Several centuries ago it was quite common for gentlemen to settle their serious arguments or disputes by having a duel. Even though the Church had condemned dueling, and many governments had outlawed it, members of the military and the aristocracy often insisted upon this way of upholding their honor when they were insulted, and the offended party had the right to choose the weapons to be used: sabers, pistols at twenty paces, or so on. Early one morning in Paris, a Franciscan monk named Father Fidelis, famous for his powerful preaching, was on his way to church to say Mass, when a French military officer he had never met before stepped out of a coffee house and began cursing him—presumably because of a deep hatred of religion or a grudge against the Church. To the officer’s surprise, Father Fidelis stopped and addressed him: “Sir, you have insulted me, and I demand satisfaction,” meaning a duel. The shocked officer wasn’t able to say anything in response, and the priest continued, “As I am the offended party, I have the right to choose the weapons. I choose confession, and I expect you to come to me tonight, to arrange matters.” The priest told the officer where he lived, and then went off to say Mass. That night the officer, who was a man of honor, went to the priest’s home, apologized, and made his confession; the next day he went to Mass and received Communion from Father Fidelis, and from that time on the two men became the closest of friends (Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples for the Catechism, p. 505). Not all disputes have a happy ending like this, but this story is a wonderful example of what Jesus is teaching us in the Gospel. When someone sins against us—especially in a matter involving our faith—we must respond with charity and firmness. The Church has the mission of helping sinners find the way to salvation—and fulfilling our role in this mission is one of the most valuable things we can ever do.
In the ancient world one of the most important jobs was that of a watchman, a man at the walls or gate of the city whose duty it was to sound the alarm if an enemy was approaching; a timely warning of this sort would allow people outside the city walls to reach safety. The Lord appointed Ezekiel as a watchman—but not to warn of enemy armies marching against the city; rather, Ezekiel was to be a watchman in a moral sense, admonishing sinners to repent before the day of judgment. This was a major part of his duty as a prophet, and as long as he fulfilled this duty, he would be spared God’s judgment, even if the wicked stubbornly refused to repent and died in their sins. In the Gospel Jesus expands this job description so that it falls upon not only the leaders of His Church, but upon all His followers. As St. Paul states, we owe our love to one another, and true love will not stand by passively when people are traveling the path to damnation. If we are directly affected in a serious manner by someone else’s sin— something in which the other person is ignoring the moral danger to his or her soul—Jesus states that we, as members of His Church, must fulfill our duty as a watchperson, even if our concern for that person is unwelcome, misunderstood, or resented.
It’s often hard to find the right balance when it comes to giving correction. We all know some people who like to do this, and probably enjoy it more than they should; they’re quick to tell other persons their faults or to offer unsolicited advice, and may even see opportunities to correct others as a chance to act superior to them or get even with those who’ve offended them. No one likes a busybody or know-it-all, and even when such persons are well-intentioned, their habit of coming on too strongly can be counterproductive or do more harm than good. Many of us, however, are at the other extreme; we don’t like confrontations, and hope that someone else will address the offender’s bad behavior, or we tell ourselves that if we wait long enough, the problem will just go away or disappear. Sometimes that does happen, and there is a lot to be said for maintaining a prudent silence and picking our battles carefully. There are times, however, when our commitment to God’s glory and our desire for the salvation of sinners requires us to act—and Jesus gives us important guidelines for handling these situations.
First of all, and most importantly, we must pray for God’s guidance in how to handle a certain situation. I know from experience that difficult or touchy situations seem to work out much better if I’ve carefully prayed about them beforehand. As soon as we see something wrong or offensive, we should silently address God: “Lord, what do you want me to do here? Do You desire me to say something? If so, give me the right words.” Sometimes we’ll be led to wait for a better moment, and that may allow us the chance to ask others to pray about the situation too; instead of describing it or naming names, we might simply ask their prayers “for a special intention.” Jesus tells us that uniting our prayers this way can be very powerful. Secondly, if we feel God is calling us to say something to the sinner, we should do so privately; people are more likely to be receptive if we try to spare their feelings and reputation. Instead of using blunt words, we might address the issue indirectly, perhaps by saying, “I saw what you did earlier and was wondering if something was bothering you,” or “You usually handle things so well, and that’s why I was surprised by the way you acted in that situation.” Bringing up difficult topics in a gentle manner can often be very effective. Thirdly, if our attempt to offer guidance and assistance is unsuccessful, and if the matter is serious enough, we might seek the advice or assistance of other concerned persons, or even of the teachings and authority of the Church itself, as a way of convincing the sinner that his or her actions may have terrible consequences. Our willingness to pursue the matter, instead of letting it drop, will sometimes make a difference; people often ignore an unpleasant message the first time they hear it, but start thinking about it or take it more seriously if it’s repeated to them. If even these efforts are unsuccessful, we can let the matter drop—but we must continue praying for that person’s conversion.
If Father Fidelis had merely ignored the officer’s insults, that man’s conversion may never have occurred, and his eternal destiny may have ended up being a tragic one. It’s entirely possible you and I will be given some opportunity to help a sinner repent and thereby find the path to salvation. We don’t have to go looking for these situations, but if they arise, we should prayerfully respond in humility and faith. Jesus wants everyone to be saved, and He will greatly bless and reward all who, in some small but significant way, help bring this about.