I would assume that by now all of you have heard about the resignation of Cardinal Law as the Archbishop of Boston. It is a shame that it takes terrible crimes to get people's attention -- that for many years the vast majority of Catholics have been just ignoring the undermining of our Church -- but I would hope, and ask you all to pray that this scandal would get the attention of everyone in the Church, from the Pope on down, and will serve to demonstrate to all of us the damage Modernism has done for the past forty years or so. Understand, please, that the problem is not just with Cardinal Law, or with his priests or with the seminaries -- it is fundamentally with Modernism, which denies that morality and truth come from God and are arrived, at instead, by human consensus. Until that is recognized and corrected, there can be no reform. Let us all pray that something good comes of this.
Today is called "Gaudete Sunday," from the opening words of the Introit: "Gaudete in Dómino -- Rejoice in the Lord always ... let your moderation be known to all men." The assumption is that we have been properly observing the Advent season as one of penitential preparation for Christmas, and that today the Church is telling us to let up just a bit, so that we can go back to our preparations with renewed vigor. That is why the vestments are rose colored instead of purple, and why there is a more generally festive atmosphere in the text of the Mass.
If you read today's epistle in a missal, or perhaps in your Bible, you may notice that some translations say: "let your modesty be known to all men" instead of "let your moderation be known..." The Latin word being translated is modestia, so we might be inclined to go with the English word "modesty." But, sometimes when we are translating from one language to another, it is a mistake to pick a word just because it sounds like the word in the original language (the cognate is not always the most correct translation).
In modern English the word modesty has been somewhat reduced in its meaning. Most people think of it as being restricted to the way a person dresses; we tend to think of "modest" bathing suits or "modest" ball gowns. That usage is correct of course, but it is a bit limited. Modesty is more akin to moderation -- and to moderation in just about everything physical that we do. One ought to be modest in dress, but also modest in speech and in writing, also modest in our possessions and in the use of them. We might dress in a perfectly respectable manner, but be completely immodest with speech that calls attention to ourselves or tends to shock people. And we can be immodest in our possessions if we always try to have something bigger and better than the people next door.
Inherent in the virtue of modesty is the virtue of humility. The person who honestly knows his own abilities and failings, who seeks not to impress others with them -- the humble person -- is very likely to meet any reasonable standard we may have for modesty. He will not seek to catch the eye of those around him, because he knows that his worth comes from God, and not because he is somehow "better" than those around him. He will reflect that having a few skills and being able to do a few things better than other people does not make him somehow "better" than they are. The humble person with an honest assessment of himself has no reason to try to "stick out" in the crowd; not by appearance, not by speech, and not by flashy possessions.
But, notice that I said that "moderation" was a better translation for the word that Saint Paul used than "modesty." Moderation, as we use the term, has built into it that very important concept of all virtues -- the concept that virtuous behavior is based on finding "the via media -- the middle way" between extremes. For just about any virtuous behavior, we can name both an inadequate behavior and an excessive behavior, with the virtuous fitting in somewhere in between. Modesty is no different -- it fits in between the extremes, like all the other virtues.
We would be scandalized if a lady were to wear her bathing suit to church, even if it were modest by the standards of the sea shore -- but we would be equally disturbed if the women here were to adopt the style of the Moslem women we see now and again on TV, with a black sack covering them quite literally from head to toe except for two eye slits. Either manner of dress for a Western woman would be an excess -- both would be an attempt to gain attention by dressing immodestly.
We can say the same about speech. There are times when things need to be said, but there are also times when it is best to keep one's mouth shut. And, again, one can cause harm by either excess.
Possessions are the same way. It would be immodest to always have the finest things, but it would also be wrong not to recognize that good things can be done with the material goods of this world. For the vast majority of people, modesty lies in making a moderate living, so as not to be unnecessarily dependent on others and to be able to help out those in need. It would be no more virtuous to expect to be supported by others, than it would be to drive the fanciest car on the road -- both are probably excesses.
And, of course, moderation has a dimension that goes beyond what we usually know as modesty, to include moderation in food and drink, in sleep, and in any other physical behavior, even if it calls no attention to one's self.
So, today is Gaudete Sunday. We are called to rejoice a bit in the midst of Advent. But perhaps the most important thing we can do today is to reflect on the words of Saint Paul, and recognize the need for moderation in all of the physical things we do, especially in those that tend to call attention to ourselves and to scandalize those around us.
"Rejoice in the Lord always ... let your moderation be known to all men."