Amongst the Works of Mercy that we have learnt from the Catechism there is also ‘admonishing sinners’, a phrase that is perhaps not very happy because it seems to assume that a Christian who is not a sinner should admonish a Christian who is. For this reason, as well, probably, this work has been forgotten about and thus it has not been remembered that the need that underlies this phrase is, in truth, fraternal correction, a correction, however, that is always reciprocal. Softened up as we are by the authentic pathology of indifference to each other and a consequent lack of nearness, we even no longer know that fraternal correction is one of the Christian approaches that is the most decisive in the salvation of an individual and the Christian community itself – the Church. If we do not feel that we are the stewards of a brother, a sister, the other (see Genesis 4:9: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’), and thus responsible for them, we will live in isolation, without looking at other people, without drawing near to the other. In this way, the opportunity never arises for mutual correction, and indeed there is an encouragement of the growth of evil which becomes increasingly widespread because it is never judged. And thus, whether one wants it or not, those who do wrong are authorised to do so without being hindered, without being rebuked.
This work of mercy thus leads us, first of all, to be aware, without any doubt, that we are all sinners. Secondly, it makes us convinced that sin in the eyes of faith is the worst misfortune that can befall us. Instead, we observe that the exaggerated secularity of modern States, the spread – at times in a baleful way – of the mass media (newspapers, the radio, television), and many other causes as well, are eliminating our sense of sin, even in families that declare that they are Christian. Sin has always been present in human history, and it is still present today, even though the word itself has almost completely disappeared and there are frequently cases of it being approved and applauded. Indeed, there is an undeniable link between God and man, between the Creator and the creature, and it is because of this link that sin has the precise role of rejection of, and opposition to, God. Indeed, sin is opposed to our love of God and is defined by St. Augustine as ‘self-love to the point of despising God’. Thus to give a hand to one’s brother so that he can be freed of sin truly means to love him. ‘Remember this: whoever turns a sinner back from his or her wrong way’, wrote the apostle James, ‘will save that sinner’s soul from death and bring about the forgiveness of sins’ (Jas 5:20). We may also remember the Letter to the Galatians: ‘If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too should be tempted’ (Gal 6:1). However, fraternal correction is a delicate initiative and one that is not without its risks. One should never lose from sight the severe words of the Lord: ‘How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye?’ (Mt 7:4). St. Augustine prayed in the following way on the subject: ‘Every time in the case of the sin of a man who has fallen, grant that I may feel compassion for him and not rebuke him in a haughty way, but, rather, sigh and weep, so that while I weep over another, I will weep over myself’. And whatever the case, it would be good to believe that ‘the best fraternal correction is the example of irreprehensible conduct’.
In the language of the Bible the verb ‘to admonish’ has a large number of faces and meanings, such as to exhort, to correct, to teach, to rebuke or to remonstrate. Thus, for example, it is said that the Lord corrects those He loves: ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed’ (Heb 12: 5-7, 11-13). God, therefore, corrects us because He loves us and it is for this reason that Job can affirm: ‘Behold, happy is the man whom God reproves; therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands heal’ (Jb 5:17-18). For an Israelite, therefore, imitating the behaviour of God was not advice – it was an authentic command: ‘you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him’ (Lv 19:17). To keep quiet, instead, meant complicity with the sin of another person: ‘If I say to the wicked, O wicked man you shall surely die, and you do not dare to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand’ (Ez 33:8). In conformity with this, Jesus invites us to do the same: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (Mt 18:15-17).
We remember that Jesus died for everyone and each person on the cross and for this reason the wish of the Father is that all should be saved: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from his way and live’ (Ez 33:11). For this reason, St. Paul advises us as to how we must act for the salvation of sinners: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ (Col 3:16). For Lent of the year 2012 Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter specifically to explain the meaning of fraternal correction which has so fallen out of use in this epoch of dominant individualism. He wrote as follows: ‘We live in an age of subjective spiritual wellbeing rather than in a fraternal life of community and friendship. The fear of taking responsibility for the other prevails, that is to say real mutual love. Indeed, to admonish is not to free oneself from the other with a judgement but to connect oneself to him, to help him. Those who admonish must love him even more! Admonishment to be credible requires insistence and faithfulness not a gesture of impulse to put one’s conscience at rest! Only a love of this kind allows us to change and to understand our sin!…Being frail in humanity and in many cases in faith as well must lead us to see a real alto ego in the other, loved in an infinite way by the Lord! Not to keep quiet out of love, to admonish, is true charity and not to do it is not respect but indifference. Correction is certainly not attractive for those who exercise it and those who receive it. It is such only if exercised and lived in love! It is always moved by mercy and flows forth from true concern for the good of one’s brother! To admonish’, concludes the Pope Emeritus, ‘is an act of charity and we all need it’.
The word that saves should thus be proclaimed to everyone, whether they want it or not, by those involved in preaching – the Pope, bishops, parish priests, the lay people who work with them and all the baptised – who must also commit themselves to instructing members of the faithful who are in situations of difficulty, using discretion, lovingness, and above all setting an example, with that maturity and evangelical spirit to which St. Paul refers: ‘I myself am satisfied about you, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another’ (Rm 15:14). St. Francis, who was brilliant in charity, reminds us that ‘to admonish does not take place only with words but also, and above all else, with our lives and by example. Sad, instead, is the man about whom one can say nothing’. For his part, St. Vincent de Paul suggests to us that ‘before admonishing one should pray; one should not admonish every moment and for nothing; one should admonish at the right time when one can hope for a good outcome; one should admonish with a great deal of respect and humility, and after apologising; one should never correct being pushed to do so by passion; never admonish in the presence of other people’. And not forgetting to pray to the Holy Spirit so that he may suggest to us the right words that can touch the hearts of those who are listening to us.
Father Rosario Messina