Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Debt of Love

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 4 September, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)

Are you in debt? St. Paul says this morning that we all are, or at least that we should be. He writes to the Church in Rome:

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
—Romans 13:8

All of us, as members of the body of Christ, owe a debt of love to each other, but love sometimes can be a difficult thing. You’ve heard of the expression “tough love”, and that “the truth hurts”. This doesn’t have to be the way, but it very often is when it comes to love.

A few months ago I was saying Mass at one of the nearby nursing homes, and two of the ladies there came by after to thank me. One of them said: “Father, I remember the first time you came here, about a year ago. You looked so young and new then. You look a lot older now.”

As I was recovering from the initial shock of that comment, the other woman said, “Yeah Father, you look like you’ve gained some weight too.” I was thinking, Get me out of here before it gets any worse! That’s tough love!

The readings this week talk about tough love. The prophet Ezekiel, in that first reading, is given instructions on what kind of love the watchman for Israel is supposed to have. He is to proclaim a message that is not his own, and to warn the people of the things that—in the end—could cost them their eternal salvation.

St. Gregory the Great, commenting on this very passage, says that whoever God sends forth as a preacher is a watchman. He points out the obvious fact that “a watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming.

He is called to warn the people of the things that can harm them, and for that reason some of the hardest things that a priest has to say come from right here in this pulpit. The priest can, and should, speak about such difficult issues as vice, immorality, lack of charity, materialism, unforgiveness, and a host of other things—from the pulpit.

But the priest doesn’t live in the pulpit. Like everyone else, he too is called to live the message that he preaches. St. Gregory the Great talks very candidly about how difficult that can be. He says:

“Insofar as I do succeed [in preaching], still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching. I recognize that I am slothful and negligent . . . So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness.”

Now, keep in mind that this man was the Pope, he was a saint and a doctor of the Church. He’s not talking about hypocrisy, but the exact opposite. It’s an amazing expression of humility, an acknowledgement that the message he preaches is God’s message, and that God alone can give him the grace to preach it, and to live it.

He finishes that reflection on Ezekiel by saying that, nonetheless:

“Because I love [God], I do not spare myself in speaking of Him.”

St. Gregory the Great understood the debt of love. He lived it, he preached it, and he led the Church through one of the darkest periods of human history. He did so, essentially, by teaching the Church how to love.

It is not easy to live out this love in the Church. I heard a great quote the other day. Someone had written, “The greatest thing about the Catholic Church is that it’s like one big family. And the worse thing about the Catholic Church, is that it’s like one big family.”

Christ, who is the head of this family, knew how difficult it would be for us to pay that debt of love we all owe to each other. For that reason, he gives us instructions in the Gospel this morning on what to do when sin gets in the way. He says:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. —Matthew 18:15

It’s the basis for what is called “fraternal correction,” and if you have ever had to do it, or have ever received it, you know that it can be a very difficult thing. But there are guidelines that can help us.

Fr. Rainero Cantalamesa, who is the preacher to the papal household (the watchman of the Pope’s house, you could say) says that the ultimate reason to practice fraternal correction:

is not pride, to show others their errors in order to highlight our superiority. Nor to say: "I told you so. I warned you. Too bad for you." No, the objective is to win over one's brother. That is, to seek the genuine good of the other, so that he can improve and not meet with disagreeable consequences.

In short, the rule for fraternal correction is love. If we do not love the other, then we have no right to offer correction. But if love is present, then we have not only a right, but also an obligation to help our brother or sister to correct their faults before it is too late.

We can ask ourselves this morning: Am I doing everything I can to pay the debt of love that St. Paul talks about, and that Christ calls us to in the Gospel? Do I love the members of the Body of Christ enough to be corrected by them, or to offer correction if that is what God is asking for?

Because Christ calls each of us to be a watchman for his house, and a true brother or sister in the Church, which is the family of God.