Some Works of Mercy are more difficult not only to accomplish than others, but they are also more difficult to actually want to accomplish. This is very much the case when the Work under discussion is that of being able to Forgive Offenses Willingly, but it is also true for the final of the three so called “works of vigilance,” Admonish the Sinner.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who was raised to perform this Work of Mercy, or at least to perform it well. Very often parents want to raise their children to be nice people, and nice people tend to shy away from such encounters, having been implicitly taught that this Work contradicts both our Catholicism (judge not, lest ye be judged) and our Americanism (live and let live). Those parents who intend to raise more ‘assertive’ (read: ‘aggressive’) offspring very often produce what others might see as not-so-nice people who seem to have no difficulty, in fact seem to derive pleasure from, pointing out the faults of others.
So, given the choice of ignoring this Work of Mercy or performing it poorly, it might be better to look at its origin for a proper approach as to how to proceed. Since this Work is inspired by the actual words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” – and is repeated again in the words of both St. Paul and St. James there is no choice but to see it as a proper living out of the Good News.
This helps, because it removes the topic from the dichotomy of ‘nice’ or ‘not-so-nice’ and places it in the realm of good and virtuous. Once it is seen as good and virtuous, Admonish the Sinner takes on a different perspective and begs the question: since it must be done, what are its necessary components – how must it be done? The answer is actually quite simple, and is at the core of the Work itself: it must be done with Mercy.
Traditionally, this Work is referred to as ‘fraternal correction’ and for good reason since we are not called to admonish any and all sinners, but only those who are within our sphere of relations – those who Jesus called our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. Only those with whom we share our lives in a meaningful way – family, friends, those with whom we are close at work and in other areas of life – are those whom we have the right and responsibility to admonish, realizing also the reciprocity of the relationship – we must be at least as willing to be admonished as to admonish.
There is nothing easy about this Work of Mercy and like any attempt at virtue it takes practice to perfect – probably one reason why parents are better at dealing with the youngest child than they were with the oldest. Yet it is not as if there aren’t guidelines for properly trying to Admonish the Sinner. The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization’s guide for the Jubilee Year of Mercy points us in the right direction:
“Fraternal correction requires discernment in order to choose the right moment; to correct so as to increase and not decrease a brother’s (or sister’s) self-esteem; to exercise it only in truly essential things; to strive to make free rather than to judge and condemn; to correct knowing that you are a sinner and in need of correction.”
To begin with the final recommendation is to place this Work of Mercy in its true and proper context – all are sinners in need of correction. Everyone knows from personal experience what it is like to have one’s imperfections pointed out by another. Depending on the approach of the admonisher, the corrected person feels humbled or humiliated, emboldened or embittered. Correction without love and mercy does more harm than good, and not just to the person who receives it but also to the person who delivers it. That “it felt good to get that off my chest” moment soon fades, and what is left behind is a world with less rather than more peace and reconciliation.
The goal of this Work of Mercy, as with all of them, goes beyond the act itself. The ultimate purpose here is not to admonish or correct; the true and ultimate purpose is to re-establish communio, that mystical union of one soul with another and both with God through Jesus and His Church. Without that focus and orientation, Admonish the Sinner easily devolves into something that is neither good nor nice.