Thanks to the internet, quotes swirl to and fro, being attributed, misattributed, taking on a life of their own. This isn’t simply a result of the internet though; stories do take on a life of their own at some point, carrying embellishments and extra details along the way. However, the internet has the capacity to canonise certain quotes that really should make us question their authenticity.

Trent Horn, Catholic apologist, writer and speaker, wrote a book called What the Saints Never Said: Pious Misquotes and Subtle Heresies (2018), in which he does a lot of the hard work for us. He explores a number of famous quotations to determine their authenticity, and looks at the subtle messaging we take on through them. Here are five from the book.

‘The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.’

Attributed to: St Augustine

While this quote sounds nice, it should be clear that this is something Augustine never would have said – his entire life embodies the opposite! After his conversion to Christianity, he produced one of the most extensive bodies of theological work in the Church’s tradition, defending, arguing for, and clarifying almost every single point of Christian doctrine. He frequently engaged the prominent heretics of his day – Pelagius being just one famous example. Without the difficult work of arguments like his, who knows what the Church might’ve looked like in the following years?

In no portion of Augustine’s work can this quote be found, and it should be pretty clear that the truth does require our defence. As St Peter once told us:

Simply reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ (1 Peter 3:15).

‘Pray as though everything depended upon God, act as if everything depended upon you.’

Attributed to: St Ignatius of Loyola

This particular quote has probably gained prominence due to its quotation in the Catechism. In section 2834, it attributes this quote to St Ignatius of Loyola, referencing Joseph de Guibert’s famous book on the Jesuits: The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice (1964). However, in a footnote in that very book, it notes that this exact quotation cannot be found anywhere in the work of St Ignatius. It seems to be an anonymous quotation, since it has also been misattributed to Methodist preacher John Wesley (who, sadly, also suffers a lot of misattributions).

Whilst the sentiment behind this is venerable, encouraging us to get to work ourselves for the glory of God, it might subtly suggest that work and prayer are two different compartments of the Christian life. As Trent Horn says: ‘Prayer is not the time to seek God’s help before we “get the job done ourselves.”’

St Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera
St Francis of Assisi By Jusepe de Ribera

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .’

Attributed to: St Francis of Assisi

This is a song we are all familiar with (perhaps a bit too familiar). The so-called ‘Prayer of St Francis’ has been sung in Masses since it was put to music. The only problem is that it first appeared in a 1912 issue of the French Catholic devotional magazine La Clochette. It’s unlikely St Francis would ever have written something like this since his own poetry rarely used so many first-person pronouns.

One of St Francis’ disciples, St Giles, did write something that was similar:

Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved. Blessed is he who fears and therefore does not desire to be feared. Blessed is he who serves and does not therefore desire to be served. Blessed is he who behaves well towards others and does not desire that others behave well towards him. And because these are great things, the foolish do not rise to them.’

‘Christ has no body now but yours . . .’

Attributed to: St Teresa of Avila

This is a well-known poem attributed to St Teresa of Avila. It goes like this:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’

The origin of this quote is actually in the hands of a nineteenth century Protestant preacher: Methodist minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said this almost verbatim in an 1888 sermon. The last part, ‘Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,’ comes from a Quaker medical missionary, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, who quoted it four years later, adding her own lines at the end.

As pious as it is, it is incorrect. Yes, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth; yes, we are Christ’s hands and feet. But it is not true to say that ‘Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’ Christ’s body is present on earth, in a substantial and sacramental way, in the Eucharist. At best the theology of this quote is half-true.

‘The road to hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lampposts that light the path.’

Attributed to: St John Chrysostom

This quote expresses something true: namely, that the teachers of the Church will be judged more severely than those who are not teachers. The apostle James says this in his epistle: ‘Only a few of you, my brothers, should be teachers, bearing in mind those of us who teach can expect a stricter judgment’ (Jas 3:1). However, it cannot be found in Chrysostom’s corpus of writings.

The earliest and closest saying like this comes from, once again, Methodist preacher John Wesley, who said:

A lifeless, unconverting minister is the murder-general of his parish . . . I could not have blamed St John Chrysostom, if he had only said, “Hell is paved with the skulls of such Christian priests!”’

Whoever added the bit about the lampposts has a rather macabre imagination.