The Power of Our Words—for Good or for Evil

Posted October 12, 2010

In the country church of a small village, an altar boy serving the priest at Sunday Mass accidentally dropped the cruet of wine. The village priest slapped the altar boy sharply on the cheek and in a gruff voice shouted:  “Leave the altar and don’t come back!” That boy turned away from the Church and became known the world over as Tito—the atheistic Communist dictator of Yugoslavia.

 In the cathedral of a large city, an altar boy serving the bishop at Sunday Mass accidentally dropped the cruet of wine. With a warm twinkle in his eyes, the bishop gently whispered, “Someday you will be a priest.” That boy grew up to become one of the most famous preachers and convert-makers of modern times—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

 The words we use and the manner in which we use them to communicate with others in speech, and even in writing, have consequences that we seldom recognize or anticipate. If we could see all of the good effects and all of the bad effects of every sentence that we have spoken or written in our life, we would be overwhelmed with joy on the one hand for the positive effects we have had on people, and on the other hand, overwhelmed with deep regret for the hurtful effects that we have caused others.

That often forgotten truth is one that Jesus reminds us of when he says, “You can be sure that on Judgment Day everyone will have to give an account of every useless word he has ever spoken. Your words will be used to judge you—to declare you either innocent or guilty” (Matt. 12:36). And James reminds us that the tongue is small, but it can cause great harm, just as a tiny flame can start a forest fire (James 3:6). But it can also bring about good: “Words of thanksgiving and cursing can pour out from the same mouth” (verse 10).

Like so many things in life, human speech can be used or abused, and for that reason, we are constantly confronted with a free-will choice to use that gift of speech to further God’s kingdom or to retard it. “He who is not with me is against me; he who does not sow with me, scatters.” The dichotomy is incisive; so also should be our decision in every option that we face in our daily life.

John H. Hampsch, cmf.