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Saints and Attributions: Making Mountains out of Mustard Seeds

April 26, 2018


“I have a mustard seed, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

It’s a great quote, isn’t it? If you search the internet you’ll see it flung far and wide in memes and Catholic quote collections and credited to Pope Benedict XVI, as though the Pope Emeritus really did say or write those words.

But ask yourself, “Does that sound anything like Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, the shy man of impeccable politeness?”

No, it doesn’t. And that’s because the words came not from his pen but from a 2005 essay written in anticipation of that year’s papal enclave. David P. Goldman, in a piece assessing the religious state of a world still trying to understand the terror attack of 9/11, attempted to summarize what he saw as Ratzinger’s overriding strength. Writing as “Spengler” in the Asia Times, he asserted that,

Ratzinger places his hopes on the purely spiritual weapons that made Christianity a force to begin with. He has said, in effect, “I have a mustard seed, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

It is an interesting, mischievous, and useful line, and Goldman’s act of summary license got a lot of notice from people who were only too happy to claim it for Ratzinger because – whether they loved him or disliked him deeply — it suited their narrative of the man.

Now, the sentiment is turning up on the internet at various sites purporting to feature “Collected Quotes of Benedict XVI.”This is a small and probably inconsequential case of misattribution but, thanks to the internet, the speed by which some quotes can go from unknown to exciting to overused is unsettling. A Franciscan friar once told me that a quote attributed to Saint Francis (“Preach the gospel; if necessary use words”) seems to have been a paraphrase of some long-forgotten reflection that exploded into the lexicon thanks to Christian marketers and a world hopped up on wi-fi. “No one can pinpoint the origin,” he laughed, “but it suits, so we’ll take it.”

I don’t blame them; it’s another great line. But I am loath to let people off the hook for launching wise and witty thoughts into the ether without citing a source. It seems unimportant now, but might matter down the road, when we discover that history has become littered with wonderful words no one ever said, attributed admiringly (or, it must be said, maliciously) to people who never even thought them.

None of this is good news for writers, speakers, instructors, students, historians, fact-checkers, or the editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Misattribution of material, unchecked, can only lead to rhetorical chaos and confusion. As someone who reads Bartlett’s for fun, I live in horror of the day I find Gregory of Nyssa’s wise and true observation, “Ideas create idols,” turned backward, (“Idols create ideas!”) and attributed to anyone from Aristotle to Simon Cowell to Kim Kardashian.

This rant comes because I wanted to write a rousing exhortation to my fellow Catholics, encouraging them to request Masses for the living as well as the dead, and was unable to find citations for two strong quotes I’d hoped would shore up my advice – because it’s really good advice.

I’d like to be able to tell you with absolute certainty that Saint Anselm, Doctor of the Church, backs me up on this, as supposedly he wrote, “A single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death.”

That does sound like Anselm of Canterbury, but there are also attributions to another Doctor, Saint Teresa of Avila. There is as yet no attribution to “Saint Padre Pio”, which is surprising because it suits his style, too.

The majority of sites think it’s Anselm, so I’ll play along, although I can’t help worrying. My eBook version of his Major Works is not indexed, so it’s no help. Without a citation I am left with residual doubt on the quote’s provenance.

Similarly, I cannot discover the origins of this quote attributed to Pope Benedict XV and expressing a similar sentiment: “The Holy Mass would be of greater profit if people had it offered in their lifetime, rather than having it celebrated for the relief of their souls after death.”

He might have said it, but his audiences lean heavily toward the Latin and Italian, so I am unable to verify it.

Still, even without being able to strictly confirm whether Anselm or Benedict XV said these words, the message is good, and it actually can’t be said too often: Arrange to have Masses said for yourself and the people you love, now, while they are alive, rather than waiting until you need to feel useful in a funereal moment. Memorial masses for the dead are certainly valuable in light of eternity, but how much better might a life flow – how much more easily may be some of our rows he hoed – if our intentions were being remembered at Mass, right now?

My husband and I are in the habit of presenting perpetual Mass cards to parents of newborns, to let them know that throughout their child’s life he or she will be remembered at Masses. We send smaller, one-year Mass cards to people who are facing difficult times or health issues. It says, “ We’re praying for you with optimism, in hopes that by next year, all shall be well.” When it’s possible, we purchase a Mass card for someone preparing to undergo surgery, and it’s a good opportunity to remind them about seeking an anointing.

Arranging for Masses to be said for the living is a very charitable and evangelical thing to do. Particularly for Catholics who have been away, it makes the faith feel immediate and new.

Pope Francis recently reminded us that “Salvation is free”, which it certainly is. Remembering intentions at Mass is also free, although most churches, monasteries or societies offering Mass Cards will request an offering to offset their own costs, so I say, “Buying Mass cards helps to keep parishes and convents afloat, so they are a win-win! They are Twofers of generosity and goodwill!”

If some Catholic site wants to attribute that to Pio, or Saint Guy of Anderlecht, I’m okay with it. Citations are important, but perhaps, in the end, if a good idea or a helpful notion is communicated and acted upon, that’s what really matters.