If you have ever been to Mackinac Island, no doubt you have seen or visited Fort Mackinac, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. Apparently it was built by the British in 1780 and they didn’t give it up officially until 15 years after the end of the Revolutionary War. And then they came back during the War of 1812 and held onto it again for two more years. It is in a very strategic location of course with its commanding view of all of the Straits. And it has various towers from which soldiers would keep an eye out for any ships passing by to make sure none of them were enemies. So these soldiers of course were watchmen. Watchmen were used for millennia; they were the ones who would sound the alarm if they saw danger approaching.
In our first reading, the Lord tell his prophet Ezekiel that he is to serve as the Lord’s watchman for the Israelites, to warn them of any approaching danger. This was essentially the role of all of the Lord’s prophets in the Old Testament. But while they would warn Israel about physical danger, military danger, threats from enemy armies, and so on, it was always in a spiritual context. Ezekiel was not literally standing in a tower watching out for enemy soldiers. Rather, he would receive these messages from the Lord to give to the people of Israel, warning them to change their sinful ways, or else disaster and destruction would befall them. And of course, like Jeremiah in our reading last week, he was not particularly popular for it. If Ezekiel had been a regular watchman, warning the Israelites about enemy soldiers that he had spied in the distance, most likely they would have been very grateful for his service, especially if his warnings gave them enough notice to prepare to defend themselves and so save themselves from attack.
But, the warnings that Ezekiel gave Israel were for things that did not seem so immediate or apparent to them. It’s one thing to warn someone about an army that is moving towards you; it’s another to warn them about something that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for. Especially if you’re telling people that they have to change their ways, especially if they have grown very comfortable with the way they are living. Because the way they are living is precisely what is leading them to destruction.
In seminary we were encouraged to give our brother seminarians what is known as fraternal correction. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: correcting a brother who is in need of it. For example, if you noticed a brother seminarian was not getting up in time for class, fraternal correction would involve saying something to him about it. The purpose of course would not be to scold him or make him feel bad, but rather to help him make a necessary change for his own good. Fraternal correction though was (and is) not easy to do! Nobody wants to come across as judgmental or as a scold. Perhaps you don’t know how the person would receive it. If I say something to him about this, how will he react? Will he get upset? Will this hurt our friendship? What will he think of me? Will he then complain about me to everyone else? And nowadays we can add this fear: will I be denounced on social media? And so on. And of course, being on the receiving end of fraternal correction is also very difficult. It means being confronted with one’s own faults or shortcomings.
But like the watchman Ezekiel, warning Israel to change their sinful ways for their own good, fraternal correction sometimes is necessary. Jesus talks about this in our Gospel reading today as well of course. Like last Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus exhorts us to take up our cross and follow him, his message in today’s Gospel is also not very easy to hear – one of Jesus’ hard sayings. But it is necessary to hear it. Jesus instructs his disciples – understood here to be the 12 apostles – how to go about correcting a brother in the faith when he is in need of it. He gives a very clear order of the steps to take. First, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Note that Jesus doesn’t say, take it all the way to the top – immediately contact the pope, the president, or the press. Nor does he say, go and complain about that person to your friends, coworkers, family members, and so on. No, go directly to that person and make him aware – charitably – of his error. If it works, great! You have “won him over.” If it doesn’t, then you go to the next step.
The second step is a little more involved: you take one or two others along with you to talk to him. And if that doesn’t work, then it goes to the church, i.e. to the apostles themselves, for them to adjudicate and decide the matter. And “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In other words, the apostles – the first bishops – were given the power to act as judges in these disputes.
The point of these interventions, like fraternal correction in the seminary, is again not to make the person feel badly. The point is to get him to change his ways for his own good. If these steps work, then great! He has been reconciled. But if he won’t even listen to the Church, then “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector”. In other words, he is through his own actions and refusal to change setting himself apart from the church, the assembly of believers. Nowadays the canonical term for this is excommunication – he is outside of full communion with the Church. But even this, even excommunication, is not primarily intended as punishment for the sake of punishment, or just to make the person feel badly. Rather, it is a final, last-ditch effort to help the person see the error of his ways so that he can repent, make amends, and be restored to full communion with the Church.
Out of charity to our brothers and sisters in the faith, we are all called at times, in one way or another, to offer fraternal correction when it is necessary. The key is that it must be rooted in the truth, not in one’s own subjective preferences, opinions, and desires. And for priests and bishops, it takes on another dimension: we are called, like Ezekiel, like the prophets, like the apostles, to preach the Truth, in season and out of season, whether it’s popular or unpopular. This of course requires courage when it’s about something unpopular. So it is my responsibility, my duty before God, to preach the Truth and the fullness of it, not just what people happen to find acceptable nowadays. And in every age, there is some aspect or other of Church teaching that society does not accept.
Furthermore, the role of the priest or bishop is concerned primarily with the spiritual dimension. The Church is not an NGO, nor is it a political party. NGO’s and political parties have their own role in society, and the Church has ours. So what I am primarily responsible for is the spiritual well-being of my flock. Yes, priests are concerned about the physical and material health of their flocks. We should work to alleviate hunger and poverty and all forms of suffering, promote justice, and so on. But the role of priests is first and foremost to strive to get their flocks into heaven. Because we know that this earth is passing away, that eventually everyone’s physical health will fail and that we will leave this life behind for good. And then there’s the final destination: heaven or hell. Eternal union with God or eternal separation. What’s more important than that? So the primary responsibility of priests is to work to get souls to heaven. And when that means having to give the bitter medicine of fraternal correction – given out of love and established in objective Truth – as difficult as that can be to do – then that’s what we have to do.
God wants us to get to heaven. The stakes of life are high. And so the hard sayings of Jesus are necessary. Let us pray that our ears be open to hear them and that our hearts be open to receive them.