(This is part 1 of 3 of a sermon by Fr. FERREOL GIRARDEY, C.SS.R., written in ARSH 1915.)
Man naturally loves liberty and detests slavery as a shameful yoke. It is natural that the employee should obey his employer; the soldier, his officer; the sailor, his captain; the child, his parents; the pupil, his teacher; for in these cases the yoke is honorable. It was also honorable for Regulus, the Roman general, to return to Carthage, there to endure painful captivity and death, for his country’s sake. But there is no slavery more base and disgraceful than that of a man who regulates his religion, his conduct according to another man’s caprice; who inwardly approves what is right, but has not the courage to do it; who condemns in his heart what is evil, and yet does it, because others also do it; who clearly sees his duty, but dares not perform it, lest he thereby displease his boon companions or does not meet the approval of those whose favor he seeks.
Where can so despicable a slave be found? Not among Mohammedans or Jews, but among Catholics! Some of these are perhaps now listening to me. “We may, indeed,” says St. Augustine, “conform to the world in certain matters, in certain things and customs that do not interfere with duty; but in the matters that concern our duties towards God, His holy Church, our soul, our salvation, our eternity, he conforms to the world and its spirit condemned by Jesus Christ, who allows himself to be enslaved by its laws and maxims, which are in direct opposition to the Gospel, shows himself, not a freeman, but a mean cowardly slave.” This is true more especially as to those who, through the merits and sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, have been baptized and made children of God, and “admitted into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8. 21).
Man’s liberty is an inalienable right and privilege which God Himself, the sovereign Lord of the universe, respects and will never infringe. He, indeed, wishes and commands us to serve Him, but does not compel us to do so, for He wishes us to do so freely. He wishes us to go to heaven, but freely. Our freedom is but a participation of his own, for we are His image. He who is influenced and led by human respect, debases and disgraces in himself the image of God’s freedom by shamefully subjecting himself to the views and caprice of his fellow-men. And who are those persons whose disapproval you so greatly dread? Like yourself, they are as a mere nothing, formed of dust, a leaf tossed about by the wind, liable to vanish like a shadow, to wither like grass; they shall, sooner or later, die and become the food of worms ! More over, consider the lack of moral worth of the persons you strive to please and to gain their approval, and so greatly dread to displease. In themselves they have no moral worth, but are vain and contemptible, undeserving of esteem and confidence; their views and advice in important worldly matters you consider to be without value! But when there is question of your holy religion and its obligations, of your eternal salvation, you dread their disapproving looks, their rude and senseless raillery! To stand well in the estimation of such mean and contemptible men you betray your conscience, you offend God, to whom you owe all that you are and have, you scandalize your neighbor, you forfeit your salvation! Why should you strive so hard to please such individuals? What have they ever done for you? Have they, like Jesus Christ our Saviour, ever shed their blood and died for you? Will those persons you so greatly exert yourself to please, whose censure you dread so much, keep you from being condemned to hell or rescue you therefrom, after your condemnation ? And when you thus yield to their views and strive to please them in all things, do you thereby gain their love, their esteem? By no means; no matter what they may say to you, they, in their hearts despise you as a mean, base and abject man, devoid of principle and courage! Everybody, even the wicked themselves, cannot refrain from loving and esteeming virtue in those who have the courage, the manliness to act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, and they despise, spurn and mistrust, in their inmost hearts, all those who yield to human respect!
It is related of the emperor Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, that he one day called together the members of his court and the officers of his army who were Christians, and commanded them, under pain of being dismissed from his service and severely punished, to offer sacrifice to the pagan deities. Some of them apostatized; the others remained firm in their faith. Constantius rewarded these latter, but dismissed the former from his service, saying that he could place no trust in those who, for a worldly consideration, were untrue to God. In fact, experience shows that he who is faithless to God, to his religious duties is undeserving of confidence, for he is always the mean slave of as many masters, or tyrants, as there are persons whose criticism and raillery he dreads, or whose approval he seeks. “He who endeavors to shake off God’s sweet yoke,” says St. John Chrysostom, “puts on other yokes which are both degrading and unbearable.”
We should imitate St. Paul’s greatness of soul. He cared not for human opinions or esteem, for he said : “To me it is a very small thing to be judged by you or by man’s day” (i Cor. 4. 3). He was not ashamed to do his duty before men : “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (Rom. i. 1 6). In like manner, we should not be ashamed of going to Mass, of observing the abstinence on the days prescribed, of going to confession, of sending our children to a good Catholic school, of decorating our home with holy pictures, of staying away from dangerous amusements, in a word, of leading the life of a good Catholic. Why should we dread the criticism, the raillery of men whose views are opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who are unworthy of our esteem, of our confidence? Why should we be ashamed of leading a good Christian life, of performing our duty, and be afraid of being laughed at by individuals whose conduct is a disgrace to true manhood? Let us not do as they “who said to God : Depart from us, and looked upon the Almighty as if He were powerless ” (Job 22. 17). Let us heed the admonition of our divine Saviour : “Fear ye not them that can kill the body and are not able to kill the soul ; but rather fear Him, that can destroy both soul and body into hell” (Mat. 10. 28).
Of what advantage is it for you to enjoy the favor of worldlings? Is it not better to seek the esteem of the virtuous? Of the saints and angels? Of God Himself? ” It is of little consequence,” says St. Augustine, “if men do not praise me, provided God does ; if men blame me, provided God does not. Think what you like of Augustine, provided my conscience does not accuse me before God.” “Since God is to be my judge,” says St. Jerome, “I fear not the judgment of men.” If you wish to be a slave, be God’s slave; keep His commandments, shun sin; be the slave of Jesus Christ, who loved and delivered Himself to the most cruel and shameful death to save you and procure you endless happiness. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2. 5), “who, taking the form of a servant, . . . humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death (for us), unto the death of the cross ” (Phil. 2. 7, 8). Let us be firmly persuaded that we cannot please and serve both the world and God.” If I pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. I. 10).