Monday, August 8, 2011

Of words and actions

In my experience as a preacher for the past ten years, I have seen the impact and effect that words can have on people. The general congregation (at least those that I have had the opportunity to preach to each week) are basically a grateful group for having been shown respect by preachers who do their work and preparation before going up to the ambo on any given day at Mass. As I made preparations to leave my parish the past couple of weeks to begin life anew as a student once more, many kind notes and cards were given expressing thanks for the effort to bring some change in their lives through the words I have spoken. And if I have been such an instrument, I do thank the Lord for being such.

But do words really have such power? I guess they have the power to peak one’s interest, to catch the attention, and if the phrasing and choice of words are apt, they can even transport them to another place and time. But why then do most congregants find that even after years and years of hearing homily after homily, sermon after sermon (yes, there is a difference between the two of them) lives are still somewhat unchanged, and hearts generally untouched? I know that there is no scientific evidence available, but I am quite sure that the numbers of lives that really become transformed by mere preaching and having listened to a good homily are inversely proportioned to the numbers that turn up at Masses week after week.

Perhaps this is because the reality is that words can only do so much. What really transforms and what truly invites transformation is when the one speaking becomes a true channel of transformation himself. In other words, the congregation or audience have an unspoken need to see that the very life of the speaker or preacher or in this case, the priest, is living a life as close to the words that tumble out of his mouth as possible.

And this is not just something that we priests must be aware of. Parents who want to guide the hearts of their children must also know that their very lives and actions become the barometer of mummy’s or daddy’s words. What we human beings really search out for are role models in the various areas of our lives, and this is the far more difficult and challenging part of preaching and teaching.

At our level best as teachers of life, we can imitate John the Baptist and point out the way, but as far as real transformation, we make such little progress it can become a tad depressing or even discouraging. There really is far more admiration than transformation and changed living in the religious and priestly arenas and this is something that saddens.

When the disciples of Jesus went to him and complained that there were some demons that were stubborn and resisted exorcism, Jesus replied that ‘this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting’. Herein lies the true power of effective devil-battling and spiritual warfare which many of us don’t take seriously enough.

What Jesus alluded to is the need for true integration in our lives on all areas if we want our words to really be effective. There is a lot of disintegration in the world today, both in the secular as well as in the religious and spiritual platforms. Bankers are distrusted, politicians are paid scant respect when their skeletons are dragged out of the closet, and priests and religious drag the good name of God down many notches when scandals of various proportions hit the pages of newspapers.

How is it that great saints have had the real power to effect positive changes in people even though some of them were cloistered away, sequestered perhaps, in convents and monasteries? It must be the belief in the universal power of an upright and moral heart that transcends physical barriers and nation boundaries and knows no borders. I must believe that my yen for holiness even though half a world away has its effects on lives and hearts that are beyond my physical reach.

This conviction must sustain my wanting to continue to practice with love and conviction the daily disciplines of prayer and regular abstinence for a universal effect of transformed hearts and lives, and inspire others to do the same.

Only then can words really make a real difference.


  1. You are spot on, Fr! The language of holiness is not just words. Words are just one part of it. As a friend and parishioner of yours, I can attest that you are leading a life the echoes St Francis’ spirit - “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

    Words can be attractive and absorbing but what transforms a person is when one sees you walking the talk. If you were just a glib talker providing his congregation with structured “churchy” answers, I would not have bothered to “come and see”. What I see, which is congruent with your spoken and written messages, is your own conviction in transformation towards holiness. And that is the language of holiness I can appreciate and partake in. Thank you for being my role model.

    I notice that you have changed your profile on your blog. You must be halfway around the world already. I wish you all the best in your new adventure with God. You are in my prayer …and I guess for the next 2 years, you can only help us with words.

  2. Mathilda Chua, OLSSAugust 9, 2011 at 12:33 AM

    Dear Fr Luke,

    Thank you so much for being you - a pure blessing from God. The discipline you possess is sufficient to motivate another to get up and do something about a sloppy habit..

    (My daughter & I were intrigued to know the difference of sermon & homily - Thank you again. We sort of take words for granted - homily closer to home touches on daily lives while Sermon goes with Sermon on the Mount - more of instructions...good to know.)

    We do miss you - waking up at 4am: Wow! Was waken by the Holy Spirit on Sunday - managed a little prayer....reading divine office and Good News Ministries....but felt sleepy...suppose it's practice....thank goodness, tmr's a public hol.

    Did go for CAFE just now...21 days to form a habit...Prayers to feel God's presence....Stop, Look & Listen...RAPT: Repentence, Adoration, Petitions & Thanksgiving....Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me, a sinner...

    Hubby is thankful you came by as your homily do hit home - be thankful for all petitions put forth as we know with God's grace and the faith we have determines the outcome....

    God loves you & bless you dearly and all your sheep...Mat.

  3. Hi Fr. Luke,

    I could write a few pages worth on the subject of words and actions, but I'll keep this as short as possible.

    Your comment on parents and children, is for me, vey significant. Our children learn not so much from what they are told, as by what they see; especially in their parents.

    As the first teachers of our children it's important that the very notion of unconditional love be known by the abiding love shown by spouses for each other. What's the use of proclaiming that "God is Love" if that Love is not reflected in the spousal relationship? It will fall on dear ears.

    And how in the world can we expect our children to be God-fearing if we, as parents, do not take our Catholic faith seriously? Yes, we should teach our children using words (now and then), but it's essential that they learn from example; and of course we must pray for them constantly as well.

    God Bless,

  4. Hi Fr Luke

    In our fast paced society, we all want quick and sometimes even instant results. This may be possible with many things but I daresay hardly with spiritual transformation. If there is a complete makeover spiritual retreat available, the response must surely be more than overwhelming.

    Whether lives are unchanged and hearts untouched is something no one, other than God, will ever know. Perhaps even the person himself does not know. It is not uncommon to find that when we are asked how we had come to a certain decision or choice and our answer is ‘I don’t know.’ We often put it down to ~ we act as we see fit, guided by examples and experiences of the past, perhaps by our own wisdom and presence of mind and maybe even some intuition of the future. But how about it is because of all those years of sitting in the pews? God’s words spoken through the priest, whether with the most excellent choice of words and diction or otherwise, will have their lasting effects long after the last hymn has been sung, long after the church doors closed. We all hope for life-changing words and homilies which will make a big convert of us, put the Pharisee in us to rest forever and for transformation to be totally visible or spectacular. However it is often not the case. For those who have heard your homilies and read your blog and taken the words seriously, it matters not if they know you personally or not; I’m sure your words have and will continue to add to their spiritual growth in ways big and small and help them in their attitudes, thoughts and choices at some point.

    It is well and good to be able to find a role model in the preacher himself; one who leads by example, walks the talk, shows instead of tell. However we must remember that he is human and should he fail in one’s eyes later, one must be matured enough to not become disillusioned. Say we have a priest who is a great advocate of filial piety and constantly stresses the importance of taking care of one’s aged parents. One day, we find that his parents are in an aged home. Do we now say that whatever he has preached therefore becomes untrue, of no value or irrelevant in today’s society? We do not and should not judge anyone regardless of whether we know of the circumstances of others or not. The words taught have nothing to do with the preacher per se; those are God’s words. How we react to them is entirely our own prerogative and we are answerable for it.

    Christ is the best role model and will always be second to none.

    God bless you
    Cecilia Ho

  5. Somehow, I believe that words are ‘’creative’’ in a positive or negative way. Your post brings to mind ( Isa 55:11) where God promised that the power of His word will accomplish His purposes and also ( Prov.18:21) “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” Even our human words, once they have been uttered, have the power either to hurt or to help people. Sometimes they are still doing damage to the hearers or encouraging them, years after they were actually spoken.
    Moreover, words carry the weight of the speaker ........the more important the person the weightier his words so much so that Jesus Christ being Son of God, spoke with so much weight ( authority & power) that His words produced life !
    Similarly, I believe that the words of our clergy resonate with His power when they apply themselves to the preaching and teaching of His Word. So I beg to differ when you said that ‘’words can only do so much.....’’ – because - choice words though not many - are the darts that can find chinks in the armour of a hardened heart.

    Alas, transformation is an on-going indeterminately and indecipherably slow that it can hardly be noticed at all and I doubt it will be finished- even when one’s life is finished ! Unlike Tranformer toys spiritual transformation happens on the inside, but like them......the change may possibly be “more than meets the eye’’. It could take the form of more regularity at the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist, a deeper appreciation and rapt attention at prayers or a sense - a desire and reach for holiness , nothing earth-shattering really.
    And this, only the self is aware of.
    God bless you Fr.

  6. Thank you Fr Luke for God's word,when put into action,it leads one to light,no matter how far you are.
    Thank God for the gift of you.
    God Bless.

  7. Dear Fr Luke

    I will always remember Monday 1 September 2008 in your office back at IHM, my first confession since converting to the faith in 2004, in preparation for my daughter's baby baprism that Sunday the 7th. After all that I had said, you proffered counsel, the most memorable one being 'God can write straight with crooked lines, as long as you first realize the line's crooked'. And if you remember, you gave me a whole basket of chocolates, I guess as a pick-me-up :) When I left your office after that and as I waked across the piazza looking at Mother Mary at the grotto, I knew something had clicked inside me, but it was only through the past 3 years and now looking back, God had sent you to be the key to unlock my spiritual growth. For it was after that night that I started to search vey much for God, seeking Him in word and music and people around me. And He paved the way for me to where I am today and will be in the years to come. It was both word and action on your part which was also part of my inspiration and encouragement. Reading your blogs, listening to your homilies helped me understand that it's ok to be human, to leave being God to God. Looking at how much I (hope) have changed, how it has transcended to my work, family life, personal pursuits, it never ceases to amaze me, this boundless grace of God, despite me ever undeserving.
    Grateful parishioners you definitely have many, myself included.

    Many thanks and blessings for your new learning ahead.