Praying for Those Who Have Died Is a Work of Mercy

What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!

What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

Rediscovering a Lost Work of Mercy: Admonishing the Sinner

In the first reading from Mass for Monday of the 23rd week, St. Paul is practically livid that the Corinthians have not sought to correct and discipline an erring brother who is indulging in illicit sexual union. He orders them to act immediately lest the brother be lost on the day of judgment.

The current crisis in the Church is certainly connected to the widespread reticence to admonish and correct the sinner in our culture. This obligation is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy and is also referred to as fraternal correction. Sadly, even in the Church correcting and admonishing sinners has been on a kind of hiatus. Within many families, a flawed idea of love as mere kindness and approval has replaced the proper notion that true love wants the ultimate good of a person, not necessarily present joy and affirmation.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas describes fraternal correction as an act of charity:

[F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well (Summa Theologica II, IIae, 33.1).

The world and the Devil have largely succeeded in making Christians feel ashamed of doing this essential work. When we call attention to someone’s sin or wrongdoing, we are said to be “judging” him. In a culture in which “tolerance” is viewed as one of a person’s most important qualities, judging has become an unpardonable offense. “How dare you judge others?” the world protests, “Who do you think you are?”

To be clear, there are some judgments that are forbidden us. For example, we cannot assess whether we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we fully understand someone’s inner intentions or ultimate culpability as though we were God. Regarding judgments such as these Scripture says, Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7).

We are also instructed that we cannot make the judgment of condemnation; we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense. Scripture also cautions us against being unnecessarily harsh or punitive:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).

In the passage above from Luke’s Gospel, “to judge” means to condemn or to be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.

Another text that is often used by the world to forbid making “judgments” is this one from the Gospel of Matthew:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:1-5).

However, pay careful attention to what this text is actually saying. As in the passage from Luke, the word “judge” in Matthew’s Gospel is understood to mean to be unnecessarily harsh and punitive or condemning; the second verse makes this clear. To paraphrase verse two colloquially, “If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you.” Further, the parable that follows does not say that you shouldn’t correct sinners; it says that you should get yourself right with God first so that you can then see clearly enough to properly correct your brother.

Scripture repeatedly tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it. Here are some of those texts, along with a little of my own commentary in red:

  • Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:15-18).

Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother and summon him to repentance. If the matter is serious and private rebuke does not work, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally, the Church should be informed. If he will not listen even to the Church, then he should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence, in serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of the gravity of the matter. Sadly, this “medicine” is seldom used today, even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).

  • It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5).

The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge” the evildoer. In this case the matter is clearly serious (incest). Notice that the text says that the man should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There are immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not to keep company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Yes, some judgements are required of us.

  • Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2).

We are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him, but to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise, we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner! Being prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words is not the proper way to correct. The instruction is to be humble and gentle, but clear. Patience is also called for because we must bear the burdens of one another’s sin. We do this in two ways. First, we accept that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us; second, we bear the obligation to help others know their sin and of repent of it.

  • My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19).

The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.

  • You shall not hate your brother in your heart: You shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).

This text tells us that refusing to correct a sinning neighbor is actually a form of hatred. Instead, we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.

  • If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(2 Thess 3:14).

The medicine of rebuke—even to the point of refusing fellowship (in more serious matters)—is commanded. However, note that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy.

  • We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16).

In this passage, to admonish means to warn. If the Word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when that becomes necessary.

  • All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16).

Reproof and correction are part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.

  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).

Fraternal correction is described here as admonishing, encouraging, and helping. We are also called to patience in these works.

There are many more examples, but the point is that fraternal correction is prescribed and commanded by Scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us by saying (simplistically) that we are “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden; in fact, some is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous.

That said, it is possible to correct a sinner poorly or even sinfully. If we are to have any shame at all about proper fraternal correction, it should be that we have so severely failed in fulfilling our duty to do so. Because of our failure in this regard, the world is more sinful, coarse, and undisciplined. Too many people today are out-of-control, undisciplined, and even incorrigible. Never having been properly corrected, too many are locked in sin. The world is less pleasant, charitable, and teachable because of this; it is also in greater bondage to sin. We can certainly see what the failure to correct has done within the Church, but the world at large is also in grave need of recovering this lost work of mercy.

To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy; it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner.

  • He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Proverbs 10:10).
  • A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray (Proverbs 10:17).

Praying for Those Who Have Died Is a Work of Mercy

What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!

What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

The Obligation of Clear, Compassionate Correction of the Sinner – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to try to shame us into silence. Despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and explanation of our obligation, as well instruction on how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTIONJesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because although some ancient manuscripts contain this phrase, many do not. While some interpret this Gospel to command correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review today contain this restriction. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Notice the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many, probably due to sloth, prefer to say that it’s none of their business what others do. Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In this teaching, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation; some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific instances. For example, one generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so, superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. The general rule, however, remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.”

There are many other Scriptures that also advise and even obligate us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19).
  • Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col 3:16)
  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Hence, in charity, we have an obligation to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting as if we are “superior.” Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment, but for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSEIf he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and to win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:

1.  Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If a person is in sin, too frequently we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner about it. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin: the sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting many sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, first. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner, and sometimes we may need to check a few facts first, but such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

2.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This sort of option may seem difficult today in our cosmopolitan settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who resist treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as demonstrating severe anger, refusing to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members whom the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

3.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. This presupposes that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (e.g., pastors, parish leaders). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step as unrealistic, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be.

For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues, and disrespect for parents.

To be honest, though, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, the word “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, such as leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older parishioners (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

4.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Here we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”

Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus Himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. Excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. In addition, excommunication comes only at the end of a long process; it is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it is taught here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  • We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
  • If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).
  • It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:1).
  • Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:33).
  • But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11)

So there is a fairly strong, clear biblical mandate from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

If any would doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that He will recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

Today there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process such as Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion—either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting a woman to have one—he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion (or same-sex “marriage,” for that matter). Most of them say that they are concerned that it would be perceived as a political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls, and because the action would likely be misinterpreted and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate; bishops must make prudential judgments. At a bare minimum, I would hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability to others has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in the case of prominent individuals) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise, those of any prominence who help to advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors/bishops to return to the truth.

It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWERAgain, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. How can we have unity in the Church if there isn’t agreement on basic moral principles and behavior? Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and His Church. Fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.

Sadly, today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many continue for too long without being corrected by the Church. We are not a force for change because we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.

Much work and prayer are necessary today to unlock the power of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel.

Pray for the Living and the Dead – A Meditation on the Seventh Spiritual Work of Mercy

Spiritual Works of Mercy - Pray for the Living and the DeadWhat is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Perhaps our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

So, to pray for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond gold or pearls. Yes, what is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is inestimable; its value can never be told.

Praying for the dead, however, is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when loved ones die. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased are “in Heaven” or are “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). And St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

So, our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ. And that is worth praying about!

But what is the judgment in question for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment in question would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! And yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now; if we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. And thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, though we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven. But surely, too, there are sufferings that purgation must cause. St Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! How prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. For by the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

Forgive All Injuries – A Meditation on the Sixth Spiritual Work of Mercy

Feature-071413Of all the things about which I preach, very few (if any) provoke as strong (and usually negative) a reaction as the call to forgive. I get more angry pushback after a Mass at which I preach on forgiveness than when I speak about chastity, greed, or any other challenging moral topic.

It would seem that the anger is rooted in two things: first, that the call to forgive implies some dishonoring or diminishing of the pain or injustice someone has experienced, and second, that it seems to imply that there is a requirement to stay in or resume relationships that are poisonous or dysfunctional. But forgiveness need not imply either of these.

Forgiveness is a concept that is often misunderstood. Many people interpret it to mean that they must stop having negative feelings about something that happened to them, or toward someone who hurt them. Many also think of forgiveness as a work they must do out of their own power, rather than as a gift to be received from God. No! Forgiveness is a work of God within us, whereby He acts to free us from the poisonous effects of bitterness and grief that often accompany the harm that was inflicted upon us.

Forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. Obviously, we cannot change the past; we cannot change what has happened. But we too easily think that ruminating over past hurts will somehow change what happened or even “get back at” the other person. It will not. Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Clinging to our hurt and anger, understandable though it may be, only harms us.

Thus forgiveness is first for us, more so than for the other. In calling us to forgive, God is offering us the gift to be free of a great deal of poison and of a costly emotional state that robs us of joy and strength. Carrying anger and hurt is like lugging around bowling balls all day long. What a relief it is to just be free of that weight! And this is what God offers when He gives us the grace to forgive, to let go of the need to change the past, to let go of the desire for others to suffer because of what they have done to us.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that we are able or even should resume relationships with people who have done us great harm. At times we are able to do so, but it is not always advisable. Sometimes relationships are poisonous for both parties involved. Sometimes, because the other person has not or cannot repent (perhaps because of addictions or deep-seated drives), it is too dangerous to be close to him or her. Thus Scripture says, If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:18).

Receiving the gift of forgiveness requires a growing relationship with God and a trust that He sees and knows all things. As my relationship with God grows, it increasingly becomes enough for me to know that if someone who has harmed me does not repent (and I pray that he does), he is going to have to answer to God one day. God sees all things, understands all things, and will deal with things in the best way. Increasingly, I am content to leave most things to Him.

How is the forgiving of injuries a spiritual work of mercy? First of all, as we have seen, it is a work of mercy toward our very self. Anger, hurt, and nursing grudges all sap us of strength, stress us, and vex us. Receiving the gift to forgive is a mercy for us since we are relieved of these burdens. Our strength and energy can be directed to other, better things. We even sleep better!

And because our strength is directed to good and profitable things, we are now better able to love and be available to others. This, too, is a great mercy.

It is not always the case that the harm to us is so great that we cannot be restored to a relationship with those who have harmed us. Thus, forgiving injuries is also a work of mercy to the one who has harmed us; it can restore to them a relationship with us that is important to them. It is a very great gift to offer mercy and pardon to one who has harmed us and seeks our forgiveness.

In the family and in the wider community as well, forgiving injuries is a work of mercy, since it breaks the cycle of anger and retribution that often tears families, communities, and nations apart. It is a restorative work that knits together ties that have frayed.

This is a great work of mercy indeed. In moments of grave harm it may be difficult to access, but always pray for this gift. Almost nothing is more poisonous, both to us and others, than festering anger and resentment. Thus, to forgive injuries is a great, healing gift to receive from God and share with others. Ah, the beauty of mercy!

Bear Wrongs Patiently – A Meditation on the 5th Spiritual Work of Mercy

060115Here is  perhaps the most revolutionary of the Spiritual works of mercy. It is the one tied most directly to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. To decide to bear wrongs patiently is nothing less than to declare a revolution and to wage a very paradoxical counteroffensive against this world and its economy of anger.

There is a cycle of violence and retribution in which the devil seeks to engage us. The cycle begins with one person harming or slighting another, perhaps tempted to do so by the devil or by the world or flesh, manipulated by him. And then, the harm having been worked, the victim retaliates and escalates. The salvos go back and forth with increasing fervor, often including others as well. Meanwhile, Satan observes from the wings with delight as he reaps a bountiful harvest of anger, fear, bitterness, violence, and poisonous personal and social venom. Through such cycles, he is able to bring down friendships, families, cultures, and nations. Indeed, world wars can set much of the planet ablaze.

This is Satan’s economy. Its currency is hatred and its coinage is revenge. He would have us develop diverse portfolios of grievances and fears, and fill our coffers with memories of past wrongs stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years. So clever are Satan’s marketers that those who are consumers and suppliers think their vengeance is righteous—even holy. And so the economy of Satan grows and grows, fueled by vengeance, bankrolled by grievances.

Into this economy, this cycle of violence and retribution, the Christian who bears wrongs patiently engages in the revolutionary act of saying, even if on a small scale, “the cycle of violence, anger, and retribution ends with me.” It is like throwing a wrench into the gears of Satan’s economy. Even if it is just the bearing of very small wrongs, it slows the machine of hatred and retribution, and causes the economy of Satan to grind more slowly. The person who does this engages in a revolutionary act, a paradoxical act of sabotage.

It is the same paradox we see on the Cross, where Christ won by bearing patiently and bravely the venom, hatred, and violence of this world to the end. He bore it, not opening His mouth, not retaliating, not hating, but loving and enduring unto the end.  The Cross is a huge wrench cast into the gears of Satan’s economy. Every Christian who bears wrongs patiently increases the size of that Cross by the fact that Christ unites our sufferings to His.

Note the logic of this revolution: darkness cannot drive our darkness, only light can do that; hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that; pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that. And thus Jesus, and every Christian who bears wrongs patiently, drives out darkness by light, hatred by love, and pride by humility. It is nothing short of a revolution, a cry of civil disobedience in a regime that demands escalation and further retribution.

Is such a stance to be absolute? Must we bear every wrong patiently? No. There are times when we must defend ourselves and others, when the only way to repel the grave harm caused by a serious injustice is to disable it and remove it. There are times when we must refuse to cooperate in evil, even if it means suffering arrest or even the loss of life. There are also times when we must actively resist evil and stand in its way. But in all this, retaliation must not be our goal. Rather our goal must be justice, established in love and respect, with a desire to end the cycle, not merely to continue it as the victor. Evil is to be resisted and robbed of further prey.  If I seek to conquer and destroy evil, too easily I can become the very evil I seek to destroy. Even as I declare my victory, the evil still lives to strike again, but now it lives in my own heart.

The cycle must end. The Christian who bears wrongs patiently says, in effect, “It ends with me.” I will take the blow (like my savior on the Cross) but I will not return it. This does not make me spineless, but rather courageous and crafty. Jesus once said, To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also (Mat 5:39).

Many interpret this passage as weakness. It is not. It is revolutionary and strong. In effect, the one who turns the other cheek looks the perpetrator in the eye. He does not flee in fear. Rather, he refuses to enter into the world of the perpetrator, into the economy of hatred, by escalating the hatred. No, he stands his ground, neither fleeing in fear nor losing by becoming like his enemy and retaliating. He remains himself, drawing his dignity not from the praise of men, but from the Lord. Is he weak? Was Jesus weak on the Cross or strong?

Yes, bearing wrongs patiently can seem irksome to us. Perhaps we think we are compromising with evil. This is only true if we compromise by doing evil. That must be resisted and to those who would seek to force us to comply we can only respectfully respond, “I cannot comply.” But in the end, to bear wrongs patiently is to declare a revolution against Satan’s regime, to break the cycle of his economy and say, “The cycle of violence and revenge ends with me.” It robs Satan of prey, of dividends.

Throw a little revolution. Never cooperate with evil, but where possible, bear wrongs patiently. It is like putting sand in the gears; Satan loses a little something every time.

Here is the death scene from The Passion of the Christ. Note that at the end, Satan seems to know he has lost, that he has been denied his true desire. He seems to realize that the Cross, like a wrench, has been thrown into the gears of his hateful economy.

Comfort the Sorrowful – A Consideration of the Fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy

Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.
Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.

The fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy is to “comfort the sorrowful.” Sometimes it is listed as to “comfort the afflicted.” This description broadens the work just a bit and also fits more with the original notion of the word “comfort,” as we shall consider in a moment.

But of all the spiritual works of mercy, comforting the sorrowful requires the greatest patience, sensitivity, and also silence. This is because sorrow (or grief) often has a life and logic of its own; often it must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes there is not a lot a person can say or do when grief is present. Grief is something we can rarely get around; we must simply go through it. Thus, comforting or consoling the sorrowful and grieving people in our life often involves a kind of silent and understanding accompaniment more so than words or actions. To listen and give understanding attention often provides the greatest value.

St. Augustine once observed that sighs and tears in prayer often accomplish more than words. And so it is that when people are sorrowful, their grief and tears are their prayer and we do well to honor that, rather than to say, “Don’t be sad” or “Cheer up.” A largely silent and respectful silence can be a way of honoring grief and signaling a true camaraderie. St. Paul says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Strange though it may seem, a dog often presents a good model, teaching us that when someone is having a bad day, the best thing to do is to just sit close by and nuzzle them gently.

If one notices a person getting “stuck” in his grief, not making the progress of moving through it in stages, more will be needed—but not right away. People need time and room to grieve. Some take longer than others, and there is no single “right” way to grieve. To comfort and console requires a sensitivity on our part that seeks to discover what the person needs, on his terms, not ours.  If there are signs of true depression, or a serious lack of progress, this may be an indication that we should become more active in our comforting and consoling, perhaps getting the person out for activities or even recommending professional help.

In terms of caring for the sorrowful, we rightly think of giving comfort in the modern, English sense of the term. However, the word “comfort” in terms of its older, root meaning, involves something more vigorous than merely giving comfort.  The Latin roots are cum (with) + fortis (strong, or strength). Thus to comfort someone, in its older etymological roots, means to strengthen him.

In this sense, the word comfort is better paired with the other traditional rendering of this spiritual work of mercy: “comfort the afflicted.” Here, too, “afflicted” in its Latin roots means to be struck down, weakened, or injured. And thus the spiritual work, “comfort the afflicted,” becomes more vigorous. Here is a person who has been struck down, weakened, or ridiculed; to comfort him means in the more literal sense to restore him to strength, to enable him to persevere, to summon him to the courage that strongly resists those who would seek to render him weak or ineffective. This, then, is the vigorous understanding of the fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy, “comfort the sorrowful” or “comfort the afflicted.”

But in either sense, the tender comforting of those who are sorrowful and grief-stricken, or the more vigorous sense of strengthening the afflicted, this is a work of mercy that is restorative of a brother or sister to the normal Christian state of being joyful, confident, and strong.

This song says,

Since we are summoned to a silent place;
Struggling to find the words to fill the space.
Christ be beside us as we grieve;
Daring to doubt or to believe.