The Power of Catholic Example

Our conference now recently behind us, we breathe a brief sigh of relief before IHM School’s annual Festival, followed by the new school year, and, for me, the commencement of some travel plans on behalf of our community’s apostolate. The purpose of these travels will be highlighted in an upcoming Mancipia.

Concerning our conference, I can say that it went well — and much better attended that we would expect, given the outrageous cost of travel. A letter of appreciation we received resonates the feelings of many in attendance: “The conference of last weekend was one of the best I ever attended. The speeches were excellent, I was able to see old friends and make new ones. … I have never, in this cut-throat world [found] so much charity and good-heartedness — real Christian spirit, in other words — as I have found among St. Benedict Center people. It is refreshing to be among you!”

If there is truth to this testimony — and I trust the sincerity of the testifier — then it suggests that some, at least, in our ranks have the capacity to give good example. In his 1886 Encyclical Pergrata, Pope Leo XIII treats of this important subject: “Good example is the best means of cultivating in men the love of virtue. For this reason let all priests take care not only that nothing is noted in them which is at variance with their office and the rules of their state, but also that the holiness of their lives and morals may shine forth, like a lamp on a lampstand, giving light to all in the house.” Here, the Roman Pontiff speaks of priests, but in this matter what goes for them goes also for the rest of us, due respect being given to the dignity of Holy Orders.

All the baptized must set a good example if we wish to have others follow us into the Church. Even the good words of a wicked man can be profitable to those who hear him, but, as Saint Augustine remarks in On Christian Doctrine, “these men do good to many by preaching what they themselves do not perform; but they would do good to very many more if they lived as they preach.” There are always people who look for an excuse to live badly, continues the Doctor, and these will ask: “Why do you not do yourself what you bid me do? And thus they cease to listen with submission to a man who does not listen to himself, and in despising the preacher they learn to despise the word that is preached.” Saint Augustine concludes his thoughts by citing Saint Paul’s words to Timothy: “but be an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).

Recently, I was made aware of two good examples of good example. A young married couple I know are a “cradle Catholic” and a convert. The husband was converted in college by the good example of his wife. For Lent one year, she decided to go the “extra mile” by praying two decades of the Rosary daily (okay, she was brought up in the 80’s — she learned better). From being a bystander observing his Catholic wife’s devotion, the Protestant husband soon asked if he could say parts of the Rosary with her — but she led the prayers. By the end of Lent, both of them were saying five decades daily, and in about eighteen months, the Protestant husband had become a Catholic. Obviously, “there was more to it” — the motions of divine grace and the free cooperation of a docile human will — but the good example of the Rosary-praying wife was, without a doubt, instrumental in his conversion. Today they are both daily communicants who recite five decades of the Rosary daily. I would say from knowing them, that they are both devout and edifying Catholics.

Another example from recent memory involves a deathbed conversion. A non-Catholic couple moved to our town, into a house next-door to one of our tertiaries. The husband was very sickly, and was bed bound for several years. A few of our tertiaries, friends, and school students began to assist this couple on a regular basis. Numerous conversations took place, encouraging these kindly people to become Catholic. As the gentleman’s condition worsened, his wife received more help, especially from some of the ladies in our little Catholic community. It was nothing earthshaking, just good homespun kindness and charity: help with the chores, kind listening, useful advice, and, towards the end, vigils around the dying man’s bed. It could be called an apostolate of friendship. The brothers visited him; the sisters went over to sing for him; and thanks to our priests, the gentleman went to his reward provided with the Church’s sacraments. The prayers recited around his deathbed included numerous Rosaries and the Church’s traditional Litany of the Dying. At the funeral — Holy Mass according to the Traditional Roman Rite offered at the local parish! (the Motu Proprio at work) — the extended family of the deceased met his new family, numerous Catholics affiliated with our community who took this dear couple as their own. As for the wife of the deceased, she too was received into the Church during these very trying times.

Readers will note that none of this was the spiritual equivalent of brain surgery. No special skills were needed in either case. Here, apologists, theologians, polemicists, and other brilliant people — for all their importance in the life of the Church — are not necessary. Ordinary kindness, animated by the supernatural virtues — this is the simple recipe. And numerous conversions can come about by these means.

Considering the sanctification of the ordinary, I am reminded of the words of Father Mary Eugene Boylan, in his masterful This Tremendous Lover. His subject is total consecration to Jesus through Mary. Appropriately, the Trappist spiritual writer quotes Saint Louis Marie de Montfort saying that Mary, “will make our souls live for Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ live in us.” Then follows one of the most sublime paragraphs in the Catholic devotional literature:

“But let us be clear that this promise is not attached to a mere passing act, such as the recitation of a formula. It requires a life of complete abandonment to Mary, and, through her, to Christ. She herself has given us an example. For at every moment of her life, we find in her the perfection of faith, hope, charity, humility and abandonment to God’s will. In that we have only to imitate her. [Here is the operative part for my point:] And there is nothing in the life of Mary that in some measure we cannot imitate. We hear of no miracles, or of no extraordinary penances, in her life. Her external life can be summed up in three words: ‘Ordinary, obscure, and laborious.’ But her interior life is something that only God can know. For even that most intimate union of body and life that preceded the birth of Christ, was only a shadow of the complete union of heart and soul, which persisted throughout every moment of Mary’s existence. From the very beginning of her consciousness — even, some say, from the very first moment of her conception — she gave herself completely, with every fiber of her being, to God, cleaving to Him in an utter abandonment of love and humility that cannot be conceived.”

It is this combination of the ordinary with the supernal, the mundane with the celestial, that makes for the Christian life. In this life, Mary is our Exemplar, Advocate, Mediatrix and Mother.

Let us hearken back to our two examples. At the heart of both of these accounts — accounts of ordinary real people — is the tremendous spiritual force of good example, which, says Pope Leo, “is the best means of cultivating in men the love of virtue.” Here we must recall that Faith is a virtue, the first theological virtue — the one that lies at the very portal of the supernatural life. Therefore, good example can lead to conversion in the sense of going from no Faith or wrong faith to true Faith — that is, to the Catholic Faith.

There is the power of Catholic example.