Without intending to, Pope Francis dashed my hopes of becoming the next Mother Teresa when he said a real sign that you’re headed for sainthood is you never speak ill of anyone.
In modern America, is there anyone who has never criticized someone, who doesn’t backbite or gossip? I’m not that person, and none of the people I hang out with can claim that distinction, which means to say, I foresee a long time of purification in purgatory before I make it to the Big Time.
We’re addicted to the water cooler culture, where criticism is a way of life. And what about Donald Trump and the rest of the presidential contenders? The Donald is always casting aspersions, along with every talk radio host and newspaper columnist. Bad-mouthing is an American tradition, and one of our most popular pastimes is grumbling about the splinter in your brother’s eye without noticing the log in your own.
During his homily at a recent Mass, Pope Francis started talking about the sinful practice of maligning other people and said that despite the long and complicated process for determining if someone is a saint, “If you find a person who never, never, never spoke ill of another, you could canonize him or her immediately.”
I confess that it’s one of my worst character defects, and I’m having a hard time controlling it. I’ve probably been like this all my life but never really thought it was serious because it’s so socially acceptable.
My mother must have known I was headed down this path because she used to admonish me with those time-honored words, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” And my father, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous for the last 25 years of his life and had an abundance of spiritual advice, would regularly tell me to “Take your own inventory.”
Jesus certainly had a lot to say about the topic, and he told his disciples in no uncertain terms, “Judge not and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned.”
Pope Francis also said: “The first step is to accuse yourself,” which means give yourself an honest self-assessment and then ask Christ’s forgiveness and praise his mercy. “The man and woman who don’t learn to acknowledge their own failings become hypocrites. Everyone, eh? Everyone starting from the pope on down,” he said.
The ability to recognize your own faults, which is actually a gift from the Holy Spirit, is the beginning of “this beautiful work of reconciliation, peace, tenderness, goodness, forgiveness, magnanimity and mercy that Jesus Christ brought.”
It’s so easy to criticize other people for what they do or don’t do, especially when we’re blind to our own faults. So much of what we think is acceptable behavior, because everyone else is doing it, is actually sinful behavior.
About a month ago, I began to pray to the Holy Spirit to show me my hidden faults, and he didn’t waste any time. Almost immediately, I had illuminating insights into my behavior and became aware of flaws and shortcomings I never knew existed. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I figure it was better to learn about them now than at my personal judgment before Christ.
Since then, I’ve started to do an end-of-the-day examination of conscience as a part of my spiritual self-improvement program, and I try to remember my day moment-by-moment and ask the Holy Spirit to show everything to me in all its disturbing detail.
Inevitably, I recall occasions when I criticized coworkers or gossiped or took someone else’s inventory: Who wasn’t doing his work, who was a blow-hard and who was a self-promoter. The crazy thing is that I share most of the traits that upset me in others.
As my father, ever the folk philosopher, often told me: “Live and let live.” Or more appropriately, “You can’t see the picture if you’re in the frame.”
Joe Pisani has been a writer and editor for 30 years.