By Peter Jesserer Smith
When I was in college, I considered myself a real firebrand for the Catholic faith. Subduing my enemies with argumentative prowess, I enjoyed skewering them with a combination of ruthless wit and an expansive command of facts. I thought I was God’s great champion for the Truth. Mercifully, though, God gave me a moment of grace to realize another dimension of the truth: I was a thief who stole Jesus from the people that needed to encounter him through me. Similar to Vanni Fucci, the thieving sinner of Canto 24, I was the one committing the crime, but it would be others who would suffer the consequences!
This is how my moment of grace and truth came about. A fellow Catholic transferred to our school. I found him absolutely intolerable. I did not like his politics, his theology, nor—ironically—his invincible confidence that he was always right. My dislike of him descended to petty contempt for such things as his clothes and hobbies. Well, one day, we had an argument in which I again failed to convince him about something. I couldn’t stand another word he said. I roared at him in anger, told him exactly what I thought of him and where he was going, and stormed off. In that moment, I had such a feeling of euphoria. It was really, though, nothing but a fleeting moment in which I felt good about sin. But this high point in my conflicts with this person was also a breaking point in my conscience. After the euphoria wore off, by God’s grace, tremendous guilt set in. I could see the truth. I could see clearly that I had sinned against a fellow human being, made in the image of God, loved by God. My “telling him off” was not an act of righteousness on my part but one of pride, anger, and hatred. What’s more, I did it in the name of defending God and his Holy Church. Uggh!
Guilt is a tremendous blessing because it is to the soul what pain is to the body. It tells you that something is wrong and that what you are doing is hurting yourself. It strips us of the illusions of our own righteousness and leaves us feeling as exposed and naked as Dante’s thieving sinners. Its truthful fangs dig into us like the snakes that bite the thieves of the seventh bolgia over and over again. I had been fooling myself, thinking I was possessed by righteous zeal for God, but now my guilt was showing me the truth. I was actually driving my neighbor away from Jesus. This was so because I did not love my neighbor. My actions had made that clear to me.
Notice also how in this Canto, before he makes his way into the pouch of thieves, Dante must climb out of the pouch of the hypocrites. In his climb, though, he gets tired and wants to sit down. So also, those who take their religion seriously often face the temptation of succumbing to hypocrisy. In our upward spiritual journey, we are tempted to sit down. We are tempted to give up the struggle of trying to make our actions match our beliefs. It is a fatal self-deception. We think to ourselves, “I have come so far and endured so much; I deserve this little sin as recompense; I am still a good person; God will not judge me.” God must cure us of this self-deception lest we die sitting where we are—in Hell. Virgil gives Dante the needed antidote to hypocrisy. “The only answer that I give to you is doing it… A just request is to be met in silence, by the act” [lines 76-78]. Not words, but actions speak the truth about ourselves.
Back to my personal moment of grace. It was extraordinarily difficult to stand before this person, confess to him that I had done wrong, and honestly ask for his forgiveness. I’m enormously grateful that he forgave me. I am also grateful that God put him in my life. Today, we are friends. I needed to be saved from hypocrisy, and he was the person God used to do this.
The problem with hypocrisy is that it can kill twice. Vanni Fucci was a thief whose single crime had a double effect: “I am set down so far [in Hell] because I robbed the sacristy of its fair ornaments, and someone else was falsely blamed for that” [lines 137-139]. Fucci’s sacrilegious thievery led to not only his condemnation in hell but also to another’s death. Much like Fucci’s theft, hypocrisy can not only condemn our souls to spiritual death, but when our two-faced actions are clothed in the garments of religion, they can steal Jesus Christ from another person’s heart and lead to his spiritual death as well.
Let us examine ourselves. Have we robbed anyone of Jesus Christ by distorting him in our lives through how we treat others with whom we differ in morals, politics, or religion? These people may be fellow Catholics. They may even be family members. Nonetheless, we feel we just can’t stand them—for whatever reason. Do we seek to love them like Jesus, or do our actions reveal that we have added an asterisk, an exception in the fine print, to Christ’s command “love one another as I have loved you”? We have to answer this question honestly. We cannot afford to wear the name of Christian and at the same time defraud souls of Christ. We must ask the Lord to give us the Father’s love, so that we can love those that are hardest for us to love. We must ask for the grace to flee from hypocrisy and continue the upward struggle, like Dante, with renewed strength and confidence.
Mr. Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He has covered Pope Francis’s historic visits to Holy Land and the United States, and also the Syrian-Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon through Catholic Relief Services’s Egan Fellowship. He lives in Webster, NY, with his wife Alexis, and their daughter Cora.