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Part 3: Admonish Sinners

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By Chris Sparks (Dec 31, 2015)
The following is the third in a seven-part series on the spiritual works of mercy.

I'd never understood why people so often make fun of street preachers until the papal visit.

Now I understand.

The street preachers were out in force for the papal visit, determined that they were going to be there in the great cities of the United States, greeting all these Catholics coming to see the Holy Father with their version of Christianity, their brand of Calvinistic, "faith alone, Scripture alone," non-denominational Christianity — ignoring, by the way, the small detail that if they were right that the Bible clearly and unequivocally teaches their brand of faith, there'd be no need to have it explained to you by a street preacher. But I digress.

All the ones I saw were men, and usually large men, at that. At least one shouted out his message from a mouth flecked with white froth; many had portable loudspeakers, broadcasting their message from the back of the crowd and outside the security zones to as many people as they could reach. Some had signs, informing the gathered Catholics that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that Catholics are going to hell, and that we must listen to these people in order to be saved.

Now I get why street preachers often have a bad name.

See, here's the thing about standing there with a sign, a loudspeaker, and shouting at the people who go by: Most people can't stand it. They have no interest in being shouted at by anyone for any reason unless they're about to inadvertently step off a cliff. And they'd better be able to detect that cliff right there in front of them. They'd better not be in that state of mind where loud noises or unexpected movement behind them would make them jump in the wrong direction and send them to the doom the shouter was attempting to save them from.

In other words, there's really nothing of the Good Shepherd at all about most street preachers. (Though not all; there certainly have been street preachers in Catholic history who have led with the joy of the Gospel and visibly loved those to whom they spoke, going back to the time of Jesus and the apostles.) It can be done well, but street preaching has a bad name today because it's so often done without showing the mercy of God. There's nothing gentle, nothing patient, nothing kind about many street preachers, but rather a certain desperation, a certain joy in denunciation, a certain relief in being able to be against something, to protest, to rebuke.

That's not really a work of mercy.

Contrast those street preachers with a friend of mine from the West Coast. Call her Dr. C.

Dr. C is a very holy, soft-spoken woman, outstanding for her gentleness and generosity. And yet after I had attempted to place one too many burdens on her schedule, she gave me perhaps the most charitable dressing-down I have ever received or seen given in my life. She was the picture of patience and charity, and yet I was left with no doubt whatsoever that I had been in the wrong. I was also quite clear about what I needed to do to fix it.

And I was darn close to thanking her for it, as well.

That's what admonishing the sinner should look like. That's a means of letting others know when they're doing wrong modeled off of Jesus and Mary. You must love the sinner before you may safely admonish them, love them so much that they can feel it, even in the rebuke. They must encounter Jesus' love through you, even as you share with them the truths of God that call them to change their minds, their behaviors, or their lives.

Remember that if you're truly sharing the truth in love, as we are called to do, this is what it'll look like:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away — 1 Cor 13:4-10.

Note: love does not rejoice over wrong-doing. It does not take delight in having something to denounce! It delights, rather, in proclaiming the truth, in sharing the truth, in living in the truth. Speaking the truth in love isn't primarily about protesting against evils, but rather rejoicing in the good.

And love is more important, more abiding, more fundamental than prophesy. Our love for the other person takes priority over denouncing what they have done wrong. As Pope Francis has pointed out repeatedly, when the Prodigal Son returns to his father's house, the father does not first ask what he has done with his inheritance. No! The father first loves; the father first embraces his son and sees to his needs. The son is clothed and fed; the son is welcomed back into the family, into the community. The next day, some hard conversations will take place. But for the first step, let there be love. Let there be care for the immediate needs, even the physical needs, before we try to set straight someone else's soul.

One other important point: Admonish the sinner, yes — by starting with yourself! Make a good examination of conscience, go to Confession, and set to work on making reparation. As Jesus told St. Faustina:

Write, speak of My mercy. Tell souls where they are to look for solace, that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage, or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to Him one's misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were souls like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint there would be no [hope of] restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full (Diary, 1448).

You cannot give what you have not got. If you yourself are spiritually dead, you will have a very difficult time sharing the life of Christ with others. Start with yourself, and then you can more safely perform this work of mercy as a work of mercy and not of judgment, of care for the other and not self-aggrandizement.

I do not just write this to help my brethren; I am convicted by my own words, as well. Pray for me. I will pray for you! We will ask God to help us all live this work as a true work of mercy, rather than a means of blinding ourselves to our own faults by only seeing the faults of our neighbors. We will ask God to help us lead always with love, with the merciful outlook described by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, in Consoling the Heart of Jesus, so that, like the Good Shepherd, we may find the lost lamb and help bring it home.

The spiritual works of mercy

Teach the ignorant
Pray for the living and the dead
Admonish sinners
Counsel those in doubt
Console the sorrowful
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive offenses

We invite you to follow along with the series.

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