CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
SATURDAY 6 SEPTEMBER 2008
Nowadays every GAA referee has to have a whistle, a watch and a black, yellow and a red card. The decision to use black, yellow or red cards provokes a lot of controversy but nobody says we can do without it. It may be some consolation to the referees that Jesus recommends a similar sort of warning system with three tiers.
There is a prayer for today which I would recommend to be said often. It goes like this:
That parents, and teachers, priests and bishops
May have wisdom to know what things to correct and what to ignore
And have the sensitivity to make their corrections at the right time
And with tact.
Sports people talk about the need to get a result. This is one area where a result is vital. This prayer acknowledges the need to correct. There are some things that absolutely need correction. For children it falls, first of all, on parents. It also mentions teachers, priests and bishops – but sometimes this is the job of friends and colleagues. This is very clear from what we have just heard.
Now mortal man – I am making you a lookout for the nation of Israel. You must pass on to them the warnings I give you.
These words are from the First Reading of the prophet Ezekiel. They remind us of the job of a sentry. The job of a sentry is a lonely one but is vital for the safety of everyone. The sentry stands at the gate of the town to look out for robbers and enemies. It stands at the gate of the barrack to protect the lives of those within. Even wild geese, we are told, when the flock feeds, have sentries who keep guard.
So, when I read those words that God had appointed Ezekiel as Sentry to the House of Israel I said, we already have a lot of sentries. We have been getting warnings these days about roads that are flooded and bridges that are broken. We are used to getting warnings telling us that smoking damages your health, certain foods – junk foods – are bad for you. These are all good and helpful. They help us on the journey of life. We expect them and if we are wise we listen to them.
Jesus Christ is concerned about anyone who strays from the community of those who believe in him. But bringing back strays is not easy. I was talking to my nephews recently. They live on a farm. Sometimes their cattle stray out on to neighbours land and sometimes the neighbours’ cattle strays on to theirs. But it is not always easy to bring back the strays. The owners of the strays do not like being told the bad news. It is a reflection on their poor grass or their poor fences.
Out of the love which he has for all of us Jesus Christ is concerned when we stray. He relies on his other followers to try and bring back the strays. Generally we are reluctant to take on that responsibility and that is nothing new. In the first book of the Old Testament after Cain had killed his brother, Abel, God asked him – Where is your brother Abel? He answered: “I don’t know”, which was a lie and he then asked God “Am I my brother’s keeper”?
Well, in a sense, we are all goal keepers for our brothers and sisters. If we really love them we will not want anything to happen which would damage their well-being.
It is clear to me that in this Gospel is asking us for three things:
Firstly, the humility to realise and accept the fact that, like anyone else, we can all make mistakes. We can make mistakes about smoking too much or eating too much or drinking too much. But we can make mistakes about more important things in life – in other words, we are all sinners and we sometimes need correction.
Secondly, we need wisdom to see that sometimes it falls to us to correct others in areas that need correction. If we don’t do it, we are shirking our responsibility. If we don’t do it, we share in the guilt. We need wisdom to know how to do it – to do it tactfully and sensitively and in such a way that it will have an effect.
Thirdly, we need courage to confront someone. If we saw someone we love careering down a hill and over a cliff I think we would find the courage to do something and do it pretty fast.
It is never the will of Our Father in Heaven that he should lose anyone of these little ones as Jesus said. If any one of us saw our brother or our sister heading in a direction in which they the risk of being lost, what would you do? You would try and warn them.
I wonder what would our parish look like if each one of us was on the lookout for the genuine good of all our neighbours. I don’t mean looking out in an inquisitive way, poking our noses into each other’s business. The question of having to confront someone who is doing wrong is a big challenge.
The problem is that sometimes we haven’t the courage to say to someone’s face which we have no problem discussing behind their back. Of course if we talk about somebody sins behind their backs, we damage their good name but we also damage ourselves by our back-biting.
I have found that people are willing to take advice on how to correct their driving better on the road or on the golf course or even how they preach their sermons but it is far more risky when we come to correcting our personal lives. Yet, if we ar honest, the times we have listened to good advice offered by someone who really loves us, these are probably the moments that were most important in life.
Supposing your child is about to drink a draught of weed-killer thinking it was Coke Cola, surely we would bust ourselves to stop it happen. How important to intervene decisively when it is the question of eternal life that is at stake. When something disastrous takes place, how often we hear people say: ‘If only I had done such and such a thing’.
The problem of how to correct a straying brother or sister is very hard. It is hard because none of us like being corrected ourselves. When it happens – the little tyrant inside each of us screams – ‘how dare you point the finger at me’. ‘People in glass houses should not throw stones’. It is hard to know how to do it tactfully and effectively and sensitively. It is hard but yet, how can we afford not to try. How can we close our eyes?
The answer is Love . If we really love someone we will want all that is best for them. If we really love someone, well no matter what the cost, we are going to make sure that nothing bad happens to them. If we really love someone we are going to do all in our power to make sure that they are not going to be condemned to eternal punishment and lose eternal life.
The first thing is love. The second thing is prayer. No-one should try to take on this difficult task without, first of all, praying about it. There is a mighty promise at the end of today’s Gospel. “I tell you solemnly once again”. I tell you solemnly – this is nothing flippant or frivolous which the Lord is saying and he has said it before. He is making a solemn promise. If two on earth agree to ask anything at all it will be granted to you by my Father in Heaven.
Imagine if a husband and wife agree to speak to their son or daughter, and they first ask in prayer for help to do so sensitively and patiently and tactfully, well then there is that mighty promise that the help will be given to them. It is the same if a brother and sister agree to speak to their sibling in an effort to correct them. Jesus said, where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them. They could be meeting for prayer, they could be meeting for study, they could be a meeting of a parish pastoral council but again that is a fantastic promise that Jesus is there with them.
The first approach, as you try to bring the care of Jesus Christ to the person who has gone astray is that of personal contact. It can be very confidential. It requires gentleness and a vivid awareness of our own weakness and frailty and limitedness.
If that approach fails the next approach is that the responsibility be taken on by a small group of concerned people. If one person does the confronting, it can be easy to dismiss or side-step the evidence of one person – as a mere personal opinion – it would not be so easy to dismiss the evidence of a small group of people who love the other person and have his/her interests really at heart.
It all must be accompanied by prayer. Whoever has to do the confronting should pray a lot beforehand. They should ask for the light of truth. They should beg for a courageous heart. Above all, they should ask for a tactful heart that will heal rather than hurt, pull rather than demolish and alleviate and enkindle the flame of hope rather than promote the tears of bitterness.
This is the sort of sacred work that needs the prayers of others – of as many as possible – but they must be sought in a quiet confidential way that respects the good name of the person involved. It is work of compassion of healing. It is a job that needs love, prayer and courageous and wise action. It is sacred because it is a question of reconnecting people with the community which is the body of the Church.
God grant that we will not be blind to the needs of this work, nor afraid to undertake it.