23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
On truth-telling, Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, said, “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”* To draw attention to yourself – fire a pistol in a silent room. Or, fire that pistol in a room full of noisy people but be prepared to face the angry consequences. Nowadays, anytime the Church speaks to a controversial social or moral issue – no matter how gentle or persuasive her words – it's as if she has pulled the trigger on a hand-cannon and her enemies run screaming as if fatally wounded. One word of truth spoken in a conspiracy of silence, or even to a conspiracy of racket and theater, just one word of truth can break that conspiracy's hold on it victims. Jesus tells his disciples to tell each other the truth, whatever that truth may be, tell it – one to another, one to many, and, finally, one to all. It is no easy thing to be the one who fires off the pistol of truth among those who want nothing more than to be left in silence. But if that silence is hiding a lie, a deadly lie, then the trigger must be pulled. The question for the one who would pull the trigger is this: why are you telling this truth to this person at this time? Fraternal correction – inside and outside the Church – must always be done in a spirit of love and mercy and with a eye keenly focused on one's own faults.
Way back in the olden days, it was considered a work of mercy to “admonish the sinner.” Warning a sinner that he/she is sinning was thought to be a merciful act, an act of concern for the eternal salvation of another's soul. Admonishments from the pulpit were frequent and could be quite fiery. No pastor wanted to be thought of as “soft on sin.” The caricature of the blustery Irish pastor haranguing his poor flock on the evils of short skirts, rock music, and communist infiltrators is Hollywood stock and trade, an image that many fallen away Catholics of a certain age still use to excuse their distance from the Church. No doubt there were priestly excesses in naming and shaming sinners, but those excesses (such as they were) were replaced all too quickly with another excess – an excess of laxity that has left the Church in much of Europe and the U.S. with a pathetic moral legacy, up to and including the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and the on-going scandal of dissent from the apostolic faith. Our unwillingness to name and confront sin among our own has left us w/o the moral authority to speak to our culture, a culture that desperately needs to hear – in love and mercy – that there is a livelier Way, a truer Way of being a better human being.
Like most successful cultural revolutions, the revolution the Church needs to restore her moral authority will come “from below,” from the pews not the pulpit or the bishop's chair or a balcony at the Vatican. The revolution we need is a revolution in holiness. Not just another diocesan program or weekend retreat scheme or a new religious order. The clear and unflinching message that Jesus delivers to his disciples is that we are all responsible to one another for one another for our individual and collective holiness, and it is a dereliction of our Christian duty to see or hear sin – our own or someone elses – and not work overtime to help the sinner find repentance. This is not a license to snoop, tattle-tale, gossip, or become a busy-body. It is a call to take seriously the truth that individual sins and collective sins can wreck utter devastation on a family, a parish, a city, or a nation. And that when one member of the body is sick or injured, the whole body suffers. If the Church is weak right now, it's not b/c God has failed to strengthen us; it's b/c we have failed – laity, clergy, religious – to receive His strength; we have failed to bear up under our responsibilities to fraternally correct our wayward brothers and sisters. And to be corrected in turn.
The pistol shot that Miłosz spoke about, that startling crack of truth let loose among the conspirators of silence, it draws attention, scrunity. Maybe too much attention, the wrong kind of scrutiny. Speaking up to speak an unspoken or forgotten truth will turn heads and the investigation begins. Who are you to say such a thing? Why would you say that? Why do you hate me, us, them? Oh, so you're perfect? These are questions designed to silence the pistol shot of truth, questions that attempt to undermine the truth by undermining the truth-speaker. Firing that pistol takes courage and strength in abundance; it takes clarity in purpose and purity in motive. We cannot wags fingers at our neighbor's dirty house while our own house is filthy. When the pistol is fired and the noisy room drops into silence and all heads turn to you in anger ready to accuse, your holiness doesn't have to be perfect (it can't be yet), but your motive for firing – why you let that round go – needs to be as pure as a baby's baptismal gown. If you fire that pistol for any reason other than love and mercy, to show your love for the sinner and God's mercy, then do not be surprised to find yourself ignored, confronted, or even worse, abused. Hypocrisy is a nasty public sin.
So, how do we avoid hypocrisy while doing our Christian duty? Paul, as usual, gives us sound advice: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Owe nothing to anyone, meaning owe no one a debt in sin. The only debt we should owe one another is the debt of love, the obligation to will the Good for one another. If all I owe you and you owe me nothing except love, then offering one another fraternal correction is the gift of holiness, the gift of drawing one another back onto the narrow Way of Christ. Knowing that you are wandering off the Way and letting you do so is not me just minding my own business; it's not who am I to judge?; it's not well, I'm not perfect either. It's standing by and watching a brother or sister in Christ slowly destroy themselves through disobedience. Sin blinds, it makes us stupid and reckless. Would you watch a child play in the middle of I-10 at rush hour? Or carry around a loaded gun in the Quarter during Madri Gras? Of course not! Why would we then watch a brother or sister carry on in sin, knowing the devastation barreling down upon them? We owe one another a debt of love, an obligation to do the Good (the Best) for one another: when one member of the body is sick, the whole body is sick. Correction is a cure.
Fraternal correction is indeed a cure for what ails the Church. And I am under no illusion that fraternal correction is easy. Of all the tasks our Lord gives us, this one is among the hardest. It requires us to defy our cultural training to mind our own business. It makes us confront our own motivations for speaking up. It leaves us open to retaliation and scrutiny. It sounds like judgmentalism and moral finger-wagging. But the failure to fraternally correct a falling brother or sister would be far worse than the potential embarrassment of speaking up. We are responsible to one another for one another for our individual and collective holiness. With a heart made pure by genuine love, let loose that shot of truth. You may fail to provoke repentance, but you will have succeeded in breaking open the conspiracy of silence, the conspiracy of sin.
* Nobel laureate speech, 1980
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