Father Leonard Peterson
It all comes down to a choice between “BE” and “GE.” The letters stand for “bad example” and “good example.” Now that the graduates of the 2009 class of Notre Dame have long since turned in their caps and gowns, there is one little item that I think was overlooked in the heat of the moment of that commencement and deserves mention now. That is the notion of bad example.
What Notre Dame did by ignoring not only the local bishop but also thousands of good people was to give bad example to millions more. The memory of that will drain away for them and me a lot of the fun of a football game in South Bend.
Bad example is one of those evils we cannot brush aside just because it seems less serious or lacks the sensation of other evils. (Do I even hear someone saying “Everybody does it?”) We know that our Lord took example very seriously. At a time when paper and ink were scarce, the inspired writers made sure to include these words of Jesus: “Woe to those who give scandal to these little ones. It would be better if they tied a millstone around their necks” (Mark 9:41).
Now millstones are not pebbles. They are enormously heavy objects that could never form a necklace. Our Lord, hampered by a language that has no superlative degree, was using hyperbole to make His point. But that is enough for me to take bad example seriously and to regret any I may have given!
How does “BE” usually happen? In any one of a thousand ways. Dad is working on a project fixing up the den and just can’t stop now for the Saturday vigil Mass. Come Sunday, he is too exhausted to go to Mass. The children notice, especially the youngest, who is preparing at school to make his first holy Communion.
Or Mom is in the car, driving late for an appointment at the hairdresser’s, when a traffic tie-up develops due to a PennDOT paving project. She gets on her ever-present cell phone to explain and complain, but her language is saltier than a Philly soft pretzel. Young daughter in the passenger seat learns a lesson about how “real women” talk when stressed. And so it goes.
Bad example happens when a national talk show reporter uses an obscenity in prime time and there are no consequences. Or when a U.S. official accuses a government agency of lying. Or when a president who urges openness and tolerance asks a Catholic university to cover up a symbol for the name of Jesus when he comes to speak. The university accedes to him. A priest appears at a high school dance with alcohol on his breath. A bishop is silent in the face of known sexual abuse. Bad example happens all the time. Of course, good example could have happened in all those cases. It just didn’t.
Summer has arrived in our little corner of the world. It will soon be just “too darn hot,” as the song puts it, to ponder matters more weighty than deciding which movie to see or which water ice flavor to savor. But bad example knows no season.
Good example is just as perennial. It is more powerful and uplifts most of life’s little interactions with people. Practicing it receives very little applause, and stories of it rarely make the newscasts or the web. Yet without good example, I daresay our society would collapse. “GE” remains a practical expression of one’s faith in Jesus and His code of behavior. But truth to tell, the price of neglecting it could well be disastrous when all of one’s seasons are over.
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.