I’ve never really liked the phrase “fraternal correction.” It has always seemed rather cold. It may also be that every time it is practiced towards me, it stings my pride and exposes some shadow that needs the light of God. Fraternal means “brotherly” and “correction” means helping someone back on the right track. The first reading encourages us to fraternally correct and not to neglect our obligation to help one another on the path to heaven. In so doing it says that we help ourselves on the way to salvation. St. Paul adds that it must all be done in love or we run the risk of defeating the purpose.
So how do we approach others in love when we need to speak to them about something we believe needs correction? Jesus gives direction in today’s Gospel. He encourages action and not gossip, belittling or badmouthing. This is not easy, especially in the workplace and family. Have you had the joy of working with someone who refuses to badmouth others? I have and it is one of the greatest inspirations to holiness and maturity. We can all be that person.
Christ lays out an ascending plan as to how to approach others whom we feel may need to be helped on the way to heaven. Let me preface all this with the truth that I struggle to practice this pattern faithfully myself. He encourages us first to go to the person directly and to do this alone. No need to inform everyone else before we do it. This protects the person’s dignity and pride and also creates the best atmosphere for change and renewal. This private approach is a great act of love.
Recognizing that the private first step is not always successful, Jesus then invites us to bring in some trusted individuals to help in the renewal, one or two. Notice the profound respect for the privacy and integrity of the person being challenged. If this intervention is not successful then Christ encourages us to broaden the circle of influence by bringing it to “the church.” This advice of Jesus is clear in its slow escalation of the involvement of others. We sadly at times are more likely to inform everyone else of the problem before speaking directly with the person.
There is a limit drawn in all this so as to protect our own integrity and walk toward heaven. Christ says that in the end if the person does not respond to our honest interventions in love, then we may step away in good faith. We have tried. It is true that God will continue to work and press in on the person’s life using other individuals and circumstances, but our obligation has come to a close for now. If we move in other people’s lives with this integrity and love, Christ assures us that he will be with us, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Items for prayer
1. Ask God for the help you need to refrain from speaking ill of others.
2. Evaluate in charity how to approach others with God and always with their greater good in mind.
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Bernard Parish, Green Bay.