Over the past couple of weeks, the name of person I don’t know very well keeps coming up in my prayer. Yesterday, it was very strong. Today, even stronger, puzzlingly so. So, I ask, “What do I do with this?” I have no relationship that would even prompt me to reach out to the person. Therefore, all I really can do is pray…until the Lord directs me to do otherwise.
That got me thinking…What do we do when we believe someone is in spiritual danger – that the choices they make put their very soul at risk?
We admonish the sinner.
Yeah…don’t you just love the sound of that…I think I’ll go admonish that sinner today…yes, I’ll tell them of their sinful ways and set them straight. That’ll do the trick.
If you’re like most people, you watch & keep your mouth shut, because, really, we often have little influence over the decisions people make, so why put ourselves out there? Let’s face it, it’s just plain awkward and uncomfortable broaching such subjects especially if the person doesn’t share the same point of view.
The Catholic Encyclopedia talks about “admonishing the sinner” in the context of fraternal correction. This excerpt below opened my eyes to a view I never really thought about before:
Fraternal correction is here taken to mean the admonishing of one’s neighbor by a private individual with the purpose of reforming him or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence. This is clearly distinguishable from an official disciplining, whose mouthpiece is a judge or other like superior, whose object is the punishment of one found to be guilty, and whose motive is not so directly the individual advantage of the offender as the furtherance of the common good. That there is, upon occasion and with due regard to circumstances, an obligation to administer fraternal correction there can be no doubt. This is a conclusion not only deducible from the natural law binding us to love and to assist one another, but also explicitly contained in positive precept such as the inculcation of Christ: “If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother” (Matthew 18:15). Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfillment under pain of mortal sin. This is reckoned to be so only when
- the delinquency to be corrected or prevented is a grievous one;
- there is no good reason to believe that the sinner will adequately provide for himself;
- there is a well-founded expectation that the admonition will be heeded;
- there is no one else just as well fitted for this work of Christian charity and likely to undertake it;
- there is no special trouble or disadvantage accruing to the reformer as a result of his zeal.
What we learn here is that mercy demands, in fact, at times obliges us to speak – even when we’d prefer to keep our mouths shut. Our silence becomes a sin of omission. So the question becomes, “How do we do this?”
First, we pray – for charity, courage, wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel. Hmmm..looks like the graces we received in baptism. Ask the Holy Spirit to stir in you all the graces of your baptism to provide all that you need to be faithful to this call.
We also pray for the words – the right ones to say and not say. If you’ve got a favorite saint who was a great preacher, like St. Anthony or St. Dominic, ask them to help you find the words. When I’m in situations like that, I pray to St. Stephen, the first martyr. Before his death in Acts 7, God gave him the words he needed to witness to Christ. True, he died right after that, and we may, too – perhaps not physically – but that cannot keep us from witnessing to the Truth.
Second, we look at the situation and ask ourselves the questions bulleted above: “Is this serious?” “Are they unlikely to make a change on their own?” “Is it possible they’ll listen to me and make a change, or at least make a change and consider it?” “Is it likely they won’t hear this from anyone else?” “In the past, have I been sufficiently kind in how I deliver my message that I won’t turn them away?” If you can answer, “Yes,” to each of those, then you need to speak up. Did you read the last sentence of that paragraph? “Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfillment under pain of mortal sin.” Yikes!!! I’d better speak up!
Third, once we decide to speak up, we ask the Holy Spirit to provide the opportunity. It might be a moment alone; perhaps the subject may just “come up” in conversation; could be they’re crying on your shoulder. The thing to remember is that God is faithful and will hold back nothing that helps to draw His children to Himself and to help us grow in our faith. If you ask, He will provide it. When he does, act. Do not hesitate. There a no chickens in heaven!
Fourth, speak appropriately. That may mean with great gentleness. It could also mean with conviction or authority or humor. God will guide you. Do not, however, underestimate the role of the enemy in this theater. The last thing the ol’ boy wants is a sinner to repent. We, therefore, must be completely loving no matter what. If they insult us, we love. If they start yelling at us, we love. If they mock us, we love. “Love never fails.” (1Cor 13:8) We may not see any fruit in the moment or at all, for that matter, but we just might be a splash of living water along the way of that person’s salvation.
Fifth, trust in God’s mercy for the other person and for ourselves. When we go out on a limb, we can sometimes feel like it was sawed off. That’s just a risk we take, and we may not fully understand our role until we’re in heaven. But, honestly that doesn’t matter. We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful. Remember, God does not call the equipped. He equips the called.
“…spiritual mercy, which requires neither permissions nor storehouses, is much more meritorious and is within the grasp of every soul. If a soul does not exercise mercy somehow or other, it will not obtain My mercy on the day of judgment. Oh, if only souls knew how to gather eternal treasure for themselves, they would not be judged, for they would forestall My judgment with their mercy.” Jesus to St. Faustina, (Diary, 1316-7)
We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world. Anne
For further reading: an excellent article on the Spiritual Works of Mercy.