Since the exciting election of Pope Francis, lots of people have been quoting the guidance attributed to St. Francis: Preach always, when necessary use words. By saying this, St. Francis would not have been deeming words unimportant. To the contrary, according to Catholic wisdom, we sometimes fast from things to show how important they are, to show that they should be valued and respected, not wasted or taken for granted.
That point is the perfect segue into my explaining the name of this blog, “Word.” It’s one of my favorite words–a word not to be taken lightly because it represents something properly valued by people, and by the Church in particular. Words have been rich in meaning to me from my grammar school days, instruments of learning and fun, vessels of potential power and influence, the common currency for building relationships and exercising one’s reason and faith.
Thanks to my father, himself a wordsmith, and to my Catholic school teachers, who took words seriously, I wound up building a career (I hope it was also receiving a vocation), as a writer, trying to demonstrate good stewardship in the world of words. All of this made me want to give this blog the simple title, “Word.”
It’s my privilege to have written a book that is scheduled to be published by the University of Notre Dame, with the title, Words of Life. This phrase draws upon the “Word of Life” mural that has become better known as “Touchdown Jesus.” This is the mural on the front of the Hesburgh Library, whose upcoming 50th anniversary is the motivation of the book. John the Evangelist liked the word “word” and used it to describe Jesus Christ—the utterance of God the Father from all eternity, the truth and wisdom of God, allowing Jesus to say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
This helps to make Christ the perfect teacher, and indeed the mural also symbolizes Notre Dame’s embrace of Christ the Teacher. It’s an embrace reflected in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), where I’m privileged to be on the communications staff.
“Word” has not lost its power of authority and validation. The Urban Dictionary tells us that the word can be used to say, “I’m telling the truth,” or “That’s the way it is,” or simply “Amen.” It can also mean confirmation or affirmation more generally, as in “Good idea,” or “That’s okay.” This “word” helps to build relationships of trust, and we need words like that. Such words refer to both the mind and heart—to faith and reason, you might say—and so they’re multi-dimensional just as people are. While precision is important in a communicator’s choices of words to convey a message, I’ve always thought that the Catholic Church encourages a dynamic and vibrant vocabulary—not just a legalistic, technical jargon like some institutions—because it likes evocative words.
There are times to unleash the power of words. The Church has made the decision that the Mass, in its new Roman Missal translation, is one place where an abundance of words and their elaborate nature generate a sense of overflowing love and praise and thanksgiving. I anticipate that Pope Francis will help to lead the way in showing people the other side of Church wisdom–seeing the need to leave some room for sparse language, indeed for silence, so that actions can speak louder and listening can take place. As with so many Catholic insights, in this case taken from an insight of the Hebrew Scriptures, to everything there is a season. Sometimes words should gush with excitement, and sometimes they are more authentic and powerful in small quantities. They are one of the key tools of the New Evangelization, and their effectiveness in telling truth and giving life will depend partly on our wise choices about their use.