In the middle of June I eagerly packed my bags before driving to the Franciscan University of Steubenville for the annual Priests, Deacons and Seminarians retreat. After attending it for more than 25 of my 34 years of priesthood, I look forward not only to being with my fellow priests from the Diocese of Pittsburgh but with the priest and deacon friends I’ve met from other dioceses who continue to come back as I do to nurture our spirit. This year I had to leave on Wednesday morning to celebrate a funeral Mass for the father of one of my closest friends. While I didn’t want to miss any of the retreat, it was the right thing to do. I returned late in the afternoon on Wednesday. Reflecting upon the funeral of Vince “Buns” Jones, I was constantly reminded of what a gentle man he was, having been faithfully married to Rita for 65 years, having together raised four wonderful children and being such an ardent proponent of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, serving daily Mass and funeral Masses for too many years to count. Simultaneous with my thoughts of Buns “the gentleman” was the gentle and hospitable presence of the Franciscan University College students who smilingly greeted me as I returned to the campus and continued to open the doors for us at registration, at the cafeteria, in our dorms, at the shuttle service, at the book store, and at Christ the King Chapel and Finnegan Fieldhouse. Even the students who were weeding, planting and watering would politely smile at me as I walked by. “There has always been an anointing on this campus” I thought. It’s the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit. It was good to be home again.
Personality and Gentleness
Being a “Type A” personality, I like to get things done. This is reinforced by being a pastor of a merged parish. Generally, I like to make a decision quickly in order to deal with what’s coming next, since there’s always something coming next. It’s like the acronym that executives often follow—O H I O – Only Handle It Once. (Sometimes decisions require more prayer, consultation and discernment.) I have been described as “a passionate over-achiever.” My Disc-position for the “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds Course” sponsored by the Catholic Leadership Institute was D I. The “D” stands for Direct. We D’s are goal oriented, results driven extroverts who like to be in charge and lead. We like to direct. That’s a good quality for a shepherd who must lead his sheep. The “I” stands for Interpersonal. We I’s are people-centered extroverts who are good at remembering peoples’ names, tapping into people’s talents, and empowering and encouraging them to reach their goal. As with any personality type, it can be a blessing or a curse depending whether it is guided by the spirit (pneuma) or by the flesh (sarx). I learned in the Good Leaders, Good Shepherds Course about the importance of Values in controlling our Disc-positions. That is to say, I learned not to give free reign to my Disc-position but to keep it in check by the values I hold.
For example, since I am a driven individual, I may become harsh at times and impatient with myself and others if I perceive that I or they are not working toward the proper goal. This harshness may be evident to others like my staff, a volunteer or a parishioner. While my sensitivity to others has improved over many years, there are still some occasions when I may be blind to my intensity and need to be corrected privately by another. On the other hand, my impatience may be only evident to me in my tone or in reaching my “tolerance threshold” too soon as compared to my relationship with people in other situations. I’ve learned to self-correct by reminding myself that “gentleness” is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, not harshness. “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano” in Italian means, “If one goes slowly, then one can go far.” The Liturgy of the Hours prayed throughout the day and not prayed all at once, serves as a “spiritual filling up station” and helps me to remain guided by the spirit and not by the flesh.
Not being a psychologist, I am hesitant to judge the saints as to whether or not they have fallen into the same trap or not. However, I see some indications of that with St. Peter when Jesus proclaimed His own suffering and death to which Peter replied, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Similarly, St. Paul said, “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (You can bet you won’t find this passage in the weekday or Sunday lectionary cycle.) Paul also said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. Which do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit? Another example is when St. Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” My point is that I can see myself saying the same thing that Peter, Paul, and Thomas have said if I allow my intensity to have free reign instead of keeping it in check through the fruits of gentleness, patience and self-control. Being reflective is a proper antidote for saying something unfiltered.
There are saints known for their gentleness. St. Francis de Sales said, “Often recall to mind that Our Lord saved us by his suffering and endurance. In the same way, we must work out our salvation by sufferings, trials, bearing insults, conflicts and trouble with as much gentleness as possible.” (IDL. III, 3) Gentleness towards ourselves makes us moderate in our emotions and feelings toward ourselves; regulate all violent, impetuous and passionate thoughts. Gentleness must permeate our whole being, interior and exterior. He who is able to preserve gentleness among pains and weakness and peace among troubles and a multiplicity of affairs is almost perfect’ (Letter of April 8, 1608, AE XIV. P. 2) When beginning to feel angry, he (Francis) would swallow, remain an instant without speaking and then begin to smile gently and speak with calm (Lajeunie, Vol. 2, p.132) “Nothing is so strong as gentleness – nothing so loving and gentle as strength”, says Francis. Gentleness is not weakness. Gentleness flows from inner strength and peace.
St. John Bosco, quoting St. Francis de Sales, often said, “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” This is an example of the preventative style of education of youth, practiced by the Salesians, rather than repressive style. St. Philip Neri said, “If you tend toward extremes, be extreme in gentleness, patience, humility and charity”.
St. Therese of Lisieux said, “He is compassionate and filled with gentleness, slow to punish, and abundant in mercy, for He knows our frailty, He remembers we are only dust.” St. Therese was also gentle with the older sister who constantly criticized her as she worked in the convent with the laundry and at the refectory offering up her pain as part of “the little way.”
“Convent life was not without its hardships; it was cold and accommodation was basic. Not all sisters warmed to this 15-year-old girl. At times she became the subject of gossip, and one of her superiors took a very hash attitude to this young “spoilt middle class” girl. However Therese sought always to respond to criticism and gossip with the attitude of love. No matter what others said Therese responded by denying her sense of ego. Eventually the nun who had criticised Therese so much said. ‘why do you always smile at me, Why are you always so kind, even when I treat you badly?’”
“It ain’t over till it’s over” This may be a fitting caption after studying the lives of the saints and realizing what a difficult time many of them experienced in controlling their tempers, subduing their pride and embracing gentleness. Paul of Tarsus was practically a bounty hunter rounding up Christians when on his way to Damascus the Lord blinded him and asked “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Ananias heard alludes to Paul being a difficult case by saying, “Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.”
St. Jerome wrote in 416: “I never spared heretics and have always done my utmost that the enemies of the Church should be also my enemies”; but it seems that sometimes he unwarrantably assumed that those who differed from himself were necessarily the Church’s enemies. He was no admirer of moderation whether in virtue or against evil. He was swift to anger, but also swift to remorse, even more severe on his own shortcomings than on those of others. There is a story told that Pope Sixtus V, looking at a picture of the saint which represented him in the act of striking his breast with a stone, said: “You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you.”
Camillus de Lellis was born in the Abruzzi area of Italy in 1550. He had a lot of strikes against him: his mother died when he was a child, his father neglected him, and he grew up with an excessive love for gambling. At 17 he was afflicted with a disease of his leg that remained with him for life. In Rome, he entered the San Giacomo hospital for incurables as both patient and servant, but was dismissed for quarrelsomeness after nine months. He served in the Venetian army for three years. Then, in the winter of 1574, when he was 24, he gambled away everything he had—savings, weapons, literally down to his shirt. He accepted work at the Capuchin friary at Manfredonia, and was one day so moved by a sermon of the superior that he began a conversion that changed his whole life. He entered the Capuchin novitiate, but was dismissed because of the apparently incurable sore on his leg. After another stint of service at San Giacomo, he came back to the Capuchins, only to be dismissed again, for the same reason.
But he persevered and his dedication was rewarded by his being made superintendent. He devoted the rest of his life to the care of the sick, and has been named, along with St. John of God, patron of hospitals, nurses and sick. With the advice of his friend St. Philip Neri, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained at the age of 34.
Edward Sri wrote an interesting article about St. Catherine of Siena who was once confronted by God about a “hidden sin” she had: the sin of judging people. She used to think that she had a gift for reading human nature and noticing other people’s faults, especially priests’ faults. But, one day, God pointed out to her that the insights she was receiving about other people’s weaknesses were not coming from him — they were coming from the devil. She came to see this was “the devil’s trap.”
The devil allows us to see each other’s faults so that, instead of wanting to help, we start to judge their souls and condemn them. Catherine admitted this to God, saying, “You gave me … medicine against a hidden sickness I had not recognized, by teaching me that I can never sit in judgment on any person. … For I, blind and weak as I was from this sickness, have often judged others under the pretext of working for your honor and their salvation.”
If we’ve experienced how patient and gentle God is with our weaknesses, then we are going to be more merciful toward others. That’s why St. Catherine learned that when we notice a person’s faults, we should say to ourselves, “Today it is your turn; tomorrow it will be mine, unless divine grace holds me up.”
The habit of judging others, however, could be a sign that we do not really know ourselves or the God who loves us. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux taught, “If you have eyes for the shortcomings of your neighbor and not for your own, no feeling of mercy will arise in you, but, rather, indignation. You will be more ready to judge than to help, to crush in the spirit of anger than to instruct in the spirit of gentleness.”
Evangelization and Gentleness
A useful passage to be kept in mind regarding gentleness in evangelization and apologetics is this one from First Peter. “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says, “A slave of the Lord should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness. It may be that God will grant them repentance that leads to knowledge of the truth, and that they may return to their senses out of the devil’s snare, where they are entrapped by him, for his will.” When St. Paul addressed the Athenians at the Areopagus, he used a gentle approach by observing an altar inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’ He appealed to their religiosity by not declaring them pagans but by building upon their faith in an unknown god and hoping to switch their allegiance to “The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth”.By this, St. Paul respected their culture which gives a higher probability of success in winning over potential Christians. It’s what missionaries do when they visit people of Non-Christian cultures. They try to find common ground and expand upon it after developing relationships of trust. Rather than rejecting the nature of the people whom Paul wished to evangelize he intuitively knew what St. Thomas Aquinas codified, namely, “Grace builds on nature.” “We may gather from what has been said that grace builds on nature, it does not destroy it. Rather it enhances it, enabling it to attain what by its own powers it cannot.”
St. Paul on Gentleness
St. Paul shows his pastoral side when he says, “Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted.” He also says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. In addition Paul says, “Nor, indeed, did we ever appear with flattering speech, as you know, or with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek praise from human beings, either from you or from others, although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ. Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” St. Paul follows this same pastoral direction in his first letter to Timothy in the chapter on qualifications of various ministers when he says: “Therefore a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.” Again, later in that same letter, Paul writes to Timothy, “But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
In Wisdom literature, we are reminded “A mild answer calms wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” And “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse one crushes the spirit.” “A fool raises his voice in laughter, but a prudent man at the most smiles gently.” Eliphaz says to Job in his second speech, “Are the consolations of God not enough for you, and speech that deals gently with you?” Though the word “gentle” is not found in the Book of Wisdom, there are similar sounding adjectives in the description of Wisdom such as: unstained, not baneful, loving the good, beneficent, kindly and tranquil.
While the word “gentle” is not found in other Wisdom literature, the word “rest” or “restful” does occur which connotes a similar meaning is found in the Psalms. “In green pastures you let me graze; to safe (restful) waters you lead me; you restore my strength” “My soul rests in God alone, from whom comes my salvation.” “My soul, be at rest in God alone, from whom comes my hope.””You give them rest from evil days, while a pit is being dug for the wicked.” “Therefore I swore in my anger: ‘They shall never enter into my rest.’”
Similarly, in the Song of Songs we find “Tell me, you whom my heart loves, where you pasture your flock, where you give them rest at midday””My lover is for me a sachet of myrrh to rest in my bosom””As an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my lover among men, I delight to rest in his shadow, and his fruit is sweet to my mouth.”
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the gentleness of Jesus Christ is his Sermon on the Mount. When he speaks of being poor in spirit, being merciful and being a peacemaker, is that not preaching and living out gentleness? This is particularly highlighted when he spoke of non-retaliation and the love of enemies, his act of non-violence when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and his plea for mercy for his transgressors as He was dying on the cross.
Jesus Christ is a perfect gentleman because He stands at the door and knocks waiting for the one inside to open up. He never forces Himself in. In Christian paintings, we see no doorknob on the outside. This is Jesus, the epitome of gentleness who waits for us to invite Him in to have a personal relationship with Him as He knocks on the doors of our hearts.
Jesus shows His gentleness again when He says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
William Barclay’s description of the yoke that Jesus made as a carpenter is fascinating.
He says, “my yoke is easy.” The word easy is in Greek chrestos, which can mean well-fitting. In
Palestine ox-yokes were made of wood; the ox was brought, and the measurements were taken.
The yoke was then roughed out, and the ox was brought back to have the yoke tried on. The yoke
was carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke
was tailor-made to fit the ox.
There is a legend that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that from all over the country
men came to him to buy the best yokes that skill could make. In those days, as now, shops had their
signs above the door; and it has been suggested that the sign above the door of the carpenter’s shop
in Nazareth may well have been: “My yoke fit well.” It may well be that Jesus is here using a picture
from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth where he had worked throughout the silent years.
Often times, gentleness is considered synonymous with meekness. We are reminded of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” There is however, a slight difference. While the dictionary defines gentleness as the quality of state of being gentle esp: mildness of manners or disposition, it defines meekness as enduring injury with patience and without resentment. This calls to mind the Spiritual Work of Mercy of bearing wrongs patiently.
Finally, I would recommend that we read and re-read “The Definition of a Gentleman” by Cardinal John Henry Newman declared “Blessed” in 2010. In this day and age, we are witnessing not only “a tsunami of secularism in this cultural landscape” as Cardinal Donald Wuerl described, but an attendant lack of civility. Aspiring to “The Definition of a Gentleman” under the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit is something that our culture desperately needs.
Rev. Joseph G. Luisi
Pastor of North American Martyrs Parish,
Fr. Luisi has completed “all but dissertation” for his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA
Galatians 5:23 (New American Bible)
I Cor. 4:20-21
Website of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales USA
“St. John Bosco and the Secret of Education” by Sean Fitzpatrick, Crisis Magazine, Jan. 30, 2014
Quote offered by Fr. Steve Grunow on Patheos website, “10 Things about St. Philip Neri that caught my eye today”, May 26, 2015 by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Biography Online of St. Therese of Lisieux
Yogi Berra regarding baseball’s 1973 National League pennant race
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. III, pg. 691, Christian Classics, Westminster, MD, 1990
Saint of the Day, Volume 2, edited by Leonard Foley, O.F.M, 1975 St. Anthony Messenger Press
As God Showed St. Catherine of Siena, Mercy Melts ‘Hidden Sin by Edward Sri in the National Catholic Register, May 22, 2017
I Peter 3:15
II Timothy 2:24-26
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Summa Theologica Article One, “Whether a Man Can Know Any Truth Without Grace” #3, St. Thomas Aquinas; Article Two, “Whether A Man Can Will or Do Good Without Grace” #3
“Grace in Thomas Aquinas” by Rev. Prof. Michael Lapierre S.J., Regis College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Sept. 21, 1994, in section #4 The Nature of Grace in Aquinas
Col. 3: 12-14
I Thess. 2:5-7
I Tim. 3:2-3
I Tim. 6:11-12
Song of Songs 1:7
Song of Songs 1:13
Song of Songs 2:3
The Gospel of Matthew Volume 2, The Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay, p. 17, Westminister Press, Philadelphia, 1975
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, Mass., 1996
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2447
“Cardinal Newman’s Description of a Gentleman” by Sam Guzman, Aug. 19, 2014, The Catholic Gentleman’s Society
Cardinal Donald Wuerl on Oct. 8, 2012 at Vatican City addressing the thirteenth General Assembly of Synod of Bishops in his role as Relator General on the theme of the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith.
Fr. Joe Luisi has been a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh for nearly 35 years, where he is currently a pastor of two churches with a school. He earned an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Mount St. Mary Seminary and is “all but dissertation” toward a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. He is a long-time friend of Franciscan University, having attended numerous Franciscan University Priests, Deacons, and Seminarian Retreats through the years. He is a member of the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Fraternity of Priests. Fr. Joe has completed the Good Leaders/Good Shepherds Training and is a coach for StrengthFinders and APEST. He also enjoys: hiking, skiing, swimming, golfing, cooking, gardening and playwriting. He wrote and produced “The Seven Last Words, A Contemporary Passion Play”.