lumen gentium, light to the nations.
Right and light: these words summarize Church’s mission: to bear the light of Christ to other sinners. Preaching, as it is properly understood as something that happens with words and in church, however, is only one mode of fulfilling this task. An equally important form, whose scope is much broader and follows on the missionary mandate at the end of every Mass (Ite, missa est – go, you are sent!), is the manner in which Christians behave in daily life. Just as a preacher can speak the truth without charity, and thereby, obscure the Gospel, so too any Christian can lead an incoherent life, which causes scandal. This lack of integrity is surely one of the greatest hindrances to the conversion of sinners, both inside and outside of the Church.
Telling the truth in love to someone who is up to no good is one of the hardest things to do in any relationship. Confronted with misconduct or bad news, many people—and especially those who bear the burdens of leadership, whether in families, groups or society—are strongly tempted to look away and hope that matters will resolve themselves. Correcting bad behavior or facing evil demands enormous love to move oneself from the state of rest to action.
Last week we heard the story of Our Lord’s fraternal correction of Saint Peter. It could not have been a pleasant experience for either of them. Yet, the Lord understood that leaving his friend, the first pope, in a state of misunderstanding—“thinking as men do”—about his mission and about the price that he himself, and all who follow him, must pay, was worse than the momentary discomfort of the rebuke. Our Lord and Saint Peter bore the discomfort and awkwardness of the situation because of their deep love for one another. In the best of circumstances, fraternal correction ends in reconciliation.
Yet we have all experienced the failure of fraternal correction, when a friend or colleague does not hear because he is the grip of self-justification. No matter the arguments, the acts of kindness and patience, the love and sacrifices we undertake, we fail to break through. Our Lord has the answer to what we should do.
If our efforts have not borne fruit, we can, in peace, distance ourselves from this person. This might be the soundest advice we have ever heard when we think about highly dysfunctional relationships in which our continued participation not only fails to help the other, but also endangers ourselves.
While fraternal correction is certainly an expression of Christian love, it does not have the last word.This is the key to our Lord’s pastoral charity to us. He knows that we are not God; we are not the Savior; we are only light; we can help point the way, but we are not the way.
When challenged to correct the wayward brother, we should, of course, strive to make Christ clearly present in our measured words and restrained deeds. But these need not go on indefinitely, especially if they harm our relationship to God. When we withdraw, Christ does not. He has myriads of other disciples who can shed light on this person’s plight.
We can pray for them, but we can also be at peace that there is but one Savior, Jesus Christ.
Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.