Cardinal Basil Hume OSB once remarked that we have lost the virtue of ‘fraternal correction’ in the contemporary Church. Amid the bewildering pace of life and change and the pluralism all around us, it does seem a daunting challenge (and perhaps even a bit unwise) to urge people to ‘correct’ each other.
And yet part of the richness of our tradition is our duty, at times, to confront evil and call people to ‘choose life, not death’ in their pilgrimage here on earth. St Paul told us to “be angry and sin not” and there are times when it is appropriate to tell people that they are going down the wrong path in their lives with some passion!
The prophets did it all the time and we know what happened to them. That may help explain our reluctance!
Yet we dare not forget the example of John the Baptist at our peril. If John the Baptist were around today, that fur-wearing, locust-eating, wild-eyed, holy-rolling loud-mouthed desert prophet would probably have a few things to say!
He was a little rough around the edges as far as social mannerisms were concerned but he told it how it was and did not pull any punches. If you were looking for pampering words or a ‘cafeteria’ type Catholicism, John the Baptist would not be the bloke to go to. The prophet got himself into a bit of hot water for his refusal to consent to Herod’s involvement with his brother’s wife. The King rewarded John’s courage and honesty with a complimentary decapitation.
John the Baptist’s noble actions are an example of the work of mercy of admonishing the sinner. His task was rather extreme and rare. Most of us are called to something slightly less heroic. Nonetheless, this can be one of the more difficult works of mercy to put into practice and requires a different kind of personal sacrifice than the other works.
There is, of course, a right and a wrong way for the more ordinary ways of admonishing the sinner to be accomplished. Most people are not Herods and will not usually respond to a call to ‘conversion’ unless they believe they are deeply loved first. Otherwise it just produces resentment.
Heaven save us then from ideological zealots and crusaders who take it upon themselves to ‘admonish’ without ever having met the ‘other’ and establish a relationship of trust and love first. Right wing and left wing ideologues who act in an accusatory and confrontational manner can expect the reaction will always be one of anger and resentment towards the ‘preacher’.
But if time is taken for a relationship to be developed and a trust built up (with love, rather than conversion, as the underlying motivation for the development of such a relationship), words of admonition or, better, fraternal correction, will be received with more thoughtfulness and will hold more meaning.
An instructing word, even when it is firm and forces the person to face painful personal ‘demons’, has more weight coming from a loving fellow-Christian sinner than a self-righteous stranger. “He who listens to a lifegiving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (Prov 13:31).
The old world killed the prophets. The new world simply ignores them. It can afford to do this because the world is more conducive to self-deception today than ever before.
Some then are especially called to this ministry of ‘fraternal correction’ in our culture and Church. Frankly, I do not think many people have this gift at a purely human level. Since baptised believers are always on the way to becoming Christians, it takes a wise and holy person then to practise this work of mercy well. Something most of us (including me) are a long way from.
On the other hand, William Blake has a salutary poem which shows us what happens when we completely ignore the need to express our legitimate anger and ‘sweep everything under the carpet’. While it may not be our personal charism, we all need to acknowledge that if no one practises this work of mercy ‘the poison tree’ can grow in our lives and in our Church.
THE POISON TREE
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with my smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
This article is part of a series of Lenten reflections entitled A Spirit of Mercy: Reflections on the Works of Mercy by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.