Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

A Lenten challenge to fast from hurtful speech

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published February 22, 2018  | En Español

One size does not fit all when it comes to Lenten penitential practices.

Many folks actually like—if not much prefer—seafood (including me). So, abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent is not as much of a sacrifice for some as it may be for others. Fasting is not dieting, yet so many folks are dieting that a fast may fit their already selected lifestyle. Hence those piscatorial aficionados and waist-watching folks may need to find another meaningful penance during this season. Meal selection may not offer the best platform for deciding a real penance for Lent.

May I be bold enough to suggest something that we can do with our tongues that may be much more challenging for us all? What if you and I decided to fast from gossip and brutal speech this Lent?

That penance might well fit all of us since we all do manage to say some pretty awful things about other people too regularly. Public discourse today has become so much more aggressive, insulting and offensive—perhaps offering a justification for our own personal conversations. We all find ourselves uttering comments about people and situations that are truly objectionable. In an earlier age, our parents surely would have scolded us and warned us to watch our language as a sign of good upbringing and politeness. We might have even been punished for using vulgar language.

With social media broadcasting every word (with no censure of crude language), we all listen to comments that offend and condemn other people with reckless abandon. We are informed that “political correctness” is an unwelcome inhibitor to truth and honesty. In such an environment, public figures who once were held up as the very models of civility and decorum now casually say things that offend, ridicule and degrade others. In such an environment, our own language and conversations have diminished to such a degree that I suspect our parents would be astonished and embarrassed to listen to what we now say to others without shame.

Lent is still in its early moments, and if you are still looking for a penance to fit the season, you might now consider bridling your tongue for the remaining weeks of this holy time of year. This is not something that is unique to our age and era—although our social communications have certainly ramped up the need to address this situation.

St. James in his New Testament letter reminds us that the tongue can be and too often is a danger to community harmony:

“In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (Jas 3:5-10)

This Lent, rather than focusing on what we might take into our mouths, perhaps we can spend a little time considering what comes from our mouths and ask the Lord God to help us to tame those tongues of ours with which we praise Him and then offend our sisters and brothers. Not a bad penance, but a difficult one indeed if we take it seriously!