Admonish the Sinner: Admonishment or Conversion?

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By Sister Jeanne Christensen

In this year’s Lenten reflection series, seven sisters offer their personal stories and insights on each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how acts of mercy can have a profound impact on the lives of our sisters and brothers. Accompanying these reflections are line drawings by Sister Mary Clare Agnew, a contemporary of Catherine McAuley, which illustrate the Sisters of Mercy in ministry in 1830s Ireland.

To admonish the sinner is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, and like the other six, it is concerned with the spiritual well-being of another and of ourselves. What does one do when one admonishes another?

We might warn or reprimand someone firmly or we might advise, counsel or urge someone earnestly. Our purpose would be to change someone’s behavior for the better. Most of us prefer to avoid conflict so admonishing someone demands strength, courage and compassion. 

Who is the sinner, the one to be admonished? The one who fails to love God and their neighbor? The one who fails to accept and live God’s lavish love for them? Do we ask, “Is it I, Lord?”

Whenever wrongdoing – sin – corrupts the human heart and distances us from our Creator and our neighbors, it must be addressed. We must look into our own hearts more than we look outward in order to bring about conversion. Where have we as individuals, community members or societal members failed our sisters and brothers, especially those most vulnerable?

What do we see below the surface? Do we see any complicity in structures or systems from which we benefit? Can we acknowledge that poverty is a modern form of slavery, that cheap labor and environmental destruction factor into our desire or demand for low consumer prices and higher profits? Can we live with knowing that comfort, convenience, and entertainment for some requires the exploitation of others? When we recognize wrongdoing by another, can we initiate mutually respectful conversation; listen carefully and openly; respond with integrity and charity? Can we admit our own wrongdoing? Can we take collaborative actions that address, rectify the exploitation of others and admit our complicity in tolerating such abuse and debasement of others? Will we ask forgiveness?  

To pray for sight is risky for we may see what we have avoided or could not bear to see about the world and our complicity in structures of disparity from which we benefit. Besides the larger patterns of oppression that become visible when our eyes are opened, we may find small conversions occurring every day within ourselves as we learn to see people who were formerly invisible, stereotyped, labeled, insignificant or threatening. Once they become real people, relationships are possible. Our world expands as we discover more diversity and the common humanity we share with everyone.

Ultimately, those who learn to see begin to recognize the image of God everywhere and in everyone. When this happens, we are not far from the Kingdom of God. 

St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, says: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as God has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (3:12-15)

Note: A portion of this reflection was adapted from a column by Pat Marrin in the National Catholic Reporter, 06/22/2020, “I Want to See” Used with permission.