Jesus built his church on the rock of Peter, as we heard in the gospel reading two weeks ago. I think we can all agree that Jesus was savvy and must have known that gathering a sinful people in his name to worship God, connect with each other, grow in faith, serve others, and spread the Word would be a daunting task, to say the least. Fights would break out, conflicts develop, and divisions follow. He therefore set up in the gospel reading today a very clear system for conflict management within the Church he founded.
Disciples first are to work out their disagreements in private, so that a Christian who falls into serious sin can and should expect fraternal correction. If this approach does not bear fruit, they are to bring witnesses, in order to heighten the guilty party’s awareness of the seriousness of the sin, much like a modern-day “intervention.” If he or she still refuses to repent, Jesus says to “tell the church,” which may, as a last resort, temporarily excommunicate the person until they seek forgiveness.
This instruction undoubtedly would have made sense in ages past, when the Church was dominant, influential, and the foundation of society itself. Indeed, the Church had authority to judge cases of misconduct and impose penalties and sanctions, including excommunication and even imprisonment for priests religious and to root out heresy through its own judicial processes. Thus, to “tell the church,” as Jesus directed, was a fitting solution in an era when it was the linchpin of the social order.
How do we make sense of the command to “tell the Church” in a world today, where religion largely has been marginalized, driven out of the public sector, and relegated to the private sphere of life? Indeed, “[o]ne of the greatest challenges to the life of Faith in the modern world is the privatization of religion [and] . . . the elimination of [its] naturally communitarian character” (Jeff Mirus, Ph.D. www.catholicculture.org, June, 14, 2015). Whereas the local parish was the hub of every kind of activity in the past, today the spokes have come loose.
Though we may be tempted to mourn the loss of a muscular church, there is a silver lining. Today, we are forced to focus more on inspiring people than commanding them, on elevating their souls to heaven than frightening them into submission. The parish renewal movement that is spreading across our country is built on insightful preaching, inviting hospitality, and beautiful music. It emphasizes winning converts, saving the lost, and attracting unbelievers. Increasingly, parishes are paring down extraneous activities like bingo, parties with no discernable spiritual benefit, and poorly-attended events that continue year after year simply for the sake of tradition. Instead, the quality of the Sunday worship experience and deepening every person’s relationship with God have become the center of church growth.
Although many of the historical but secular functions of the Church have been stripped from her control, the Church’s ancient mission to “go and make [true] disciples,” perhaps now more than ever, out of necessity, is being lived out to the full. Therefore, even now, we can go and “tell the church,” as Jesus commanded, because the more genuine disciples are formed, the less fraternal correction will be necessary in the first place.
Father Roger Gustafson