St. John Vianney: Who’s your public?

Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints–they are your public.

Attr. St. John Vianney

I was perfectly willing to believe this quotation is authentic, right up until I hit the phrase after the dash. I have a hard time thinking that St. John Vianney would think in terms of having a “public.”

The earliest English citation for “public” in this sense in the OED is 1823. Since the Curé died in 1859, his life does overlap the time when this sense was in use, but (a) he spoke French and (b) I don’t think he would have picked up a colloquial English phrase like this. So either it’s a translation of an equivalent French phrase (I have no idea what that would be) or it’s very likely a fauxtation.

Since “public” is the word whose authenticity I find suspect, it’s a handy search term when searching through the works of the saint and works about him. None of the hits in Abbé Trochu’s biography match. Nor does the one hit in the Little Catechism. Nor does it show up in any of the other works searchable on Google Books. Nor is it in the Thoughts of the Curé of Ars (1859 edition). I also tried works by and about him at the Internet Archive, also without success.

My general Google search turned up tons of hits, none with citations. Searching Google Books especially, the oldest hit for the full quotation is from Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, by Joseph M. Esper. I’ve encountered this work before in investigating quotations, and he doesn’t cite his sources.

I then started to wonder if I could find the first part of the alleged quotation in the saint’s works. The short answer is no.

My verdict is that the first portion of the “quotation” is plausible but uncertain, and the part after the dash is almost certainly not from the saint.


St. Basil the Great and the road to Hell

Hell can’t be made attractive, so the Devil makes attractive the road that leads there.

Attr. St. Basil the Great

  1. Google search: Facebook, Pinterest, etc. No citations. All the pages are recent (in the last few years).
  2. Wikiquote: Not there.
  3. Google Books: Doesn’t turn up at all when I put quotation marks around “Hell can’t be made attractive.” No quotation marks = pages upon pages of irrelevant matches.
  4. Post-Nicene Fathers at CCEL, searching the Letters and Sermons of Basil: No relevant match for “attractive” nor for “road.”

The odds don’t look good for this.

Pasteur: Religion and science

A little science estranges men from God, but much science leads them back to Him.

Attr. Louis Pasteur

Pasteur was a Catholic, and he did believe that science leads a man towards belief, but did he say this? Wikiquote says no, saying that it was attributed to him in God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (2002) by Ray Comfort. I can verify via Google Books that the alleged quotation is there, but the book uses endnotes, not included in the preview, so I can’t tell if he gives a citation.

Searching Google Books turns up a lot of attributions to Francis Bacon, which Wikiquote also provides. But it also turns up some attributions to Pasteur dating from well before 2002. I thought I’d found one that went all the way back to 1920. When I looked at it, I found that it was a reprint of a letter discussing whether or not Pasteur was a practicing Catholic. The last line of the letter says, “I believe that this will satisfy anyone. that Pasteur was a faithful child of the Church, and his example is another example of the words of Pascal that ‘a little knowledge estranges one from God, whilst great knowledge brings one closer to God.’ ”


At this point, I gave up. (I did search for other attributions to Pascal, without success.) I tend to think that Pasteur did not say it, but I am far from sure.

I have edited Wikiquote appropriately.

St. Bernard and tears for baptism

St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to a couple that had a miscarriage. In response to their question, “What is going to happen to my child? The child didn’t get baptized,”  St. Bernard said, “Your faith spoke for this child. Baptism for this child was only delayed by time. Your faith suffices. The waters of your womb — were they not the waters of life for this child? Look at your tears. Are they not like the waters of baptism? Do not fear this. God’s ability to love is greater than our fears. Surrender everything to God.”

This anecdote is on several sites for grieving couples. I do not wish in any way to add to anyone’s grief, and the closing line of the alleged saying is excellent advice no matter who originated it. But a friend asked if I knew which letter contains this.

According to Wikipedia, St. Bernard wrote 547 letters that are still extant. The Patrologia Latina has 460 of them (perhaps the others have been found in the centuries since the PL was prepared). The invaluable site Documenta Catholica Omnia has these 460 as Word documents I can search. (They are grouped into 100 per file, except the last file, so I had to do only five downloads, not 460.)

The letters are in Latin, so I chose relatively unusual words in the possible quotation. I settled on lacrima (tear) and baptismus (baptism). Note for Latin scholars: I actually searched for the letters lacri and baptis so that any ending would match. In particular, the word baptism can occur in masculine, feminine, and neuter form. Just searching for baptis avoids the whole issue.

I searched all the letters first for baptis and then, independent of the first search, for lacri so as to pick up places where OCR/typing might have gotten one word or the other wrong. I found no matches. The phrase might be in one of the 87 letters I don’t have access to; I am pretty confident it’s not in any of the 460 I do have.

I was unable to find any citations by Googling. The alleged quotation is not listed on Wikiquote.

Because of the 87 letters I don’t have, I’m reluctant to say for certain that St. Bernard did not write this. But I am also reluctant to say that he did.

St. Catherine of Siena: The world is rotten because of silence

We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues-I see the world is rotten because of silence.

Attr. St. Catherine of Siena

The quotation doesn’t sound implausibly attributed to her, but can it be shown to be authentic?

I will spare you the details of my long and fruitless search. Eventually, I semi-punted and asked an Italian-speaking friend, Fr. Bryan Jerabek, for help, hoping it would be easier to find it in Italian. He told me that medieval Italian is not the same as modern Italian, but he’d look anyhow, And, ecco!

It’s her letter #16, to an unidentified “great prelate” (perhaps Cardinal Pietro of Ostia.) That letter doesn’t seem to be on the Internet in English, which is why I couldn’t find it. You can see the medieval Italian version here. The relevant passage is as follows:

Oimè, non più tacere! Gridate con cento migliaia di lingue. Veggo che, per tacere, il mondo è guasto, la Sposa di Cristo è impallidita, toltogli è il colore, perchè gli è succhiato il sangue da dosso, cìoè che il sangue di Cristo, che è dato per grazia e non per debito.

Fr. Jerabek renders that as:

Be silent no more! Cry out with one hundred thousand tongues. I see that, because of this silence, the world is in ruins, the Spouse of Christ has grown pale; the color is taken from her face because her blood has been sucked out, that is the blood of Christ, which is given as a free gift and not by right.

So the currently-circulating version of the quotation is not quite accurate. “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent” doesn’t appear (I suspect it got tacked on when someone used St. Catherine’s words in response to an exhortation to silence), and it’s 100K tongues, not simply 1,000. But I’m going to call the rest of it close enough.

St. Augustine and the daughters of hope

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.

Attr. St. Augustine.

This didn’t meet the “sounds right” test to me–St. Augustine is generally not one for extended metaphors like this. He does do extended similes, but not metaphors.

Wikiquote has this on the talk/disputed page, given a citation from Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy (1988) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 136. That book happens to be searchable at Google Books, but the alleged quotation is not found there. (Perhaps Google doesn’t have the whole thing searchable.)

I went searching through Google Books for the phrase. It turns up in a lot of books connected with liberation theology (which doesn’t make the attribution false). One of the hits does have a footnote, but it simply cites a somewhat earlier (1987) book and says that there’s no citation given in that book.

I then found another book by Robert McAfee Brown in which he calls it “a reflective comment whose location in the Augustinian corpus I wish I could pinpoint” (Speaking of Christianity, p. 74). In other words, he doesn’t know where it’s from either.

Then I found this from Archbishop Chaput: “The words are apocryphal. There’s no real evidence that Augustine ever wrote them” (Strangers in a Strange Land, p. 162). (He goes on to add, “But their content is clearly true and worth remembering as a guide to Christian discipleship.”)

I poked around a little more but couldn’t find much of anything more helpful. Google Books doesn’t have anything before 1987. Given the amount of negative evidence, I’m not going to try guessing at Latin phrases to search for in Augustine’s work. I’m just going to say that however beautiful and helpful the thought may be (cf. +Chaput, above), it didn’t come from the mind of St. Augustine.

Benedict XVI and the Mustard Seed

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

Attr. (falsely, not to spoil the ending or anything) to Pope Benedict XVI, who would never have used such a colloquial American-sounding phrase. I’m fine with colloquial Americanisms, but I find it unlikely in the extreme that B XVI is familiar with them, much less familiar enough with one to use it like this.

Pope Benedict did talk about the mustard seed in one of his interviews with Peter Seewald, and apparently around the time of his election a commentator used the saying that became the fauxtation to summarize his views of then-Ratzinger’s approach. It then got picked up by a few other people, then got used in quotation marks without attribution as the title of a blog post, and thence passed on into fauxtationdom.