Every couple of weeks or so, I have the real privilege of spending time with a group of young men, who are aged between 15 and 17. These guys have formed a brotherhood in order to share with, and challenge, each other as they strive to live lives of virtue. (By the way, the saints sometimes talk about ‘brothers’, and in this case, ‘brotherly correction’ — but it totally translates to sisterhood too!) The guys hang out and share food together, before playing pool/table-tennis/snooker at the local snooker club. Then they head to the Cathedral for weekday Mass. Lastly, the guys spend time sharing their experiences and praying for one another.
Recently the group were discussing, ’should I say something to a friend who is falling in to sin?’
Well, Jesus warns people about being hypocritical (Matthew 7:5) but he does tell us to rebuke someone who sins against us (and importantly, to forgive them! - Luke 17:3) And St. Paul has a lot to say about brotherly correction! But do I have really have to call my friends out on things?
Another term that the church uses for correcting someone in something sinful is, ‘admonishing the sinner.’ And admonishing the sinner is one of the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. So what are ‘Works of Mercy’?
Sometimes I find myself in need of detailed instructions to help me reach a goal. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Just look at wikiHow. You can get step-by-step instructions showing you how to do pretty much anything. Have a search for their unmissable guide entitled ‘How to rip paper’. And I don’t know if this need for detailed instructions is a guy thing, but the internet is full of dating advice, telling guys, step-by-step, how to be spontaneous. That’s pretty self-defeating if you think about it.
But, you know, I kind of see the Works of Mercy in the same was, like a how-to guide. Jesus tells us, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6:36) and by teaching us about the Works of Mercy, it is as if the Church says and this is what it looks like. Let’s break that down for you.
So we have the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit the imprisoned
- Bury the dead
and the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy:
- Instruct the ignorant
- Counsel the doubtful
- Comfort the sorrowful
- Admonish the sinner
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive all injuries
- Pray for the living and the dead
They came from what Jesus taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-36), as well as numerous parts of the Old Testament - and they are instructions telling us how to respond to, and reflect, the mercy that God shows us — to other people. The Corporal Works of Mercy are about helping others physically and materially, whereas the Spiritual Works of Mercy are about meeting others’ emotional and spiritual needs.
And there it is: ‘admonish the sinner’. So I guess I should be having a word with my friend if he or she sins?
St. Thomas Aquinas helps us out here, and tells us that we shouldn’t "correct an erring brother at all times and places.” I mean, can you imagine how somebody would respond to that?
It’s about finding the right moment, and maybe at some point a friend will notice something different about you and ask, for example, “I realise I’ve never heard you swear. What’s that all about?”
Lastly then, you might be thinking, ‘But who am I to correct somebody? I’m no better so what right have I got to say anything?’ But sometimes it’s quite a relief to know that somebody else is fighting the same battles as you.
There is something very humbling and powerful if you are able to say, “Yeah, I struggle with that too. Let’s battle it together.” Or as Aquinas puts it, “If we find that we are guilty of the same sin, we must not rebuke [our brother], but groan with him, and invite him to repent with us.”
This is at the heart of what the young men in Northampton are doing: being accountable to one another, being authentic about their struggles as they pursue lives of holiness and striving together to grow in love for the Lord.