Loving Each Other Enough to Correct Them, 19th Wednesday (II), August 13, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of SS. Pontian and Hippolytus, Martyrs
August 13, 2014
Ezek 9:1-7.10:18-22, Ps 113, Mt 18:15-20

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • The greatest commandment of all is to love others as the God-man has loved us. The supreme way he loved us is by becoming one of us and sacrificing his life so that we might live forever. But one of the most important ways Jesus loved us is by calling us to conversion and holiness. In his first public words, he said, “Repent and believe.” He called us to pluck out eyes and cut off body parts if they led us to sin. He corrected St. Peter and called him “Satan,” when he was trying to oppose Jesus’ messianic and salvific mission. He repeatedly called the Scribes and the Pharisees to let go of their false interpretations of the law. He called all of us to a higher set of standards that the most righteous Jews and Gentiles, to become Good Samaritans, to wash the feet of others, to care for the poor and needy, to love even our enemies.
  • But that was just the supreme expression of God’s lovingly calling us to conversion. Throughout the Old Testament, God sent his prophets — like we see with Ezekiel in today’s first reading — to call us to repentance, to give us another chance, to lift us up out of our pigsties, and to be bathed in the mercy of God’s covenant. Just as much as he sent Moses to free the Jews from physical slavery in Egypt, he sent his prophets to free us from self-imposed moral slavery.
  • And so it makes sense that if God is calling us to love others as he has loved us, he is going to send us out as his ambassadors to call others lovingly to conversion. That’s what today’s Gospel is about, what the Church has over the centuries called the practice of fraternal correction. Jesus wants us to help our brothers and sisters when they’ve wronged us, when they’ve wronged God, when they’ve been hurting themselves. And he gives us a protocol to help us to do so with love.
  • The first step involves a one on one encounter. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” Notice that Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” He’s telling us if we’ve been hurt by a brother, he wants us not to sit in the corner stewing and sulking as the aggrieved party, but to take the initiative to let the other know the way he has sinned and provide an occasion for reconciliation. This is, of course, what God has done for us in Christ. Even though we sinned against him, he took the initiative in coming to bring about a reconciliation. We can say two other things here. First, if we are the party who has wronged the other, then Jesus presumes that we would go to our brother one-on-one and confess our fault and beg for forgiveness and reconciliation. Second, Jesus presumes that if we’re going to our brother, we have already followed the advice he gave us earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” Jesus wants us going to correct our brother out of charity not in order to make ourselves feel better by lifting ourselves up by stepping on them. He wants us not to criticize them for a fault we see in ourselves, but, first to work on our own conversion before we go and call others to conversion. At the same time, sometimes removing the plank doesn’t mean totally overcoming the bad habit, but minimally recognizing we have it. Sometimes we need to say to our brother that we’re guilty of the same fault, which has made us even more sensitive as to how it can harm both the doer and others. What we can’t do is to deflect the attention for correcting ourselves by correcting others, for that never really works on either end.
  • Then Jesus gets to the second step: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you” to make the same correction. Jesus doesn’t want us spreading it to everyone, but he recognizes that sometimes the person won’t change at just one person’s word, but may change if two or three people he or she respects comes, because then it doesn’t seem so personal. At the same time, what may happen when we go to a couple of other respected people is that they may think we’re making too much out of it and help us from making little things an obsession if that’s what’s been occurring.
  • Presuming something serious, though, Jesus has us proceed to a third step if the first two don’t succeed: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.” We bring it to the leaders of the community to ask for their assistance, hoping that our brother will recognize it’s serious if representatives of the whole community come to them.
  • If the person refuses, however, Jesus gives us a fourth step: “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” If all the steps fail, Jesus tells us to recognize that they’re not in communion, just as the Gentiles and tax-collectors were not in communion with the Jews. But treating them like a Gentile and tax-collector doesn’t mean writing them off. It means insistently praying for their conversion, acknowledging that they’re obstinately refusing to convert.
  • We know that this procedure of a fraternal correction happens often with those who are addicted to drugs or booze. At first one of us individually tries to help our brother admit that he has a problem. If that fails, we try to talk to him with a couple of others. If that fails, normally we do an intervention, when ten or twelve people the person respects all convene to convince the person that we’re not all deceived and that we all recognize he has a problem and out of love want to help him get help. This is a real act of love for the person who is addicted and many of us have been involved in those types of interventions. The person often doesn’t like to hear it, but he recognizes that the people in the room love him and he grasps that he can’t remain in denial about his illness.
  • What I’d like to ask is how often we do the same thing when someone is addicted to sin, or to work, or to mourning? For example, if someone has been missing Mass for several weeks, would we go one-on-one to speak to that brother or sister, and then bring a couple loved ones with us, and then bring a group? If someone is engaged in an immoral lifestyle would we make that correction? Have we made those corrections? Have we been willing, following the prophets’ actions and Jesus’ actions, out of love to go to them and call them to change paths?
  • A couple of weeks ago I received a moving email from the Philippines. It was from a man who often listens to my homilies online. He told me that he had been friends with six other men from the time they were in elementary school, but one of them was now being persuaded by a work colleague to leave the Catholic Church for a Protestant group. He wanted advice for the best way to try to help his friend, what to say to him, whether to do it one-on-one or the whole group as one, whether to try to bring in a priest, etc. They cared enough for their friend that they knew they needed to help him, to give him a type of fraternal correction, and they wanted to do it the right way. I counseled the man to go according to the steps Jesus has given us.
  • One of the main reasons why fraternal corrections are needed is because someone is fleeing from a cruciform life, fleeing from the sacrifices that we need to make out of love for God and others. We see an allusion to this in the first reading in the vision God gave the Prophet Ezekiel. God was showing him in advance an image of what would happen in Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians would attack and destroy the Temple and strike many down. God had a priest (the one dressed in linen as priests were) with a writing bench mark all a Thau (the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet)  “on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it.” These ones would be saved from the being struck down and killed as those with destroying weapons began to attack. Throughout the history of the Church this Thau has been interpreted as a sign of the Cross marked on their forehead. These were the ones who didn’t go the way of debauchery but who suffered for remaining faithful. These were the ones who even if they died in the Babylonian attack wouldn’t suffer a permanent death. This mark on the forehead reminds us of the sign of the Cross marked on our forehead on the day of our baptism, so that we may enter the school of the Cross and learn from Christ that the Cross is not so much a sign of pain and suffering but of the love that makes us capable of pain and suffering. It’s also clearly a sign of repentance and conversion, as our foreheads are marked with the sign of the Cross to this day in ashes on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes we need to summon people to this cruciform life, that they need to sacrifice their desire for pleasure and give up the pot, or the liquor, or the immoral lifestyle, or the grudge and help them to see that this way of the Cross is really the path of holiness, happiness and heaven, the path of peace, joy and love.
    over all the abominations that are practiced within it.
  • Today as we ponder the subject of fraternal correction we celebrate two saints who teach us quite a bit about how to do it and how not to do it. St. Hippolytus was a brilliant priest in Rome who publicly tried to correct Pope St. Zephyrinus for being too “lax,” meaning too merciful, in his treatment of heretics. Hippolytus didn’t go one on one. He didn’t try to bring others to intervene with him. He didn’t take it directly to the whole Church, because the Church was siding with the Lord, with St. Zephyrinus, on the side of forgiveness. So Hippolytus attacked the Pope publicly and divided the Church. When St. Zephyrinus died and the cardinal priests of Rome elected a deacon and ex-slave, St. Callistus to be the new pope, instead of the much smarter priest Hippolytus, Hippolytus himself went into schism. Fraternal corrections were made in his direction but he rebuffed them. Eventually St. Pontian became Pope and during a persecution both Pontian and Hippolytus were sentenced to exile in Sardinia. It was there that Pontian was able to reconcile Hippolytus and reestablish harmony before they were both martyred for the faith. And we’ve celebrate their reconciliation by remembering them together at the altar.
  • That’s the goal of fraternal correction: reestablishing communion. Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel that that’s the union he seeks. “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus wants us praying together. He wants us gathering together. And not just with some superficial harmony but he wants us to together literally “into his name.” He wants us mutually entering into the name of Jesus, into his person, into his will, into his mercy, into his own prayer. And whenever sin divides us, he wants us to make that correction so that communion can be reestablished.
  • Today as we gather “into the name” of Jesus, we ask in union for the grace to live this communion and to have the courage, love and faith to call others who have separated themselves from us and the Church by sin back into this communion with us. The Eucharistic Prayer we will pray today, Eucharistic Prayer II, seems to have been written in large part by St. Hippolytus and so we pray it together with him, with St. Pontian, and with all the Church. And we ask God whose glory departed the temple of Jerusalem to descend here upon the new temple, Jesus Christ in his body, blood, soul and divinity and then into us, as we individually and collectively are made by him into that temple by the communion that Christ seeks to form in us.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
EZ 9:1-7; 10:18-22

The LORD cried loud for me to hear: Come, you scourges of the city!
With that I saw six men coming from the direction
of the upper gate which faces the north,
each with a destroying weapon in his hand.
In their midst was a man dressed in linen,
with a writer’s case at his waist.
They entered and stood beside the bronze altar.
Then he called to the man dressed in linen
with the writer’s case at his waist, saying to him:
Pass through the city, through Jerusalem,
and mark a “Thau” on the foreheads of those who moan and groan
over all the abominations that are practiced within it.
To the others I heard the LORD say:
Pass through the city after him and strike!
Do not look on them with pity nor show any mercy!
Old men, youths and maidens, women and children–wipe them out!
But do not touch any marked with the “Thau”; begin at my sanctuary.
So they began with the men, the elders, who were in front of the temple.
Defile the temple, he said to them, and fill the courts with the slain;
then go out and strike in the city.Then the glory of the LORD left the threshold of the temple
and rested upon the cherubim.
These lifted their wings, and I saw them rise from the earth,
the wheels rising along with them.
They stood at the entrance of the eastern gate of the LORD’s house,
and the glory of the God of Israel was up above them.
Then the cherubim lifted their wings, and the wheels went along with them,
while up above them was the glory of the God of Israel.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 113:1-2, 3-4, 5-6

R. (4b) The glory of the Lord is higher than the skies.
R. Alleluia.
Praise, you servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD.
Blessed be the name of the LORD
both now and forever.
R. The glory of the Lord is higher than the skies.
R. Alleluia.
From the rising to the setting of the sun
is the name of the LORD to be praised.
High above all nations is the LORD;
above the heavens is his glory.
R. The glory of the Lord is higher than the skies.
R. Alleluia.
Who is like the LORD, our God, who is enthroned on high,
and looks upon the heavens and the earth below?
R. The glory of the Lord is higher than the skies.
R. Alleluia.

MT 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.
If he refuses to listen even to the Church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”