Show them that you love them

Readings: Jonah 3.1-5; Ps. 25; 1 Cor. 7.29-31; Mk. 1.14-20.

One year after having been ordained a priest, my superiors assigned me to serve on the faculty of the Vincentian Fathers' college seminary. My responsibility was to guide the young men, and to vote on who should be advanced or not be advanced to the next level of seminary training towards priesthood. I was 28 years old; what did I know? I did not know much. I made mistakes. At times, I was too hard in disciplining the students, and evaluating these students. An old wise priest took me aside, and advised me, "Show them that you love before you correct them." Let me repeat that important phrase: "Show them that you love before you correct them."

On television recently, I was watching an interview with a retired military leader. The interviewer asked the general about what he had learned during his decades of service. This senior official replied, "You have to love them before you can lead them."

When doing research for one of my books, I discovered a wonderful phrase of St. Theodora Guerin, who had founded a community of religious women at Indiana in the early 1800s. She and her sisters established schools to educate young children. She instructed her religious sisters: "First, love your students, and then teach them."

On this Feast of St. Paul the Apostle, I abstract this message: "show them that you love them; love them before you teach them." Parents and anyone else in a position of Christian leadership, the following message is intended primarily for you.

A little background on St. Paul first, please. He had been ministering for the Lord for ten years. He had traveled far and wide preaching and teaching. At times, he found it necessary to correct people, to admonish people, to chastise them about their false beliefs and misbehaviors. And he explains to them that he was correcting them for their own good. Permeating all his strong words and selfless actions was his love for God, and his love for the people in front of him. This manner of conduct was demonstrated and verified near the end of his third missionary journey. He was heading to Jerusalem for what an angel of God had warned him would be a period of "chains and hardships." (Acts 20.23) He anticipated correctly that this would be his last visit to Jerusalem. En route, he stopped just outside of the metropolis of Ephesus where he had spent three years, and which city had a population of a quarter million people. Paul sent word back to nearby Ephesus that his ship had landed and this would probably be the last time in his life that they would see each other. A crowd of church elders and church members rushed to visit with Paul. May I read a few verses of St. Paul's words:

You know how I lived among you from the first day I set foot in the province of Asia [now, Turkey] - how I served the Lord in humility through the sorrows and trials that came my way from the plotting of certain Jews. Never did I shrink from telling you what was for your own good, or from teaching you in public or in private. I take the blame for no man's conscience for I have never shrunk from announcing to you God's design in its entirety. Keep watch over yourselves, and over the whole flock which the Holy Spirit has given you to guard. Do not forget that for three years night and day I never ceased warning you individually even to the point of tears. Never did I set my heart on anyone's silver or gold, or envy the way he dressed. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have served both my needs and those of my companions. I have always pointed out to you that it is by such hard work that you must help the weak. You need to recall the words of the Lord Jesus himself who said, "There is more happiness in giving than in receiving."

After this discourse, Paul knelt down with them all and prayed. They began to weep without restraint, throwing their arms around him and kissing him for they were deeply distressed to hear that they would never see his face again. (Acts 20.18-28)

Now, friends, I hope that I have become an older and wiser priest. Parents and grandparents, may I advise you in dealing with and disciplining your children, "Show them that you love them before you correct them." Remind your children in St. Paul's words, that you are doing this for their own good! Everybody in a position of leadership, learn from the retired general who advises us: "You have to love them before you can lead them." May all Christian leaders learn from St. Theodora Guerin, "Love them before you teach them." Notice the way that the people responded to St. Paul's love for them: "They all knelt down and prayed. They began to weep without restraint, throwing their arms around him and kissing him." Today especially, learn from St. Paul: he never shrank from correcting people, and the people in front of him always saw first that he loved them. The message abstracted from St. Paul today is: "show them that you love them before you correct them."

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley