A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
“Beatus qui non fuerit scandalizatus in me.”
“And blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me.” -St. Matt. xi. 6.
Nothing, my brethren, is more glorious or more honourable for a Christian than to be allowed to bear the exalted name of a “child of God and brother of Jesus Christ.” But nothing, either, is more despicable than to be ashamed to confess Him openly, that is, as often as the occasion presents itself. Where shall we find a meanness more culpable, and a perjury more presumptuous, than when anyone denies his creed, that he believes in Jesus Christ, after having, by the most sacred promises, pledged himself to follow in His footsteps, to give up his life if necessary for His cause and His honour; but who is so thoughtless that at the first opportunity he violates the promises which he made at the baptismal font? Ah, unhappy man, what are you doing! Who is He whom you deny? Ah, you will be faithless to your God, to your Redeemer, to become a slave of Satan, who deceives you and who will accomplish your ruin and your eternal misery! O cursed fear of man! How many souls dost thou cast into hell! But to show you how contemptible this is, I will point out to you: first, how greatly fear of man offends God; that is to say, to be ashamed to do good and secondly, how those who let themselves be moved by it betray a weak and narrow mind.
My brethren, I will not speak of all those ungodly people who employ their time, their knowledge, and their miserable life, as far as in them lies, to destroy our holy religion. These unhappy people seem to live only to deny the merits of the death and passion of Jesus Christ. Some have employed their power and others their science to crumble away the rock on which Christ has built His church. But these fools are dashed to pieces on the rock of the church, which will live forever in spite of their attacks.
As a matter of fact, my brethren, how does the fury end of these persecutors of the church? Of a Nero, of a Maximin, of a Diocletian, and of so many others, who imagined that by force of arms they could exterminate it from the face of the earth? Just the contrary took place. The blood of the martyrs, says Tertullian, caused religion to bloom more beautifully than ever, and their blood seemed to be a seed which yielded a hundred for one. And in our own time, has the persecution of England for past centuries driven out the faith from Catholic Ireland? Has Luther succeeded in depriving the German Catholics of their faith? Windhorst, with his centrum party, has proven only a few years back what a bulwark the church was against the proud Bismarck, so that he had to go to Canossa and submit to the Holy Father. Unhappy man! What has this beautiful and holy religion done to you that you persecute it so, for she alone can give men happiness on earth? Ah! What tears and lamentations are there now in hell, where they see clearly that this religion, against which they raged, would have led them to heaven. But their repentance is useless because too late.
Look at those other impious men who work with all their strength to destroy our holy religion by their writings, a Voltaire, a Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Diderot, an Ingersoll, a Darwin, and so many others, who only lived to disseminate by their writings what the devil had instilled into them. Alas! They have worked a great deal of misery, they have ruined numberless souls and cast them into hell; but they could not destroy religion, as they believed—they were dashed to pieces on that rock. They did not crumble the rock away on which Christ had built His church and which must continue until the end of the world.
I will be silent, my brethren, about those other people, who, although they do not show themselves openly as enemies of religion, for they practice it a little outwardly, but from whose lips you hear now and then jeering remarks about the virtue and piety of those whom they have not the courage to imitate. Tell me, my friends, what has this religion done, which you received from your forefathers, who practiced it so faithfully before your eyes and who told you so often that it alone was capable of making men happy upon earth and that we should be unhappy if we forsook it? And whither, my friend, do you think that your half-hearted impiety will lead you? Alas, my friend, into hell, where you will have to bewail your infatuation.
I will be silent about those Christians in name only, who acquit themselves of their religious duties in such a miserable way that one could die of pity: Look at one of them at prayer—full of uneasiness, distracted, and without reverence. In church they have no devotion; divine service begins too soon for them and is over too late; the priest has not yet left the altar and they are already outside. It is no use to speak to them of the frequent receiving of the Sacraments; if they do go once in a while, they do so with such indifference that it is easy to see they do not know what they are doing. Everything which relates to the service of God is accomplished with most conspicuous dissatisfaction. O my God, how are souls lost for all eternity! O my God, how small is the number of those who will go to heaven, for there are so few who do what they ought to do to serve Thee.
But you will now say, who are those who sin through fear of man? My brethren, listen to me for a moment and you shall learn. First, I will say, with St. Bernard, that fear of man consists in this: that we are ashamed to fulfil our religious duties before the world. Yes, my brethren, to be afraid to do good for fear of being despised or ridiculed by some ungodly and ignorant men is a dreadful insult which we offer to the presence of God, before whom we find ourselves and who could indeed cast us into hell for it at any moment. What is the reason, my brethren, that these wicked Christians ridicule and jeer at your devotion? Ah, my brethren, the true reason is this—that they have not the courage to do what you do, and so you occasion them remorse of conscience; but you may be sure that in their hearts they do not despise you; on the contrary, they have a high opinion of you. If they want good advice or if they want to obtain a favour from God, then they run, not to those like themselves, but to those who, at least with words, they have mocked at. You are afraid to serve God, my friend, for fear of being made little of? But, my friend, consider who it was who died upon the cross! Ask Him if He was afraid of being despised and to die the most shameful death on this ignominious cross!
But why should we be afraid of the world? We know, of a certainty, that we shall be despised by the world if we please God. If you fear the world you cannot call yourself a Christian. You know that at the holy baptismal font, in the presence of Jesus Christ, you took a solemn oath that you would renounce the world and the devil, that you pledged yourself to follow Jesus Christ, who carried His cross laden with ignominy and contempt. If you are afraid of the world, very well; renounce your baptism and give yourself up to the world, whose displeasure you are so afraid of incurring.
But you will ask me, when are we guilty of fear of man? My friend, listen to me. One day you were at a table where meat was served on forbidden days, and you were asked to eat it, too; you were satisfied to drop your eyes and turn red, instead of saying, I am a Christian; my religion forbids me to eat it. You ate it with the rest, while you said to yourself, if I do not do as the others do, they will make fun of me. Yes, indeed; and that would be too bad. Ah, you will answer, I should cause more mischief if I was the occasion for all the bad jokes which would be made about religion than the wrong which I should commit by eating meat. Tell me, my friend, would you cause more mischief? If the martyrs had been afraid of all the blasphemies and oaths, then they would have been unfaithful to their religion. That is so much the worse for those who jeer at you for doing right. Ah, my brethren, let us say, rather, it is not enough that these other unfortunate men should, by their wicked lives, crucify Jesus Christ over again; you, too, must be reckoned amongst them, so that Jesus Christ should suffer still more.
You do not know when you showed fear of man? At that time, when in company, when obscene words were dropped against the inviolable virtue of purity or against religion, and you had not the courage to find fault with anyone. You even perhaps, for fear that they might jeer at you, laughed with them. But you will tell me one is obliged to do this, or one would be turned into ridicule all the time. You are afraid, my friend, of being laughed at? That was the kind of fear that moved St. Peter to deny his divine Master; but fear did not prevent him from committing a mortal sin, which he wept over his whole life long.
You do not know when you have shown fear of man? On that occasion when the thought came to you that it would do you good to go to confession, but you thought you would be laughed at and taken for a pietist. How often has this cursed fear of man prevented you from attending the instructions or the evening benediction? How often, when you were saying your prayers at home or reading a spiritual book, you have hidden it away as soon as you heard anyone coming? How often have you omitted your morning and evening prayers because you were with people who did not say any? And all that from fear that you might be laughed at.
Away with you, poor servants of the world, waiting for hell, into which you will be cast! There you will repent in vain the good which the world prevented you from doing. Ah, my God, what a sad life those lead who want to please the world and God! How you deceive yourself, my friend. Apart from the fact that you will always lead an unhappy life, you will never attain your end—to please the world and God; it is just as impossible for you as to put an end to eternity. But in order not to discourage you I will advise you: give yourself either entirely to God or to the world; seek and follow only one Master, and when you have determined to do this, never more forsake Him. You remember the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” That is to say, you cannot follow the world and its pleasures and Jesus Christ with His cross.
It is true that fear of man does not prevent us altogether from performing good works. But of how many merits for good works does it rob us? How many persons go to church only out of fear of man, because they think that no one has confidence in them unless they now and then make an outward show of being religious; according to the maxim, where there is no religion there is no conscience! How many mothers only appear to take care of their children, so as to enjoy the esteem of the world! How many become reconciled to their enemies only because they are afraid to forfeit the good reputation which they enjoy! How many are careful in their speech and devout in church on account of the world! O cursed fear of man, how you spoil good works, which would take so many Christians to heaven, but instead of which it only casts them into hell!
But, you will tell me, it is very hard to keep our actions free from all worldly admixture. But, my brethren, we expect our reward for all this, not from the world, but from God alone; when I am praised by man I know certainly that I do not deserve it, because I am a sinner; when I am despised by man that is just as it should be for a sinner like I am, who has so often abused God by my sins; I deserve a great deal more. Besides, has not Jesus Christ told us, blessed are those who are despised and persecuted? And again, who are they who revile you? Ah, poor sinners like yourself, who have not the courage to do what you do and who wish you would behave as they do so as to have a companion in shame.
But, you will tell me, one cannot help being affected by it! Do you know why they ridicule you? Because you are afraid of them and the slightest thing causes you to blush. They do not mock at your piety, but at your inconstancy and your indolence with which you follow your conscience. Consider the worldling, how courageously he follows his principle! Do they not glory in being abandoned, drunken, cunning and revengeful? Consider the shameless; are they afraid to spit out their filthy talk before the world? Why is this, my friends? Because they feel obliged to follow their master, the world; to think and strive to please him alone; in vain are they placed under hardships; nothing can deter them. Behold, my brethren, how it would be if you did this! You would neither fear the world nor the devil; you would only strive and wish for that which would please your Master, who is God Himself. Acknowledge that the worldling is more constant in making sacrifices to please his master, which is the world, than we are by the fulfillment of our duties to please our Master, who is God.
Now we will consider this matter from another side. Tell me, my friend, why do you make fun of those who practice piety? Or, if you do not understand this exactly, of those who say more prayers than you do, who receive the Sacraments oftener than you do, and who flee the approbation of the world? For three reasons, my brethren: either you take these people for hypocrites, or you ridicule piety itself, or, finally, you are angry because they are better than you are.
First, To treat them as hypocrites you must have read their hearts and you must be thoroughly convinced that their devotion is false. Now then, my brethren, does it not appear natural that by observing the good works which others do, we should conclude that they proceed from a good and pure heart? Well, then, how absurd is your talk and your judgment! You see good behaviour in your neighbour and from that you infer that his inner man is worthless. Here, we say, is good fruit; certainly the tree which bore it must be of a good kind; and we judge rightly. And when it is a question of judging men from the good they do, you say, on the contrary, there is good fruit, but the tree which bore it is worthless. Now, my brethren, you are not so blind and so unreasonable as to judge so foolishly.
Secondly, I say you make fun of piety itself. No, I am mistaken; you do not make fun of this person because he prays often and reverently; no, not on that account, because you pray yourself (at least, if you do not you neglect one of your first duties). Do you despise him because he receives the Sacraments more frequently? But formerly you went to Sacraments oftener; you were seen at the confessional and also at the altar rail. You do not find fault with these persons because they fulfil their religious duties better than you do; they are perfectly convinced of the danger in which we stand of being lost and therefore of the necessity of having frequent recourse to prayer and the Sacraments, so as to remain in the grace of God, because after this life there are no more means of salvation; we shall be found there either good or bad for all eternity.
No, my brethren, it is not that which troubles us in the person of our neighbour, but because we have not the courage to imitate him we do not want to feel the shame of our negligence; we would much rather induce him to imitate our disorder and our indifference. How often do we not say, what is the use of these long faces? Why remain so long in church, and go there so early in the morning? etc. Ah, my brethren, the life of a person sincerely pious is a continual reproach to our lax, indifferent lives. It is very easy to understand that humility and modesty itself are a reproach to our haughty lives, which cannot bear anything, which would like everyone to praise us and to like us. There is no doubt that their meekness and kindness to everybody mar our violent passion and our anger; it is very true that their modesty and retirement condemn our worldly and scandal-giving life. Is it not this alone which makes us uneasy in our neighbour’s person? And what makes us angry when we hear other persons spoken well of, whose good actions are thereby made known? Yes, without doubt, their devotion and their reverence in church condemns us and arouses distrust towards our utterly frivolous life and an indifference for the salvation of our soul. But if you want to learn something about the blindness of those who ridicule others, who fulfil their duties as Christians better than they do, then listen to me for a moment.
What would you say of a poor person who envied a rich one if that poor person was not wealthy simply because he did not want to be? Would you not say to him, my friend, why do you speak badly about this person—because he is rich? It is your own wish if you are not so rich, and even richer, than he is. In the same way, my brethren, why do we defame those who are more retiring than we are? It depends entirely upon ourselves to be just the same, or even more so, if we wish it. Those who are more godly than we are do not prevent us from being just as pious, or even more so, if we wish.
You see then, my brethren, that those whom you derided did not deserve it? You must never cease to thank God that there are some good souls to be found in your midst, to mitigate the anger of God, or we should be soon annihilated by the justice of God. But, all things considered, you cannot say that a person who says his prayers well, who tries to please God alone, is kind and obliging to a neighbour, who knows how to help him in his necessity, who forgives willingly when offended, that such a person behaves badly, but quite the contrary. Such a person is in reality worthy of praise and to be thought well of. Whilst you were slandering that person, you were not thinking of what you were doing. At any rate, you say to yourself, he is happier than I am. Wait a moment, my friend, and I will tell you what you ought to do: instead of insulting and making fun of him, you ought to try with all your strength to imitate him; you ought to join him every morning in prayer and in all his good works which he does through the day. But to do all that he does, one must do violence to one’s self and make sacrifices. There is a great deal to be done. … Not so much as you think: is it so hard to say your morning and night prayers? Is it extraordinarily hard to listen to the word of God with reverence and to ask God for the graces which are so especially necessary for you? Is it so hard not to go out during the sermon? On the Sunday not to work? Not to eat meat on forbidden days, to despise infidels, who will certainly be lost?
If you are afraid that you will not have the courage, raise your eyes to the crucifix, on which Jesus Christ died, and you will see that you will not be wanting in courage. Look at the innumerable martyrs, who, out of fear for the salvation of their souls, endured so much. Are they sorry now, my brethren, that they despised the world and the maxim, “What will the world say?”
I conclude, my brethren, by saying how few persons there are who really serve God faithfully. There are some who do their utmost by force of arms to exterminate religion, as the pagan kings and emperors did; others try to make it despicable by their ungodly writings, and, if it were possible, to annihilate it; others deride it in the person of those who would like to practice it, and finally there are those who would like to practice it but are afraid of doing so before the world. Ah, my brethren, how small is the number of those who get to Heaven, for it only consists of those, who, without ceasing, and courageously fight the devil and his servants and who despise the world and its ridicule! As we, my brethren, await our reward and our happiness from God, why do we love the world, which we pledged ourselves to hate and to despise, to follow Jesus Christ alone, by carrying His cross all the days of our life? Happy is he, my brethren, who seeks God alone and despises all else. That is the happiness which I wish you all.