Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 6)

The 2009 movie “Invictus” tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s support of the South African National Rugby team during the early years of his presidency. He is determined to heal the wounds of apartheid that ripped his country apart. He is likewise convinced that the healing will come with mercy.

The rugby team he supports is made of mostly white players. There’s a powerful scene in the beginning of the movie which sets the direction of the story. He is in his office at the beginning of his term. He is the first president elected after apartheid. He has four body guards. The team leader, Jason, reminds the president that he had submitted a request for more personnel for the security team.

A few minutes later Jason is in the outer office and there is a knock on the door. He opens it to see four white men dressed in suits. “What’s this? Am I under arrest?” Jason says. “Captain Feyder and team reporting for duty sir,” came the reply, “Here are our orders.”

When Jason reads the orders, he realizes the men are from Special Branch. This was the unit that had been in charge of enforcing apartheid during that era. Jason immediately goes into see President Mandela.

“You look agitated Jason,” Mandela says. “That’s because four special forces officers are in my office.” “Oh, what did you do?” Mandela jokingly asks. “Nothing, they are the additional guards for the security force. And the have orders – signed by you.” “Ah, yes, they have special training and a lot of experience, worked for de Klerk,” Mandela replies. “Yes but it doesn’t mean they have to …” Jason says as he is cut off by Mandela.

“You asked for more men, didn’t you?” “Yes sir but” Mandela interrupts again saying: “When people see me in public, they see my bodyguards. You represent me directly. The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.” “Reconciliation, sir?,” Jason asks. “Comrade President,” Jason says, “not long ago, these guys tried to kill us. Maybe even these four guys in my office tried. And they often succeeded.” “Yes, I know,” Mandela calmly replies. “Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. Please, Jason, try.”

Forgiveness and reconciliation are never easy. A broken relationship, whether it is between individuals or on a societal level, is painful. The bigger the fracture the more pain. The greater the offense the deeper the damage. The pain, injustice, the hurt all cry out for healing. The medicine is mercy.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy, Jesus speaks of fraternal correction with his disciples. This is one community composed of imperfect people; people who have faults and make mistakes. Many times, if not most, these have implications for everyone else in the communion. The implications can be small or great. Jesus speaks of the great lengths one needs to take to bring healing to these situations. Great patience is needed.

I was in a conversation recently regarding this passage and the person said to me jokingly, “I usually give up at step one, if I even get that far.” The first step is between the individuals. If this does not work try again with one or two more people involved. If this doesn’t work bring the situation to the church, the whole community.

The situation needs to be resolved; the “sin” is something that breaks down the relationships and needs to be healed. If the behavior or attitude continues, it will inflict further damage to both the individual and the community, hence every effort needs to be made to stop it.

Notice, though, Jesus’ concern for the individual causing the offense. He wants every step possible to be taken to bring healing and reconciliation.

St. Paul reminds us of that love is the overarching basis for such efforts. “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

He goes on to say that all the laws of God that deal with people’s relationships with each other are summed up, as Jesus himself says, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” St. Paul concludes: “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Tensions continue to be high in our country. Injustices are present that need to be addressed. People are being treated as objects rather than persons. Jesus reminds us today that when we are affected by these injustices we should address them in the context of love and mercy. We seek a remedy so that the community can be healed, that broken relationships may be mended, and that peace can be renewed.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.