How can I offer correction to family members?

| Father Michael Schmitz | September 11, 2019 | 0 Comments
Family discussion

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Q. I have family members who are Catholic, but they openly do not live as Catholics. I don’t know how to offer them correction. What do I do?

A. I think that most anybody reading this column will be able to relate to what you described. You want the best for your family. You don’t merely want to be right or to “fix” them, but you want them to come to know God’s love for them and his high call of discipleship.

First, I would remind you of a couple of important realities. You and I are often incredibly blind to our own shortcomings and sins. Despite the fact that we want to follow the Lord and serve him well, it is always easier to recognize the faults of others than to attend to our own sins. I can find myself giving speeches in my head about how this person or that group needs to shape up and change their behaviors, completely ignoring the fact that I fail just as regularly in my own personal areas of weakness. Have you ever found this to be the case? We tend to give ourselves a pass for our own sins and can be tempted to condemn others. We extend some leniency to ourselves but are cut-and-dried with the behavior of other people.

Being aware of this temptation will go a long way. First, it will remind us that we are not guiltless. Second, it will necessitate that we approach the people we love with a certain degree of patience and understanding. We approach our family members and friends as equals, as “fellow travelers.” I know there was a time in my life when I didn’t know and didn’t care about what God wanted. I am grateful to people for being so patient with me in my bumbling about and arrogance.

Second, I am regularly reminded of the advice given by the founder of a religious community (who wrote a lot about living in community!), where he emphasized the importance of “assuming the best.” When it comes to living with others, there can be the temptation to begin to make conclusions about the motivations behind their actions: “Clearly, they are leaving the dishes in the sink because they know that I will do them and they don’t mind placing that burden on me.” We can also make assumptions about their interior life. I remember how, for a long time, I found myself misjudging how some close friends (who were committed Catholics) used their money. I thought that they should be living more simply and give more of their money away (isn’t it interesting how easy it is to fall into the trap of knowing what other people should do with their money?). What I did not realize until much later was how incredibly generous they actually were, giving away far more money than they kept.

If I had followed the counsel of “always assume the best” of the other, I would have been reminded that there is so much more that I don’t know about another person’s life than what I do know.

Lastly, pay attention to the who, the what, and the how of correction.

Who is the person I am compelled to correct? What I mean by that is: What is my relationship with them? What is my role in their life? Is this particular relationship one in which I have the responsibility to offer correction? One way to determine that (on a subjective level) is to ask yourself: Has this person given me permission to correct them? I know that is a bit of a “fuzzy” question, but attending to it can save you a lot of grief. Even when it comes to certain close friends and family members, we learn quickly enough that some of them have not given us permission to speak truth into their lives. I have to be willing to accept the fact that they may not accept correction.

What is the point on which I want to offer correction? Am I wanting to correct a mere preference of mine, or is this something worth correcting? Am I putting forth merely an opinion, or is this the actual truth? Beyond that basic question, I may also have to ask whether the importance of this correction is worth cashing in my “relationship clout” with the other person. There is such a thing as “majoring in the minors.” Is this point of correction going to get in the way of being able to help my friend or family member when it comes to a more serious issue?

How one offers correction might be the most important element of all. If we remember the first thing to keep in mind (that I am approaching this person with my own baggage and failures), then the how becomes clearer. St. Peter wrote, “Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear … ” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

While he is talking about offering a defense for your faith in Christ, being aware of the call to speak with “gentleness and reverence” when offering correction is necessary.

In addition, Jesus makes it very clear that we are not given permission to publicly correct our brothers and sisters. He 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 charge may be established 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” (Matthew 18:15-17). The first step is to correct privately, and the penultimate step is to bring it to the Church, not the world. This is important to remember in our social media day and age.

The responsibility to offer correction is not to be taken upon oneself lightly. Prayer is necessary. Examining one’s own motives is necessary. And finally, being willing to go unheard and unheeded is also necessary.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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