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A story from the life of St. John Paul II comes to mind with this Sunday’s readings (Sept. 7, the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A) about admonishing the sinner.
The story is told of the U.S. bishops meeting with the Pope over lunch at one of their regular ad limina meetings in the 1980s. As John Paul sipped his soup at the head of the table, the bishop closest to him kept insisting on a particular point.
“Isn’t it true,” he kept saying, “that in our modern secular world, some even in our own American cities may never credibly hear of Jesus Christ? Isn’t it true that these people, who never hear of Jesus in an authentic way, might still be saved?”
At first, it seemed that the Holy Father wasn’t listening, but then he put his spoon on his plate, firmly. The clank of the Pope’s spoon quieted the room, and St. John Paul II said: “Yes, it is true, some even in our large Western cities might never hear of Christ and so still be saved. But the bishop who is responsible for that city – he will not be saved!”
Then he picked up his spoon and sipped more soup.
Bishops have a tough job, but then so does every Christian. Admonishing the sinner is often the last thing we want to do, possibly because we know people who do it badly. We do not want to look holier-than-thou. We do not want a moral confrontation. But to admonish the sinner is a serious duty for Catholics.
In today’s first reading, Jesus says what John Paul Did: If “you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Not every sin we are aware of is serious enough to warrant those strong words. But some are. The Baltimore Catechism spelled it out this way:
Question: “When are we bound to admonish the sinner?”
Answer: “We are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled: when his fault is a mortal sin; when we have authority or influence over him; and when there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.”
If this sounds daunting, Jesus himself makes this an important obligation — and spells out just how it is to be done in religious matters:
First, approach the person on your own to offer the correction in a charitable way. We must love the sinner and hate the sin, after all.
Second, if a serious sinner for whom you have responsibility won’t listen, you need to find another witness to bolster your case. There is strength in numbers, and that makes it easier.
Only after exhausting those two possibilities do you take the step of turning the matter over to Church authorities.
But how to reprove sinners is only half the battle for a Catholic.
The Catechism lists the seven works of mercy: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. That means you should give the sinner practical advice (i.e. Church teaching and resources), forgive the sinner, and — what seems to be contradictory but is in fact complementary — be patient with the sinner who keeps sinning.
And, last, we need to be willing to accept correction ourselves, even when the correction comes in a distasteful way.
In fact, the only reason we are Catholic at all is that someone took responsibility to tell one of our ancestors along the way that they needed to change their lives. Thank God they did!
A version of this article first appeared in the National Catholic Register.