefore, the most effective argument for the conversion of the unbeliever. It is an argument that can be made use of by all, even if they possess no depth of learning nor readiness in debate. It can be used by the uneducated as well as by the theologian, by the layman as well as by the priest, by the humble servant girl as well as by the lady of fashion and culture. Example speaks more eloquently than words. If, then, every Catholic were to conform his conduct to the teachings of the Church, we might safely burn every book of controversy that has been written; we would need them no more. We would simply tell men to look at us, and study our conduct, and see for themselves what religion! has made us, and judge for themselves the tree by its fruit. "By their fruit you shall know them."

   4. In the whole history of religion, there is perhaps no fact more surprising than the rapid conversion of the world to Christianity. When we consider the gigantic and humanly speaking insurmountable obstacles which the Christian Faith had to encounter when first preached; when we reflect on the strong and apparently well grounded attachment which the Jews had to the religion of their forefathers, and the aversion which they naturally must have had to a religion, whose Founder they had nailed to the Cross; when we consider the almost irresistible charms which paganism possessed in its teachings, so satisfactory to degraded reason in its morality, so perfectly in harmony with the corrupt instincts of the human heart; in its worship so alluring to the senses, and with all the magnificence with which power and wealth and genius and art had embellished it; when, on the other hand, we consider that most repulsive character of the Christian religion, its doctrines so mysterious, its morality so unmercifully severe; its novelty and the low extraction of its first teachers, the poverty of its disciples; when we consider that, during centuries of pagan superstition, the worst passions of the human heart had exercised unlimited sway over the minds of men, and how at the very first announcement of Christianity the whole colossal power of the Roman empire was employed to extirpate the very name of Christian from the face of the earth; when we look at the funeral piles erected in every corner of the empire, the wild beasts from Germany's forests or Africa's deserts brought to the amphitheater, the torrents of blood that flowed and crimsoned the earth for nearly three hundred years, we are struck with amazement, on beholding the Church, issuing forth from the Catacombs, ascending the throne of the Caesars, and ruling over nations that formed the great Roman Empire, and provinces that during seven hundred years even Roman valor could not subdue.

   5. And what, my friends, was the cause of this wonderful growth of the Church? Why, coming forth from the midst of darkness and gloom, like the rising sun, has she so quickly attained the glory of meridian splendor? Was it the teaching of her doctors, the eloquence of her preachers, or the miracles wrought? There is today as much learning and eloquence in the Church as there was then, the power of working miracles exists now, as it did then; there are at present living miracles in the Church. Why, then, are conversions so rare in our time? What could be the secret of her success in those early times? It was the patient zeal, the self sacrificing charity of her priests; it was the heroic constancy of her martyrs; it was the purity of her virgins.. It was, in short, the extraordinary sanctity of her children. This was the powerful weapon with which she attacked Judaism, and paganism, the superstitions and vices of that voluptuous age, and with this weapon she achieved her most brilliant conquests.
   Men saw and admired the astonishing change which the new religion wrought in those who put themselves under its influence -they saw that the very name of sin was detested by men, who but a short time before had been slaves of the vilest passions -they saw that those who had been steeped in sin and iniquity, became almost suddenly the models of the most exalted virtues; they saw and admired the superhuman power of religion which could raise men up from the depths of pagan degradation to the eminent height of moral excellence; they examined it, and became Christians. The most powerful champions of the Church have not been her eminent scholars, but her humble Saints; they who lived in a corrupt world, but were not of the world; they who renounced the allurements of pleasure, and spent their lives in the obscurity of the cloister in penance and prayer; they who, at the foot of the Cross, learned the sublime lesson of self denial.

6. Example! Oh, how much more eloquent than mere words? When the children of the Church were animated with her spirit she was happy; then she made amazing progress, notwithstanding the most powerful and violent opposition against her. But when her children became degenerate, then days of grief came upon her, and she sustained terrible losses. Her worst enemies have been her own degenerate children. Every heresy that has arisen owes its existence to a bad child of the Church, and from the ranks of bad Catholics every heresy receives its strength. It is not the dungeon or exile or loss of property the Church fears. She fears not the rack, the fire, or sword or persecution in its bitterest form. No! This is her glory-----it is then she appears to the greatest advantage; then that she draws down upon herself the world's attention, and excites the admiration of men, and what humanly speaking should have been her loss proves to be her gain.

   But when her own children lose sight of the sanctity of their vocation, and-----degenerate, then the Church grows weak; then her influence over individuals and over society becomes less powerful; her efforts for the salvation of souls are paralyzed; men either notice her not or if they do, it is only to point at her the finger of scorn and reproach. There is nothing that so powerfully prejudices non-Catholics against the Church, as the scandalous conduct of some Catholics. I know, indeed, that the disedifying conduct of some Catholics is no valid argument against the Church, for if Catholics are bad, they are not so because they are Catholics, but because they are false to her teaching.

7. No one knew better than our Lord how admirably suited to men's wants the Christian religion is; no one knew better than He, its wondrous power to develop man's moral character, so as to make him the very beau ideal of moral excellence. But Our Divine Savior Himself plainly foretold that scandals would arise even in His Church. He likens her to a field in which cockle grows up amid the wheat; He tells us that she is like a net in which all kinds of fish, good and bad, are found. And He says that she resembles ten virgins, five of whom were foolish virgins. But what follows from this? Simply this, that religion does not destroy man's free will,-----does not annihilate man's natural inclination to evil, that it does not force men to live up to their convictions. It is not fair, therefore, to hold the Church responsible for the crimes of her children. But we must not forget that men generally do not reason very logically on the facts that come under their observation. The majority of men are at most only superficial thinkers, and the shrewdest logicians will reason correctly on but few subjects. It is certain that men connect the Church, with the bad lives of her children. " He is a bad man," they think and say, "and he is a Catholic; yet the Catholic Church thinks herself better than other Churches."

   We cannot change men's ways of thinking, and it matters little whether a man loses his soul logically or illogically, but it is of great importance to us that we be not the cause or occasion of his ruin. It may be very true, that men cannot plead a valid excuse for their unbelief; it may be true that they lose their souls through their own fault; but if through our disedifying conduct, we have confirmed them in their prejudices against the Church, and thus prevented them from examining her claims, how terrible will not our responsibility be, in the sight of God? It is a dreadful thing to be obliged to answer to Almighty God for a single soul, lost through our fault. And oh, my friends, how do our accounts stand regarding this matter?"

     If then, my friends, we love the Church of which through the great mercy of God we have the happiness to be members; if we love the precious souls for whom Jesus Christ died upon the Cross; if we would not see reprobates rising up against us on the day of judgment, accusing us of their eternal ruin; if we would not have God himself on that dreadful day demand the blood of those unfortunate reprobates at our hands, let us strive to live so that we may never be a stumbling block to anyone. Let our lives be conformable to the teachings of the Church. Let the bright light of our example shine before men, that, seeing our works, they may recognize in us children of our Father in Heaven. "Scandals there must needs be, but let each one take heed unto himself lest it be through him that scandal cometh." For our Lord has said, "It were better for that man had he never been born; better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he be buried in the depths of the sea, than that he should live to be the cause of another's ruin." Amen.

Note: The artist was sympathetic to the Catholic Church and being an Englishman he was not well-received in some quarters of the art world of his time. I hope he was given the grace before he died to enter the only Ark of Salvation, the Holy Catholic Church before he breathed his last.