Mercy Always: ‘Admonishing the sinner’ done in light of God’s love

‘Admonishing the sinner’ done in light of God’s love

By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead, The Western Kentucky Catholic

Pope Francis at the Jubilee Audience in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 2016. (Photographer: Daniel Ibanez/CNA. Credit: Catholic News Agency)
Pope Francis at the Jubilee Audience in St. Peter’s Square on June 30, 2016. (Photographer: Daniel Ibanez/CNA. Credit: Catholic News Agency)

It’s no secret that “admonish the sinner” – a spiritual work of mercy ranked with the 14 other corporal and spiritual works of mercy – is one of the tougher works to correctly grasp.

Nevertheless, Msgr. Bernard Powers, a longtime spiritual director in the Diocese of Owensboro, said this work belongs with all the others.
Sometimes, he said, “people may need to be challenged in their own spiritual journey to grow in a deeper love relationship with God.”

He said that focusing on this love relationship with God is crucial when fraternally “admonishing,” or challenging, someone.

“To tell me I’ve done something wrong is one thing,” said Msgr. Powers. “To tell me I’ve failed to love is another.”

Year of Mercy series logo
The Jubilee Year of Mercy was established by Pope Francis to last from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016. The Western Kentucky Catholic is celebrating this holy year by featuring a series highlighting individuals who live the Works of Mercy around the Diocese of Owensboro. This month’s article takes the spiritual work of “admonishing the sinner” and discusses what it is, and how it can and should be lived out.

Fr. Joe Mills, a judge in the diocese tribunal who has also counseled many people over the years, used the example of a parent correcting their child, or a family holding an intervention for a struggling relative.

He mentioned the phrase used by some parents when reprimanding: “this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you,” and emphasized “mercy always – we should never be harsh.”

“St. Paul chided St. Peter himself,” said Fr. Mills, referencing the Galatians 2:11-14 incident in which Paul chastised Peter for not eating with the Gentiles, whose dietary customs were considered unclean by Jewish law.

Peter did acknowledge that he was not living up to the Church’s standards, and returned to eating with the Jews and Gentiles alike.

While “admonishing the sinner” can be good for someone doing wrong, Fr. Mills said it is helpful to prayerfully discern the situation first, if possible.

“You weigh the question – will it do any good if I say something?” he said. “It’s a very delicate kind of thing.”

He explained that what we say “may affect changes in a person’s life or may not… a lot is at stake.”

Msgr. Powers said that correcting someone “depends on the rapport.”

“If there’s a good rapport it’s very helpful,” he said, but if there’s less friendliness or closeness in the relationship with the other person, “that would add (negatively) to the situation.”

“The relationship between the two people makes a difference,” he said.

He said a key concept is “being aware of who we are,” since without being strong in our own relationship with God, how can we help other people?

“How can I become better in relation to God, with one another, with myself?” he asked.

Fr. Mills also recommended praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance in these situations.

“If you pray about it, you may be able to change a person’s life down the road,” he said.

This story originally ran in the August 2016 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.