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FOR THE JOURNEY | The power of words, when necessary

In Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book, “In the Shelter,” he tells a story about a young woman traveling through Europe in the 1980s. In France, she meets a man and falls in love for the first time.

They agree to meet at an embassy in Rome the following week, and on the appointed day, she goes there. But he doesn’t show up. She goes the next day, and the next, but to no avail.

On her lonely way back to the place she is staying, she passes a priest on the street, a man she doesn’t know. Their eyes meet and he offers the word, “coraggio.” Courage.

When the woman told the story years later, Ó Tuama said she revealed that she had “lived her life differently since the hearing of that word.”

Never underestimate the power of words.

I think of the words I have used today. Have they been words of support and affection? Have they been curt or impatient? Did my words overwhelm, so that others had no chance to tell their story?

Did my words console? Did I give others a chance to speak, or did I fill in every pause? Might someone, someday far in the future, recall a word I spoke today and speak of how it changed them? Or remember how it hurt them, long after I’ve forgotten?

The stories we have heard in the 50 days of Easter were wonderful, but words were used sparingly. We might imagine that the risen Lord would have a lot to talk about, instructions to give, big explanations or reprimands for failure. He did explain the Scriptures to the couple walking to Emmaus. But ultimately, they recognized Him in the simple but profound breaking of the bread.

Jesus offers a consoling presence in His postresurrection appearances, the God who has shown up.

There’s Jesus, by the Lake of Tiberias. What could be more endearing than the sight of Jesus cooking a simple breakfast over a charcoal fire? No scolding for running or denying. No “I told you so.” No lectures.

Jesus is with them, His words measured. He tells the fisherman to put their nets out and try again after a failed fishing trip. And the result? A bounty of fish. Always a bounty.

Like the bread on the hillside that fed thousands, always more than enough, and bread for everyone, no questions asked, no litmus tests.

And forgiveness. Jesus, on the lake, asks Peter if he loves Him. He asks him three times, symbolically offering Peter three chances to atone for his denials just days before. Not a time to berate Peter, but a time to love him with great mercy and very few words.

When I read Ó Tuama’s story, I wonder what the priest sensed. Was he a deep listener, someone attuned to the Spirit, whose heart was open to sense the needs of another? Was his inner landscape available to the presence of Christ?

As we spend time with Jesus, we ask for the grace to consider the words we use with our family, neighbors, our friends, the casual encounters of our day. We consider social media, where Catholics are not immune to using increasingly vile words to each other. We consider our political discussions, grown ever more rancorous and untruthful. How can we temper our words with love?

Prayer helps us learn to listen. A nightly review of our day helps us to recall when we failed to listen, when we talked too much or too carelessly.

We ask to learn from the risen Jesus, who used words with great sensitivity.

Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.


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