23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
September 6, 2020
Redeeming the Time
As a high school seminarian, I had a summer job in a small grocery store. One day, two distinguished women came into the store and addressed themselves to a customer I was assisting. “We haven’t seen you and your husband in church for over a month,” they said. “Is anything the matter? You are still a member of our church, aren’t you?” Clearly embarrassed, the woman replied softly, “We’re okay and, yes, we still belong.” After they walked away, she said to me, “That’s the ‘church busy-body committee’. And, it’s none of their business, but my husband and I just don’t go to church anymore.” Then she asked me, “Do they come after people like that in your church?” “Oh, no ma’am,” I answered, in my best “Leave It to Beaver” manner, and with that, I placed her packages in her car and accepted a tip.
Thinking back on that little encounter in light of today’s Scripture readings, I now recognize that all three parties were in the wrong. The two ladies were wrong to confront that woman publicly. The woman and her husband were wrong to absent themselves from church. I was wrong to imply that fraternal correction has no place in the Catholic Church. For, in today’s Gospel, the Lord does indeed speak of fraternal correction, and offers the Church guidance for conducting it. By preaching this homily, I finally hope to redeem myself!
What Is Fraternal Correction?
What, then, is fraternal correction? Fraternal correction is one disciple reproving or admonishing a fellow disciple who has turned from the path of righteousness, a disciple entangled in wrongdoing. Of course, we can all agree that this is a delicate matter, so it is important to pay close attention to what the Lord is teaching us. I will try to summarize this teaching in four points.
A first thing to remember about fraternal correction is that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. In Baptism, each of us became adopted sons and daughters of God, and that makes us brothers and sisters to one another in Christ. Just as in a family brothers and sisters should love one another and look out for one another’s welfare, so too in the Church we need to accompany and help one another, along the path of discipleship and salvation. If a fellow Christian is risking his or her eternal salvation by living in ways that are contrary to the Gospel, we are called to help that person to turn from sin and walk in holiness. Failure to do so, Ezekiel reminds us, is fraught with consequences for ourselves. When, through indifference or fear, we fail to reach out to someone who is straying, we in fact put our own salvation at risk. Whereas, if we gently encourage a fellow disciple to repent – even if we fail – the Lord looks kindly upon our efforts in his behalf.
A second thing to remember about fraternal correction is that none of us is perfect. In the Gospels, Jesus condemns the self-righteous Pharisees, and no doubt he is displeased when we, his followers, behave like them. Ezekiel, it is true, calls us to be watchful, but not to be a vigilante, a self-appointed judge and jury, rolled into one, that metes out harsh justice. Rather, we are to walk humbly before our God, to repent of our sins, and to hear and answer the Lord’s call to discipleship. Thus, when we approach a brother or sister in need of correction, we do so as those who also stand in need of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. Looking at us through the eyes of mercy, the Lord nevertheless chooses us to be the messengers of his truth and love.
This leads to a third point to remember about fraternal correction – namely, that its gold-standard is always love – both in method and content. As we’ve seen, the Lord, who came to call sinners and bring them to salvation, condemns all forms of self-righteous pomposity. Accordingly, fraternal correction is not about imposing our private preferences on others or haranguing them with our pet peeves. Nor still less is it about humiliating, or embarrassing, or shaming others … maybe destroying their reputation and robbing them of their livelihood … something that happens all too often these days on social media. On the contrary, St. Paul sets the standard for fraternal correction when he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” St. Paul promptly adds that all the commandments are summed up in the words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” … So, it turns out that fraternal correction is about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Just as we do not want to endanger our own salvation, so too we do not want our neighbor to do that either. Put another way, when we love others, we want them to have many blessings but our foremost concern must be for their eternal salvation … the very same priority we should have in our own lives. Loving concern for the salvation of others should be especially evident in families as husbands and wives help each another along the path of discipleship – helping one another and their children to be better persons, better Catholics, more prayerful, more attentive to the Mass and the Sacraments; helping one another to be wiser and more loving parents, to be persons of integrity at home and at work, persons of charity toward those in need.
A fourth and final thing to know is that Jesus has shown us the right way of doing fraternal correction, beginning this this: We are always to start by admonishing a fellow disciple privately, with the goal of opening that person’s mind and heart to the Lord’s truth and mercy. As we do this, we should think of the times when others have helped us to see ourselves more clearly, and we should pray for grace to do the same thing for someone else in need. But in case such our first attempt fails, the Lord left us a second directive, namely, to come back with one or two others – not a committee of busy bodies – but a few other fellow disciples who can witness to the Lord’s love in their own lives … And why? Because they have prayed together for their own salvation and for that of others to the Lord who is present in their midst. The goal here is not to corner or embarrass, but gently to admonish and encourage, to deal patiently with an erring individual because God is always patient with us. And if such a person persists in following a self-destructive path, in a third stage, the Church may have to recognize this in some official way – again, not to condemn such a person, but to call that person back to the Lord and to the communion of the Church.
Fraternal Correction and Evangelization
To conclude, let us remind ourselves of the importance of fraternal correction, especially these days, when so many have separated themselves from the Church. When Pope Francis talks about going out to those on the peripheries, he is referring to the poor and the vulnerable but he also means those who are far from the heart of the Church, for whatever reason. When we speak of evangelization, we mean helping people, one by one, to open their hearts to the Lord, to repent and return to the faith with mind and heart renewed. We are called, each of us, to be the Lord’s co-workers in helping those on the margins to return to the heart and center of the Church, namely, the Eucharist, even in these very challenging times. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!