By Rev. Everette Chapman
There are three popular aphorisms about words most of us know. With two of them I disagree; one of them I applaud. Whoever said “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” never had a teacher or coach humiliate him in front of his peers, have the beauty shop crowd repeat vicious and untrue rumors, or be cruelly castigated by a critic.
Moreover, I question, “A picture” being “worth a thousand words.” An artist would be hard-pressed to equal with his brush Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, an Edgar Guest poem, and the text of “Amazing Grace,” with lots of room left under the word limit for several Fanny Crosby hymns.
On the other hand, I cannot argue with the ancient sage who avowed, “Words fitly spoken are like apples of gold in baskets of silver.” The power of words can never be over-estimated, whether that power be for good or for ill.
Two sets of circumstances about which I recently read make that point dramatically. They were similar circumstances, occurring about the same time in history, but they produced diametrically-different results. The variable in these two situations was nothing more than words.
Early in the 20th Century, in a little town in Croatia, a young man was serving as an altar boy during the service of the Mass. At a crucial point in the Mass, he dropped a cruet of wine onto the marble floor of the chancel. As the glass sherds and the wine splattered across the chancel, the priest approached the petrified lad, slapped him hard across the face, and demanded him to leave the altar and never to return.
The boy was most obedient. Not only did he never return to the altar, he never went back to church, as far as we know. In fact, he turned away from the Christian Church and from faith. The boy, Josip Broz, was born near Zagreb, Yugoslavia. He grew up to be Marshall Tito. He joined the Communist party and became the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia. The destructive words of the priest that day had repercussions for many years and brought untold pain to thousands of people.
At about the same time, another young man was serving as an altar boy at the service of the Mass, in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois. His name was Peter John, and he too dropped a cruet of wine during the Mass. The officiant at that Mass was Bishop John Spaulding. With a warm smile, he said to the lad, “It is all right; things like this happen. Someday you will be as I am.”
The Bishop prophesied rightly. That altar boy became one of the greatest preachers and writers the Catholic Church in America has ever known. He later exchanged the name “Peter” for his mother’s maiden name, “Fulton.” You know him as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. His weekly television program, “Life Is Worth Living,” was the first such shown in America. He had a long, illustrious ministry, writing fifty books and sharing his faith globally. He was one of the shining lights of the Catholic Church around the world. The words of a kindly Bishop, when he was but an altar boy, sped him on his way to a life of service and devotion.
These stories should give us pause. We never know when hasty words of anger might leave permanent scars or when quiet words of encouragement will yield rich results. “Words fitly spoken” truly are “like apples of gold in baskets of silver.” Shalom, dear friends!