Words Can Help or Hurt

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

Two recent experiences illustrate the power of words.

The first. While walking through the church after a Funeral Mass a lady stopped me to ask: “Bishop, are you feeling okay?” “Yep, I’m fine,” I said. “Why do you ask?” “Because you look awful,” she explained. (Not her exact words but we can’t publish what she said.)

The second. While visiting Rome recently, a man whom I didn’t know approached me and said, “Bishop Tobin, it’s great to meet you. I’m one of your biggest fans. I’m a college professor and I tell my students all the time, ‘If you want an example of how to live as a Catholic today, look at Bishop Tobin from Providence.’”

You can imagine the different feelings I had after each encounter. After the first, I actually started to feel a bit ill. And after the second, I walked away with a spring in my step, my spirits uplifted.

The point is that the way we speak to others is important. With our words we can tear people down or build them up. We can hurt them or help them. And what happens on a personal, individual level is magnified in this age of social media when our comments, often shielded by anonymity, go viral, and fly around the globe, viewed by millions.

The Scriptures remind us of the power of speech. St. James says, “The tongue is only a tiny part of the body, but it can proudly claim that it does great things. Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest; the tongue is a flame like that.” (3:5) And St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “Guard against foul talk; let your words be for the improvement of others . . . There must be no coarseness, or salacious talk and jokes – all this is wrong for you.” (4:29; 5:4)

Now, it’s important to note that the proper use of language doesn’t eliminate the need to sometimes correct others, or to challenge improper, harmful behavior. What parent doesn’t correct their children from time to time? And a prophet who doesn’t boldly speak the truth of God’s Word isn’t worthy of the name. But even these admonitions have to be wrapped in charity.

So, remember, if you want to imitate Christ, be careful what you say.

Something to think about: Today, resolve to say something positive, uplifting and encouraging to someone.