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"Admonish the Sinner": The third spiritual work of mercy.

by Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.

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  • Description:
    In this article Fr. Andrew Apostoli examines the third spiritual work of mercy — to admonish the sinner — along with its different meanings and methods, starting with admonishing ourselves.
  • Larger Work:
    Envoy Magazine
  • Pages: 48 – 51
  • Publisher & Date:
    Envoy Institute, Belmont NC, January / February 2008

Vince Lombardi is a very famous football coach. He coached the Green Bay Packers to winning the first two Super Bowls ever played. He was also known for many sayings. One of them was the saying, "Winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing!" I often paraphrase that saying: "For the Christian salvation isn't the main thing, it's the only thing!" Jesus Himself tells us that if we were to gain the whole world yet lose our souls in the process, in the end we have gained nothing. (cf. Lk 9:25) In fact, we will have missed the very purpose for which God created us, namely, to share eternal life with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. The greatest obstacle to our salvation is sin. Therefore, the Christian must be ready to resist sin in himself and at the same time, be willing to help others to resist sin in their own lives.

We Need to Admonish Ourselves First.

To admonish the sinner begins by admonishing one's self. After all, we are all sinners. Humility is the virtue by which we recognize our sinfulness and our weakness, thus realizing that we ourselves depend upon God's mercy to forgive us our sins and upon His grace to strengthen us to resist sin in the future. Without humility, we will not admit our sins honestly to ourselves and, when needed, to others also. Since human weakness is always present due to Original Sin and our own past personal sins, we know that we must struggle each day to resist evil and do good. The Bible says that even the just person falls seven times a day. (cf. Prov. 24:16) In biblical terms a "just person" meant a holy person. So even the saints had their sins and needed to remind themselves constantly of the danger of sinning. They needed always to beware of falling again. Jesus Himself told the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into the test." (Mt. 26:41) When we "pray," we strengthen ourselves to resist sin by asking God for the grace to carry out His Will every day. When we "watch," we are vigilant to avoid the occasions of sin, namely, any person, place, or thing that would lead us to offend God.

To admonish others effectively, there are two other points we must keep in mind. First, we must practice what we preach. In other words, we have to be working at striving for holiness and avoiding sin in our own lives if we expect others to do the same. It has been said, "I can't hear what you are saying because of what you are doing!" The approach, "Do what I say and not what I do," will never work. The second point is to avoid the terrible attitude of self righteousness with its judgmental view of others. Self-righteousness puts a person into the mindset of the Pharisees who were quick to condemn sin in others but overlooked it in themselves. This was the point of Jesus' challenge to them in the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery. (cf. Jn 8:1 ff) They were quite ready to condemn this woman for her sin. In fact, they challenged Jesus on whether she should be stoned or not, according to the law of Moses. Jesus did not say "yes," nor did He say "no." He simply challenged them in return: "Let the one among you who has no sin cast the first stone." Then the Gospel tells us He began to write on the ground. Whatever He wrote apparently referred to each individual's sins because as each one saw what Our Blessed Lord wrote, they dropped their stones and walked away. To carry out this work of admonishing the sinner, a person must have a sense of compassion for human weakness, and we can only learn that by recognizing our own weaknesses. If we fail to do so, we will be throwing a lot of stones at other people, and this would not be the Gospel attitude.

Admonishing Sinners May Mean Their Salvation.

The basic reason that we admonish sinners is because their salvation may well be in jeopardy. As mentioned already, their salvation is the greatest good and need in their lives. If a person were drowning, and we were standing near a life preserver, and we did nothing to throw that life preserver out to that person so that person could be saved, this would be a terrible act of lack of love. It is even worse if souls are in jeopardy of their eternal loss from God, and we say nothing to make them realize the moral danger they are in. So even greater than all our bodily needs is the spiritual need to be set free from sin and receive the life of God. This is why admonishing the sinner is so important. St. Francis of Assisi used to say that nothing should take precedence over the work of the salvation of souls. It was for this reason that he was so ardent in prayer for the conversion of sinners, why he preached so earnestly and sincerely calling people to repentance, and why he always strove to give a good example of Christian life that he might move others to know and love God more. In the Acts of the Apostles (cf 6:1 ff), we read how the Apostles would not abandon their work of prayer and preaching the Word of God to serve widows at tables, not because they disdained the work of serving at table, but because they realized that it was more important to serve the spiritual food of the Word of God, calling people to conversion and to His mercy, than even to feed their bodies. We must have, then, a deep sense of compassion and concern for the salvation of others.

Despite its great importance, this is a difficult and dangerous work of mercy because people do not like to be reminded of their sins and faults. None of us likes to be corrected. It goes against the grain with us; it stings us to hear that we have done something wrong! This is even more so if people have entered into denial of sin in their lives. Pope John Paul II has said that one of the greatest difficulties we face in the world today is the loss of a sense of sin. We used to say years ago that something was "as obvious as sin." Sin is far from obvious today with many people! Archbishop Sheen would say that 150 years ago, when the Catholic Church declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there were people who were up in arms that the Church would dare say that there was even one person without sin! Now, he said, everybody is without sin! So if people are forgetful or into denial, which is even worse, they will react if they are reminded of their sins. This is very common outside of abortion clinics when trying to dissuade women from going in and having abortions. Sometimes they themselves, or family members, or especially boyfriends who escort them into the abortion clinics will react with rage and abusive language because those who are praying outside of the abortion clinics are reminding them of what they are really doing, and these people are not open to being reminded!

Proceed with Great Caution, but Proceed.

To admonish people about their sins certainly is a very delicate matter. Because of the possibility of great anger and resentment, one must always approach with care and sensitivity. There are things we can say to a certain degree, but there are other things that perhaps are not ready to be said yet. Dorothy Day used to say that Jesus came for two reasons: "He came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." If you admonish certain sinners, you will afflict them. If you admonish others, you will comfort them or at least lead them to comfort. Remember, we have already stressed that we must always proceed with compassion and a sense of humility, and never try to confront people with their sins with an attitude of, "I am better than you are," or "I'm here to correct you." The difficulty, as we have seen, lies in the fact that no one likes to be reminded of their sins. Jesus says in the Gospel of St. John (cf. 3:19-21) that those whose evil deeds are done in darkness, so as not to have them known, will resent the light when someone points them out. It stings their consciences, or at least hurts their pride and vanity.

This situation is further complicated today by a general attitude that we should never "judge anyone." However, we must make an important distinction when it comes to judging the morality of people's actions. If an action is wrong, that is, if it is a sin, we must condemn it. On the other hand, we do not condemn the sinner but try to encourage that person to repentance and conversion of his or her life. After all, no one hated sin more than Jesus, and yet no one loved sinners more than Jesus either. In spite of the difficulties, however, we must be willing to risk trying to win over people from their sinful ways. If they are sincere, in the end they will thank you. Jesus says that those who are sincere will welcome the light to verify the truthfulness and the sincerity of their deeds. In other words, being sincere, they will welcome the light of someone pointing out where they may be doing wrong because they probably are quite unaware of it or of any harmful effects their actions may have in this life and in the next. You will actually set them free by pointing out their sins, even if at first they may resist your attempts to do so.

A famous story in the life of Archbishop Sheen illustrates this well. As a young priest, he was on duty at St. Patrick's Church in Soho Square in London. A woman, an actress, came to the rectory to speak with a priest about her rather sinful lifestyle. However, to get up the courage to do so, she drank quite a bit. As young Fr. Sheen tried to speak to her about her immoral living, it was apparent that because she had drunk so much, she could not understand what he was saying to her. So he asked her, "Would you come back and see me when you are feeling better?" She answered, "Yes, but on one condition: that you promise me you will not ask me to go to Confession!" Fr. Sheen promised her. In fact, he promised three times in all: twice before she left, and once when she came back! When she returned in a sober state, they spoke for about an hour and she felt much better! As she was ready to leave, he said to her, "Can I show you the inside of our Church? We have some very beautiful paintings there." She said, "Yes," and as they were walking along the side aisle, they came by the confessional, and he pushed her right in. He kept his promise not to ask her to go to confession! The woman made a confession of her whole life, and later on became a cloistered nun for over forty years in nearby Tybourn Convent in London. When the woman kept saying, "Promise me you will not ask me to go to confession," young Fr. Sheen realized that she was really unconsciously yearning to go to the Sacrament of God's mercy! She was protesting too much, and it became evident that what she really needed and wanted was God's forgiveness.

To Admonish the Sinner Has Many Meanings.

If we look up the meaning of the word "admonish," we will find it has various meanings, which indicate different ways we can carry out this spiritual work of mercy. Let us reflect on these different meanings.

To admonish a sinner means, first of all, to call someone to conversion. Jesus Himself did this from the very outset of His public ministry when He proclaimed, "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News!" (Mk :15). We can call people to conversion in different ways. Sometimes it comes by formal preaching, such as at a parish mission or a retreat, or maybe in a witness talk of a conversion story of one's own life. Another way is in a one-on-one talk or a small group discussion. Even yet another call can be non-verbal, simply by the good example of refusing to participate in wrongdoing. Good example has a great witness power to it!

Another way to admonish is to inform or remind someone by way of a warning of the moral danger they are in. Priests and parents often practice this form of admonishing. It focuses on a specific individual who needs this warning. For example, St. Padre Pio once warned a man in Confession to change his lifestyle because he was in danger of going to hell. When the man said that he did not believe in hell, Padre Pio told him he would believe when he got there! We can be sure the man got the message.

Cautioning a person to correct certain specific faults is another form of admonishing. Some people have an obligation in justice to do this by their very office or authority. For example, a bishop in his diocese must correct blatant evils, or a superior of a religious community correct abuses, or a spiritual director correct his or her counselees, or parents correct their children.

Another expression of this admonishing is by fraternal correction. This is considered an expression of charity. Out of love and concern for a brother or sister in Christ, one brings to their attention faults or shortcomings that may be harming the individual or affecting others negatively, such as in a family or community. True friends would want to do this for one another. A caution here is to avoid pettiness in matters that one corrects. Many shortcomings which do not affect others negatively should be borne patiently. This admonishing sometimes involves a mild reproof as, for example, for laziness or indifference.

A final form of admonishing sinners is to encourage or even urge them on to greater efforts or to persevere in their struggle to break from a life of sin. This form of admonishing is directed to persons who are weak and fall often, or to the fainthearted who fear the price of the effort needed to reform their lives, or to the lukewarm who lack a zealous motivation and a firm determination to change their lives.

Silence in the Face of Evil Is Disastrous.

There is an old saying, "All that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to say or do nothing!" Silence in the face of evil allows that evil to continue and even to spread. Such a terrible silence must be broken. To paraphrase one of Archbishop Sheen's famous quotes, "We don't need a voice that speaks when everybody else is speaking; we need a voice that speaks when everybody else is silent!" This is especially applicable to those who have positions of responsibility for guiding others. Sacred Scripture, for example, contains certain images for those in positions of leadership among God's people. They are to be like shepherds (cf. Jn 10:1 ff) guarding their sheep, ready even to lay down their lives to protect their sheep from harm. If they remain silent, they are simply running away like hired hands! Again, they are compared to watchmen in their towers, guarding the city from attack (cf. Ez 33:1 ff). However, if they see the enemy coming but fail to sound the alarm, the city will be destroyed. Finally, St. Gregory the Great uses the image of the watchdog that guards against thieves and other intruders. But, he says, if the watchdog cannot bark, it is useless!

Parents must also fulfill their responsibility as best they can. Disciplining children in an appropriate way may save both children and parents from a lot of future grief and sorrow. As the old proverb wisely teaches, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." The "rod" here would be better understood as a proper correction or verbal discipline rather than simply a form of physical punishment. Even fraternal correction, given early enough and lovingly enough, can make a big difference! It serves as a clear light during a moment of serious darkness in a person's life.

Admonishing Sinners Merits a Great Reward.

St. James in his letter tells us that there is a great reward in store for those who help sinners find their way to Christ. They will save the soul of the erring brother or sister in Christ from being lost and at the same time, they will cover a "multitude" of their own sins because God will be very merciful to them for their work of mercy to another! (cf. James 5:19-20) We should ask God to give us a fervent desire for the salvation of souls. Great saints and mystics who write about the spiritual life assure us that this desire is something that grows intensely as one draws closer to God. This desire will strengthen the conviction to admonish those who need it, even when the task is quite challenging. In this way, we will help to satisfy the unspeakable thirst of Jesus upon the cross for the salvation of all men and women for whom He was laying down His life in such great suffering!

© Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College

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