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Father Vincent Hawkswell

We have the duty to reprove others

Voices Sep 8, 2017

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo, is depicted on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. The fresco was created between 1508 to 1512. In this Sunday's liturgy, God tells Ezekiel to be a sentinel for the house of Israel.

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Ez 33:7-9
Second Reading: Rom 13:8-10
Gospel Reading: Mt 18:15-20


In this Sunday's liturgy, God tells Ezekiel to be a sentinel for the house of Israel; with God's guidance, he is to tell the people when they are doing something wrong. Jesus says we should tell others when they habitually commit sin, even to the point of involving the whole Church community.

It sounds like a carte blanche for busybodies, a licence to vent our anger and resentment when someone hurts us. However, St. Paul describes the true spirit of “fraternal correction” as a spirit of love.

According to Father John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, fraternal correction usually involves a fault of which the offender is not conscious. According to Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, it is “not malicious in intent, and it aims only at increasing the holiness and love of the person corrected.” It must be done “with prudence and discretion,” or it can “readily engender animosity, resentment, and hostility, thus defeating its primary purpose.”

Fraternal correction is a duty. We cannot just say to our neighbours, “You live your way; I'll live mine.” We are indeed our brothers' keepers, and we cannot claim otherwise.

We are responsible for each other. As St. Paul said, we are all members of the same body, that body of which Christ is the head, and we can no more ignore other parts of the body than the hand can ignore the foot. The foot cannot say to the hand, “I did not steal that; you did.” It is the duty of the foot, so to speak, to carry the hand out of reach when the temptation comes along.

Just as the whole body suffers from any one part, so the whole of society suffers from individual sin: not just “public” sins like theft or murder, but also “private” sins like masturbation or fornication. That is why the whole community has a duty to correct its members, as Jesus said.

Perhaps the best way to carry out fraternal correction is to live the way we should and not be ashamed to let it be seen: to go to Mass every Sunday; to say grace before and after meals even in a restaurant; to speak even to people we do not like; to do more than our share of the work; to avoid gossip, swearing, stealing, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and dirty books and movies. In brief, we must love God for his own sake and our neighbours as ourselves.

For me, the mere wearing of priestly attire helps to do the job. I have seen people who were about to cross on a red light catch sight of me and step back with a guilty grin. I have had people come up to me in restaurants, waiters as well as guests, to ask where the nearest Catholic church is or to ask for clarification about something the Church teaches.

However, for all of us, our love of God and neighbour should be as obvious to others as clerical attire. We do not have to preach.

Example can do far more than words. In fact, fraternal correction will be beyond our power if we do not practise what we preach. Christ warned us to make sure there are no beams in our own eyes when we tell our brothers or sisters to get rid of the splinters in theirs. If there are, we will not be able to see clearly ourselves.

Fraternal correction is not just something we must administer, however charitably; it is also something we must accept, with true humility. “Charitable, prudent, and thoughtful fraternal correction is of great help in one’s spiritual life,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia. In some religious communities, Father Hardon says, it is “a recognized form of fostering humility and a valuable aid to growing in Christian perfection.”

God corrects us as he corrected Israel. “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.”