Let me tell a tale of two parents and a tale of two priests.
Sally & Fred’s daughter got married outside the Church. Hurt and shocked by this, her parents cut her off. She’s no longer invited to family gatherings, not even Christmas dinner.
Paula & Jack’s 16 year old son won't go to Mass. They’re easygoing folks, so they just throw up their hands and say “well, what can we do, he’s got to make up his own mind.”
Father Ferocious is the pastor of St. Peter in Chains. He tells a man in confession that he's a disgrace to his family and the Church.
His seminary classmate, Father Likeable, is known as the no-questions-asked priest; he'll marry anybody and baptize the third child of an unmarried couple without so much as a quiet word in the rectory parlour.
What do all these cases have in common? They're all wrong!
In different ways, of course, but both these parents and both these priests evade their responsibilities to others.
The harsh parents and the too-tough priest fail in their duty to love. St. Paul says, in today’s second reading, that love is the fulfilling of the law. The Christian is never freed from that duty, yet Father Ferocious and Sally and Fred have been unloving in dealing with the failures of those in their care.
They were right, Paul says, to take the commandments seriously; but wrong not to take love more seriously still.
But the softies, Father Likeable and Paula & Jack, weren't on target either. They read St. Paul but they missed Ezekiel, called by his prophetic office to warn sinners from their ways. Even more important, they missed today's Gospel, which shows how to do that according to Christ's new law of love.
I suspect that their mistake is the more common one today. Our society extols pluralism and tolerance as its highest values, which makes it easy to turn away from our responsibilities to others.
We don't want to upset anyone.
To a point, that's understandable. Who likes a busybody? Who wants to listen to meddlesome neighbour?
But a new concept of rights takes this to a whole new level. Autonomy has become a prized value. We hear that people have the right “to do their own thing.” Everyone has “the right to choose.”
To a certain point, that's true. But Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that it's not true in the Church. The Church thrives on unity; the Church depends on unity. When a brother or sister sins in a public way, it weakens the community. Everything possible must be tried to bring them back into communion with the Church, for the Church's prayer depends for its effectiveness on its unity in Christ.
What's more, we have specific responsibilities in the Church, just as Ezekiel had toward the house of Israel.
Bishops and priests have responsibilities towards the whole People of God, husbands and wives towards each other, parents towards their children, teachers towards their students. We who have these offices or relationships have a duty to promote and protect the salvation of those entrusted to us; to permit someone to perish in sin because we don’t want to make waves is, very simply, a betrayal for which God will call us to account.
The media jumped for joy when Pope Francis said to a reporter “Who am I to judge?” But if you listen to him for more than a sound bite, you find out that he rarely misses an opportunity to say tough things, even very tough things.
And it's not just popes, priests, parents and prophets who have this responsibility. Every member of the Church shares in a certain duty towards every other member of the Church. The Gospel places a primary obligation on the first-hand witness of the sin: Jesus says "If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone."
Clearly, these words are meant for everyone. It is a very specific guide to correction and reconciliation in the Church. But how often is it followed?
No more than a half-dozen times in my years of priesthood has someone come to see me privately and kindly taken issue with something I have done or said; yet I have been at Christ the Redeemer for seven years and I would bet my bankbook that you've heard something I have done or said discussed at least that many times!
If today's Gospel were descriptive rather than prescriptive, Jesus would have started with "If your brother or sister sins against you, point out the fault to anyone who will listen!"
I can't stress enough that the "system" Jesus proposes is not an antiquated one. Don't think of it as something obsolete, like the public confession of sins in the early Church. I believe it works; speaking the truth in charity fulfills the law of love in concrete circumstances. By and large, such respectful honesty hasn't been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult and not tried.
But what if the truth that must be spoken is too much for someone to hear? It sure can’t be a good idea to take a friend out for coffee and say “O wicked one, you shall surely die”!
It’s a safe bet that no-one would be so imprudent as to tell our wayward friends “they shall die in their iniquity.” So what is our responsibility towards those who are thoroughly off the rails?
In such cases, we are called to offer them a way out of the mess they’re in. We don’t give them a list of their failures, we offer them a way to success. As God’s watchmen, we shine a light on their path so that they might stop stumbling.
That light, of course, is the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are many ways of introducing people to the person and message of Jesus, beginning with our good example as Christians. But nothing is simpler and less threatening—to us or to others—than an invitation to the Alpha Course.
Alpha presents Christianity as a way of life that is attractive and life-giving. It uses the approach Pope Francis uses and recommends—beginning by telling folks what they’re doing wrong, but by offering them more than they’re now getting out of life.
Alpha is right in line with the title of the Holy Father’s letter “The Joy of the Gospel.”
He writes “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."
Can we keep this joy a secret when something as simple as an invitation to dessert and a video might bring it to a friend, an acquaintance or a family member?
The Alpha Course starts up on Tuesday, September 30. It’s time now to think about those you have the opportunity—and maybe the responsibility—to invite.
And of course it’s time to pray. The last verse of today's Gospel exhorts us to common prayer. Let us take that very seriously too, praying for unity and harmony in the Church, that it might bear better witness to our Saviour even amidst the frailties of her members.