|Pope Gregory the Great, Author of the Pastoral Rule|
One of the many aspects of being a pastor that I enjoy is that I am the shepherd of many different kinds of persons. I am the pastor of some persons who go to daily Mass, some who go to Sunday Mass, some who go monthly, some who go twice a year, and some who go never. I am the pastor of persons who have strong faith and person who have weak faith; persons who have had great conversions and persons who are in need of great conversions; persons who love the Church with all of their hearts and persons who are somewhat ambiguous on why they keep coming to church; persons who think I'm a great pastor and persons who think they got the short end of the straw when I became pastor; persons who wish that the traditional Latin Mass was the only way Mass was offered and persons who think that the traditional Latin Mass ought to be outlawed; persons who think the bishops are way too liberal and persons who think the bishops are way too conservative; persons who agree with the Church's teachings on sexual morality and persons who vehemently disagree; and the list of differences goes on and on.
Being pastor of such a variety of persons is a very beautiful experience. It requires an ability to shepherd each sheep according to his or her own unique situation. As a preacher, I try to preach robustly the full truth of the Gospel. It is there that--to the best of my ability--I attempt to lay out the fullness of the Catholic life. But, I am well aware that those hearing it are not always living the Catholic life in its fullness. For that matter, neither is the guy who is preaching it. But, the pulpit is where the whole Word is preached. I try to preach in a way that I hope the Word might penetrate some hearts and draw them closer to the Lord. Even when the Word is difficult, it is Good News. Pastors preach the Word because they love the people to whom they are preaching.
Sometimes people talk to me about "good Catholics" and "bad Catholics." I suppose I know what they are getting at, but that's not how I or most priests think about their people. There are "good" Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday and are filled with anger, lust, envy, and pride and there are "bad" Catholics who hardly ever attend Mass who show extraordinary generosity to the poor and who are faithful spouses and devoted parents. The goal--for all of us--is to overcome sin in our life and to follow Christ with ever increasing fidelity. The goal is not for us to drive out all of the "bad" Catholics.
As a pastor, I have come to appreciate the image of the priest as a physician of souls. It is an art to come to consider each patient's condition and each patient's infirmity. Knowing how much medicine each person can handle at a given time is vitally important to the care of their soul. Too much medicine all at once could do more damage than their present infirmity is doing. Too little medicine might make them succumb further to the disease. And before anything else, the physician must be able to diagnose properly the disease that is afflicting the person. This care of souls is entrusted to priests because the priest has been given the graces necessary (the spiritual medical degree) to diagnose and treat the spiritually infirm with the full supply of the Christian pharmacy.
Of course, the priest can do everything right and still the patient might grow worse or even die because, in every instance, the patient's freedom is engaged. And there are also times when we priests and bishops have made bad diagnoses or provided an inadequate plan of treatment. And yet, it is to us that Christ has given the care of souls. It is a labor of love and it requires a great discernment and a great amount of patience. Not every conversion happens instantaneously. Some illnesses take years to overcome. The key though seems to be in the pastor's relationship with the person. Even if the person disagrees with the diagnosis or with the treatment plan, if he or she trusts that the priest loves him or her and only wants what is in his or her best interest, then there's hope.
Sometimes in parish life, there are those who--perhaps with good intentions--feel it is their responsibility to correct everybody whom they perceive as being a "bad" Catholic. Fraternal correction is a part of the Christian life, but the first part of that term is "fraternal." Correcting others by dropping bombs on them is not at all helpful and often produces a worse illness than the original disease. Oftentimes, these individuals see evidence of imperfection and--without knowing the full story--rush in and draw a line in the sand. These persons might be well-intentioned and might have some understanding of Catholic teaching, but they should not be practicing spiritual medicine without a license.
In preaching and teaching, it is necessary to give the universal principles. For instance, most health books say that people should vigorously exercise for at least 30 minutes per day. That's the general principle. But, there are patients who, if they got their heart rate up for 30 minutes, might keel over and die.
It is up to the physician to help that person discern what is the proper amount of exercise.
Certainly in the spiritual life nobody will suffer harm by living the full truth. And, the truth must be preached and taught in all of its fullness. But, when you have a patient in front of you, perhaps you know that this particular patient is just not going to respond positively to the 30 minutes a day proposal. They need to be led towards living the full truth. You begin a process of treating that person that--you hope--will eventually get them there. In that moment, we don't need somebody telling the patient, "Either you do 30 minutes a day or nothing." Because very often, the person will choose . . . nothing.
Fraternal Correction is certainly part of the Christian life, but the first part of that term is--at the very least--as important as the second part. It is FRATERNAL Correction. If one's heart is filled with love for the other person and it is clear that you are trying to love them back to full health, then that's one thing. But, if somebody is just really angry that this person is not living a "good" Catholic life and you drop the bomb on them, that is not "Fraternal Correction."
As a pastor and as a physician of souls, I'm sure that I've not always done it perfectly. Perhaps too much laxity when what was needed was more strictness and sometimes too much strictness when more patience was needed. But, one of the most complicating factors in the life of caring for souls is when--after much work and patience--some "good" Catholic decides that it is their job to "fix" this person all at once. More often than not, the damage that they do undoes much of the healing that had thus far been accomplished.
The Care of Souls is delicate and is an art. Pope Gregory the Great wrote extensively on the spiritual illnesses that afflict various individuals and how to treat each type of patient. The art of caring for souls is so important that Christ--who established only Seven Sacraments--dedicated one for this purpose. We should trust the pastors of souls to tend to each soul as he sees fit. A good reason that we should trust this method is that Jesus himself has established it.
The bottom line is that we priests ought to take seriously our duty to care for souls, doing our best to provide the most beneficial treatment. For love of the patient, we should be willing to apply more aggressive treatement when necessary and we should be willing to exercise great restraint and patience when that is the best way to bring healing. Every Christian has a responsibility to help their brothers and sisters on the way to salvation, but simply pointing out their faults and sins and condemning them is not usually the best method of helping them. Fraternal Correction should not be about making ourselves feel better that we got something off of our chest. It should be about drawing a brother or sister closer to Jesus Christ. That often takes a lot of patience.