Because Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life that makes all of us, all Christians, truth tellers we live in the truth and we speak the truth. And because sin is an untruthful behavior we correct it in a spirit of brotherly love, as hard as that sometimes is, pointing out to our brother or sister his or her sins or misdeeds. Of course this is always done discreetly and in the context of love; but if we can’t do it in love then we keep quiet.
Now thankfully, most of us have an example of loving correction from our own families. When I was growing up, my mom and dad would naturally offer me correction as needed, and sometimes I would complain. Mom or Dad’s response? “Better you hear it from me than someone who doesn’t love you.” That should describe our motivations for correcting someone—because we love them, because we love them we want to show them a weakness before someone can exploit it. Someone who doesn’t love them. Correction in charity is an act of protection, and of shelter. It is a bandage on a wound that keeps infection from seeping in. If that is not why we are correcting someone, then we have no place in offering correction.
There is a story about St. Francis and how he once corrected a whole town’s behavior. Francis always worked for peace and he once negotiated a treaty between the people of Gubbio, a town about thirty miles north of Assisi, and a wolf that terrorized them. According to the story, the townspeople of Gubbio were gripped by fear of a huge wolf that had devoured many animals and people. This wolf was so terrifying that they only ventured outside the city walls if they were armed and protected with shields and helmets, as if going off to war. But their weaponry was useless: Even with weapons they were unable to escape the sharp teeth and raging hunger of the wolf, a smart wolf.
The people of Gubbio warned Francis that the wolf would kill him if he went out unarmed to meet it. But Francis went out the city gates armed only with the Sign of the Cross. People watched perched on the city walls as the wolf rushed toward Francis, jaws gaping, drool flying, exposing all his teeth. But the wolf stopped short as Francis made the sign of the cross. On Francis’ command the wolf closed its jaws, bowed, and lay at his feet. Then Francis began to lecture the wolf by saying, “Brother Wolf, you have done great harm in this region, and you have committed horrible crimes by destroying God’s creatures without any mercy. You deserve to be put to death just like the worst robber and murderer. Everyone is right in crying out against you and complaining, and this whole town is your enemy. But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they’ll not be harmed by you anymore, and after they have forgiven you all your past crimes, neither man nor dog will pursue you anymore.”
A deal was on the table, and Francis sweetened it by seeing through the wolf’s terrifying and intimidating appearance to the suffering that lay beneath it. “I promise you,” he said that I will have the people of this town give you food every day as long as you live, so that you’ll never again suffer from hunger, for I know that whatever evil you have been doing was done because of the urge of hunger. Francis then added, “But, Brother Wolf, since I’m obtaining such a favor for you, I want you to promise me that you will never hurt any animal or man, as long as you live. Will you promise me that?”
Francis took steps to alleviate the animal’s pain from hunger. In return, the wolf would avoid acts of violence. The wolf responded by lifting its paw to Francis in supplication. After the wolf’s change of heart, it meekly follows the saint inside the city gates. There Francis preached a sermon in which he calls on the people of Gubbio to repent: “Dear people, come back to the Lord, and do fitting penance, and God will free you from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” It may seem strange to us that Francis called on the people of Gubbio to repent; after all they had been the victims of terror. But the citizens of Gubbio had sinned; they sinned by failing to love their enemy. They knew that the wolf was ferocious because of its hunger. And yet, to their own detriment, they did nothing to ease the wolf’s hunger. Instead, they resorted to combat, which lead only to more deaths.
The wolf lived out its days going door to door in Gubbio for its food. “He hurt no one and no one hurt him.” According to one source, “The people fed the wolf courteously. And it’s a striking fact that not even a single dog ever barked at this wolf.” When the wolf died of old age, the people were saddened; they had grown to love their former enemy.
This story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio is more than just an amusing anecdote or the subject of postcards sold in Assisi. It’s an allegory we can use to look at our own lives. We can ask ourselves a few questions: Are there any wolves in our own lives? Are we a wolf in someone’s life? Is there anyone we’re at war with who’s in need of forgiveness, is there anyone in need of gentle correction, is there anyone in need of love?
It is this bond of love which St. Paul reminds us, is the source of all our obligations to other people. Paul tells the Romans to “owe nothing to one another except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). When Jesus talks about correction, He does not speak of correcting someone we have no bond with—He says “if your brother sins against you” (Mt. 18:15). If we go about correcting someone mindful of the bond of love, with the mindset that that person is our brother (or sister), that can go a long way towards purifying our intentions. But if our intentions are not loving, then the result of the correction is even worse—the person will still be in sin, but now we will have hurt our own souls as well by acting out of something besides love.
As with any work of mercy—spiritual or corporeal—success will always be mixed. Jesus Himself says in today’s Gospel that there will be times when even the whole Church giving correction will not succeed. But if we can act with love from start to finish, and keep that love alive even when all correction fails, then there is still hope for the future. If the person corrected experiences our love throughout the experience, and knows that we still love them in the end, they might want to come around eventually. If the bonds of love still exist, then there can still be a relationship, there can still be some measure of personal influence on the other. And in the end, we can at least say to God “I have loved and cared about all of Your people, even when that care was not appreciated.”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley