“Admonish the Sinner”: Pope Francis and the Third Spiritual Work of Mercy

Alan Holdren/CNA
Alan Holdren/CNA (photo: Register Files)

The third spiritual work of mercy is one that few of us like to engage in: “admonish the sinner.” This work of mercy is highly misunderstood and many of us do not know how to “admonish” in a Christian context. Providentially, Pope Francis has laid out for us a striking example this week both in Cuba and in America. He teaches us from a pastor’s heart what it means to “admonish the sinner.”

Before we dive into Pope Francis’ example let us look at the biblical roots of this work of mercy.

First of all, Jesus provides His own commentary:

“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’” (Mathew 18:15-18).

It is important to note that Jesus explains that we should first seek out our “brother” in private. Too many of us skip to the public rebuke of our family and friends on Facebook and never seek them out individually. Additionally, Jesus here makes reference to “your brother.” This highlights the fact that admonition is best done in the context of an established relationship. A person is much more likely to listen to a trusted friend or relative, rather than a street preacher holding a sign that says: “Repent! Sinners go to Hell!” While the message might be the same and true, it does not mean it will be effective. The question is not whether a billboard that says, “Hell is Real” is true (which it is); the question is, “what is the most effective method of ‘admonishing the sinner’ in the modern world?”

Saint Paul echoes these words when he writes,

“If any one 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 Thessalonians 3:14).

Again, we see the reminder to look upon someone you admonish as a “brother” and not an “enemy.” Sometimes it is easy to see certain sinners inside and outside the Church as “enemies” and we make it our mission to “correct” them. We do not embark on our mission in a spirit of fraternal charity, but we do so as if we were going to war. In this regard, our primary mission is to humiliate the other person to the point that they gravel back to the Church and then we remain victorious. If they do not repent, we scoff at them, belittle them and show them the door.

Keeping all of this in mind, let us turn to the example of Pope Francis. While in Cuba, many were confused by his meeting with Fidel Castro as he did not reprove or reproach the former communist leader. In fact, his meeting was described as “intimate and familial.” Pope Francis decided to take the opportunity to create a “brotherly” bond with Castro instead of using the time to explain how flawed he is.

Similarly, during his visit to the White House, Pope Francis decided to highlight points of common interest instead of dwelling on the sinfulness of the nation. He did mention the need to “support the institutions of marriage and the family,” but he also praised the efforts of Obama to address climate change and referred to himself as “a brother of this country.”

Then, when he spoke to the US bishops in Washington DC, Pope Francis again called himself a “brother among brothers” and gave a detailed lecture on the “culture of encounter.” In doing so, he highlighted the need to be loving and compassionate toward the people under their care. He gave some of his most practical advice when commenting on the need for dialogue. Pope Francis said,

“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

Instead, he encouraged the bishops to build up the Church to “ be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.”

Last of all, during his visit to congress Pope Francis began his speech establishing that he too is “a son of this great continent.” Many expected him to wag his finger and shout condemning words at those present, but instead he reminded everyone about the “Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12).” This provided a framework for his uplifting sermon that addressed issues ranging from abortion, the death penalty, immigration, poverty and marriage.

He sought common ground by highlighting the shining examples of Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton and pointed to them for us to imitate. His mission was to reorient our lives to the poor and most vulnerable of society and to have compassion for them.

In the end, Pope Francis has the heart of a shepherd and he sees many lost sheep in this world. Instead of beating the sheep into submission with his staff, he chooses to lift them up on his shoulders and carry them to restful waters. He shows us that if we desire to “admonish the sinner” we must first establish a familial relationship and then instruct in such a way that heals.

We may not like this way and we may want something “stronger” and “harsher.” However, as we look forward to the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, we realize that God’s ways are not always our ways.