“It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth ill-humoredly, and spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce.” St. Francis de Sales
In my line of work, I often turn to well-known and credible research entities to get news about data related to the Church and her people.
Recently I was reading a study about Mass attendance and one of the readers commented: “Why did I leave the Church? I had a question and you didn’t answer it!!”
I was taken aback for a moment by the simplicity and power of that one sentence. Aside from how any of us may respond to her comment, negatively or with empathy, the fact is she was speaking from her reality – and our reality now, as Church, is we are minus yet another member.
Perhaps her comment resonated with me because I had a question once, one that my parish priest refused to answer after giving me a sound tongue lashing and, in my righteous teenaged anger I began a 10-year hiatus from the Church.
Somehow the priest had discovered that I was attending the bar and bat mitzvahs of my junior high school friends, and since I believed that it wasn’t proper to go to the party without attending the most important part, the religious ritual, I was going to the synagogue for the ceremony.
He called me into his office, under the watchful eye of one of the nuns, and proceeded to yell at me, warning me that it was against Church law to attend the religious services of another faith. I was speechless at first, because I couldn’t understand the reasoning. I asked him why, and tried to explain to him the circumstances, but he wouldn’t let me speak. He also wouldn’t answer my question. His voice just kept getting louder as told me I was not to go to another bar mitzvah.
To him, it seemed that my questions were just those of a disgruntled teenager and I had no need of any further explanation, like the parental response, “Because I said so.”
What he didn’t realize was that his condemnation of my attending Jewish religious services, out of respect for my friends and their faith, was in complete contrast to my understanding of who God was and what God expected of me as a Christian.
It was my deeply held conviction that God would expect me to honor my friends by being present at such an important event in their lives. The priest had shaken me by implying I had done something against God’s will. Of course, he had no understanding of how important God was in my life; I was young, after all. But I needed an answer to my question and he gave me none.
Looking back, I have often thought of how different his response to me might have been if he had known St. Francis de Sales – the patron saint of writers and one for whom I have great devotion. His writings, including, “An Introduction to The Devout Life” and “The Treatise on the Love of God,” revealed to me a strong but gentle saint who had a deep understanding of the human heart. His teachings continue to form my faith, especially when I am struggling.
He reminds me still, “God takes pleasure to see you take your little steps; and like a good father who holds his child by the hand, He will accommodate His steps to yours and will be content to go no faster than you. Why do you worry?”
St. Francis de Sales was a man who clearly understood that when Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep,” he wasn’t just advising him to tell people the rules and regulations and let them like it or lump it. He was clear that feeding was intimately tied to love, and love nourishes – through care, communication and presence.
“If you love me, feed my sheep,” said Christ. If someone has a question, answer it, give them the information they need to help form them in faith, but do it with love, with compassion, with mercy. Then we will have encouraged others to embrace St. Francis’ direction to, “walk joyously with a tremendous confidence in the mercy of God, and believe that He will lead you well."