Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sermon #1, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

Brethren: Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God. Here now it is required among the dispensers, that a man be found faithful. But to me it is a very small thing to be judged by you, or by man’s day, but neither do I judge my own self. For I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet I am not hereby justified: but He that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge not before the time, until the Lord come: who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

The five verses, which we read in the Mass of this Sunday, are taken from the fourth chapter of Saint Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians. The faithful of the Church of Corinth, founded by Saint Paul, were for many reasons very much disturbed. That there were troubles in the primitive Church should, my friends, cause you no surprise, for wherever there are men there are human passions and human weaknesses. The principal cause of this dissension in the Church of Corinth was the spirit of faction among the faithful, some proclaiming themselves the followers of this priest and some of that. At that time there lived in Corinth a priest named Apollo, a man of much eloquence and talent and virtuous withal. Some said: “We are of Apollo;” others said: “We are of Paul;” others said: “We are of Peter;” and finally others, as if to settle the question, said: “We are the disciples of Jesus Christ.” These deplorable rivalries, which create divisions, are common enough in our own day. We often see some of the faithful, good and pious persons, it may be, putting the priest in the place of the Church, and attaching themselves to him rather than to the Church; they are followers of a man rather than of Jesus Christ, of the minister rather than of Him whose minister he is.

To remove this disorder the Apostle writes them telling them how ministers of God should be judged. What he says regards both us priests and you lay people, and I beg you to give it your attention.

“Let a man so account of us as the ministers of God.” As I have just said there was much ill-feeling among the faithful of Corinth, because of the greater or less esteem in which the sacred ministers were held by different factions, some praising one and some another. “You Corinthians,” says the Apostle, “are divided on account of us ministers of Christ. But in the name of Heaven, how are you to judge of us? You can judge of us only as to our office. You should consider, not our talents, our learning, our eloquence, or other natural gifts, hut only the office and the power which we possess as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.”

Saint Paul means by dispensers of the mysteries of God, dispensers of the mysteries of faith, of the supernatural truths of the Gospel, or of the sacraments, the fountains of grace, and most probably of both taken together.

Here an important truth is presented to us which I wish you to consider attentively. Raised to the high honor of announcing to you the eternal truths that came from the lips of Jesus Christ, and of dispensing the sacraments, those infallible means of divine grace, we should go before you in virtue and holiness of life and make respectable and worthy of reverence the office which we exercise. It is our duty, and wo to us if we fall short of it, for a terrible judgment will await us. But if, unfortunately, our behavior should not correspond to the high office we hold, you, my friends, should not forget that we are still the ministers of Jesus Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God. A precious liquid is still precious whether kept in a vessel of crystal or a vessel of gold; and a diamond is still a diamond whether set in fine gold or in a base metal. No matter what may be our qualities of mind and heart, whether we are good or bad, very learned or moderately so, you should always remember that we are the ministers of Christ; and that neither our defects nor our sins can take away or lessen our dignity, simply because it is not ours but Jesus Christ’s. Lift your eyes on high, above our poor persons, and fix them on Him who sends us and to whom is due all honor in His representatives, even in the most unworthy.

Our dignity is sublime and godlike, but we are not angels; we are your brothers, subject to the same weaknesses and passions as yourselves; and if you cast the mantle of your charity over all indiscriminately, why not be charitable with us, since we have need of your charity and, being your brothers, have a claim on it? This truth, frequently forgotten by the laity, should make them more just and charitable toward erring priests.

A fact that I can not understand is this, that as a rule the lapses of laymen are readily forgiven, while those of priests are most severely dealt with. I understand, my friends, that our faults are very much more serious than yours, but this is only a reason why your charity toward us should be greater. How can we profitably exercise our office if you mercilessly expose our faults to the public, which is ever hungering for scandal? If you will not be charitable toward the clergy on their own account, be so at least for the general good.

If the faults that are laid to our charge were even always true; but how often are they studiously exaggerated, and invented simply to cast discredit upon us!

And here is another injustice frequently committed against the clergy. A priest is guilty of a fault, possibly a grave one; what happens? What is said? At once the cry goes up: “See what sort of people those priests and Religious are!” The crime of one becomes the crime of all. Is not this a monstrous injustice? One priest sins, therefore all sin. And why is not the same rule applied to the laity and to every other class of persons? And if the fault of one churchman is imputed to every other churchman, why is not the good one churchman does attributed to all? If one priest does a good and generous deed why is it not said in this case as in that of a lapse: “See what sort of people those priests and Religious are!” A fault committed by a priest or Religious becomes the fault of all his class; but the merit of a good deed is confined to him who does it. And is this justice?

As to the rest, adds Saint Paul, what is required of him who dispenses the goods of another? One thing above all others is required and this is sufficient, namely, that he be faithful, that is, that he fulfill with fidelity the will of his Master. This is the substance. “Therefore,” says Saint Paul, “look to this in us ministers, us ministers of Christ; see that we fulfill our duty, that we announce the word of God, dispense the sacraments, visit the sick, and discharge the other offices of our ministry; as to the rest it matters little.” You have a right to require that a priest be faithful in his duties toward you, but as to anything else it does not concern you, nor have you any right to make it your business.

Saint Paul goes on to reinforce the same truth: “But to me, it is a very small thing to be judged by you or by any human tribunal.” “You distinguish between minister and minister; you prefer this one to that; but as for me, that gives me no concern; I care not whether your judgments are favorable or unfavorable, nor do I care for any tribunal of earth.” The Apostle does not say human tribunal, but man’s day, alluding to the day of the Lord by excellence, or to the day of general judgment.

The Apostle continues: “I give myself little concern about the judgments of men, because neither do I judge my own self.” This is language worthy the Apostle of the Gentiles. He cares not for the praise, he fears not the blame of the world, he does not judge of his own gifts or intentions; he is solely intent on one thing, and that is to fulfill the ministry received from Jesus Christ. This is a perfect model for a priest who, when occasion demands, should challenge the enmity of the wicked and scorn their praise, having ever only one thing in view, namely, the discharge of his duty.

“For I am not conscious to myself of anything.” The Apostle here says: “I am not concerned about myself, nor do I even think of judging myself, and as to the exercise of my ministry I have no remorse of conscience.” Happy those who after diligently examining themselves can say with the Apostle: “I do not feel that I have any fault on my conscience.” It is the best testimony and the sweetest solace a man can have in the midst of the most trying afflictions. Let us see to it that we merit this testimony, which is the reward of the just on earth and gives us strength to stand firm in the bitterest trials of life.

It seems strange that Saint Paul should add to the passage, “I am not conscious to myself of anything,” these words, “Yet, 1 am not hereby justified.” “Because I have no remorse of conscience as to the exercise of my office,” Saint Paul says, “this does not mean that I am just, and without reproach and holy.” No, it is true we do not commit sin unless we know and are conscious that we are committing it; this is quite certain, but it may happen through a culpable negligence that we do not advert to the evil we do, or that we do not call to mind just now the sin we have committed with full deliberation in the past, and hence the fact that our conscience does not reproach us with these faults is no proof that we are innocent and just, nor will it avail us in the sight of God. It is only too true that there are very many who are given over to every sort of sin and have not the slightest remorse of conscience. Their distracted and reckless manner of life, which has made them callous to every sort of sin, and the inveterate habit of not listening to the voice of conscience, have rendered them insensible to remorse. Can those, because they feel no remorse, be called just! Assuredly not. We may be very sick and still feel no pain; and so also we may be very guilty and feel no remorse, but this will not be sufficient to excuse us before God.

Saint Paul teaches us that our own judgment is not a safe one; only God’s judgment is unerring and we must commit ourselves to Him: “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” This, my friends, is a most comforting truth for all, but especially for those who are placed in office and who are frequently unjustly censured and wrongly judged. How often are fathers and mothers unjustly charged with neglecting the education of their children! Then again, many harbor injurious suspicions against their neighbor; they find fault with this master, with that servant, with the conduct of this priest or pastor, and all the time they judge only from appearances. Frequently those in authority are made the target for the gravest accusations and the foulest calumnies, and they are helpless to defend themselves. These are some of the bitterest trials and most harrowing agonies of a soul, and God alone knows them. It is truly a comfort in such moments to be able to go into His presence and to open our heart and pour out our soul to Him, saying: “Lord, Thou knowest all; Thou knowest my integrity and my innocence, and I throw myself into Thy arms.” “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” I am convinced that among you who listen to me there is more than one who has’ at some time felt the need of saying: “God knows I am innocent, and He alone will judge me.”

Saint Paul draws a conclusion from what he has been saying and applies it to all indiscriminately: “Therefore judge not before the time, until the Lord come.” We may indeed judge of persons and things in as far as they are revealed to us by word or deed, and we may say that this person or action is good and that bad; but to judge of actions as they are in themselves, and to judge of the minds and the consciences of men is possible to God alone. How often an outward action which we pronounce good, and which is good in its nature, is bad because of the intention of him who does it; and another, which men pronounce to be bad, is good because in doing it there is a good intention? God alone reads the conscience, and therefore we can not judge the thoughts and hearts of others. Only when God shall come to judge us all shall we know men’s deeds as they really are: “He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the heart,” as the Apostle says. As things are now we see only what appears, and none of us can know the mind and heart except in so far as they are voluntarily revealed to us by words, and even words are not always a safe means of getting at the truth.

The minds and hearts and consciences of men are shrouded in darkness, and they will not be revealed in full light until the day on which the Supreme Judge will come upon the earth. What will happen then, my friends! Let me illustrate.

Let us fancy that an able artist is shut up in a room, inaccessible to all, at work on a statue; that with marvelous patience he has labored on it for years and years until every detail of it is finished. When the work is finally completed in that impenetrable recess, where he has wrought by the light of a lamp, it is brought forth and exhibited to the public in the midday light of a July sun. You see at once that the statue has been everywhere carefully finished and if there is a chisel mark anywhere it is immediately revealed. And do you not see here in an instant the toil of many, many years, done in secret and unknown to all! This is an image of the divine judgment. During the years of our lives, passed in the darkness of this world, with only the feeble light of reason, aided by the light of faith, we have, in the depths of our conscience, unseen by eye of man, wrought our statue and completed our work, which will endure forever. When the day of judgment comes, the work accomplished in the course of these many years will be seen in the infinite light that radiates from the countenance of Jesus Christ, and all our deeds, whether good or bad, will be made manifest. Then consciences will be laid bare, darkness will pass away, light will shine out, judgment will be passed, and each, as Saint Paul says, shall have praise from God, according to his due. It is clear then, my friends, that each of us is now writing in the book of his conscience the sentence which Christ will read and pronounce on the day of judgment, and which we, too, will then read and pronounce. My dear friends, let us look carefully to our thoughts and desires, our words and actions, because all is written down in the book of our conscience, which can not be destroyed, and all will endure for our everlasting glory or our everlasting shame.