Memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr
One of the most difficult things we deal with in life is inter-personal conflict. Many, if not most of us fear conflict and feel ill-equipped to deal with it in healthy ways and so we wind up avoiding it or even running from it. In our emotional reactivity we often try to pull other people into our difficult situations, attempting to diffuse our own anxiety by spreading it out to them. It’s easier to “triangle in” a third person who is not involved, telling them about our issue in an attempt to relieve our stress, than it is to face the person with whom we’re at odds. It’s the “herding instinct” in action – you may have seen it in cattle. One steer gets spooked and takes off running in alarm and that one’s anxiety is transmitted instantaneously to the rest of the herd. In moments, the entire group stampedes away, in reaction to the one individual’s anxiety. Forming relationship triangles are a common way that we exhibit this herding instinct. If I’m angry at someone and I tell a third party(s) about it, now I feel better, but my anxiousness is projected onto those others. Our Lord understands these tendencies in us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us the way to handle conflict as people of reconciliation.
I’m a convert to Catholicism (in fact yesterday was my 3-year anniversary of being Catholic). I was raised as a Protestant Christian and spent over 25 years in pastoral ministry in Protestant churches. I enjoyed a very ecumenical experience, immersed in a variety of different denominations. One thing they had in common was a clear teaching around today’s Gospel text. Not only did I hear this exhortation through sermons and in Sunday School class, but also 1:1 from brothers and sisters in Christ. The admonition was simple and was repeated the same way throughout the many churches I served: “follow Matthew 18.” What they meant was to follow the steps our Lord gives us in verses 15-17 whenever you have an issue, a problem, or a conflict with another person. Perhaps you’ve been taught the same in your parishes or churches.
I like reading the bible in several different faithful translations when I pray and study God’s Word. The Message is a wonderful translation, faithful to the original language, that puts the text into everyday language. Verses 15-17 are translated this way in The Message:
“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”
The steps are simple, and it begins 1:1 – work it out between the two of you. Notice that the covering over all of it is love. You may in fact not be able to resolve the issue, even after following these three steps. But the invitation is to exercise spiritual works of mercy and to offer forgiveness in love. I’m reminded of St Paul’s words in Romans 12:17-19, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends . . .”
During the Mass, we offer each other the sign of peace. As I understand it, this practice stems from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:22-24. In today’s Gospel, I see a similar invitation to reflect upon our interpersonal relationships and to truly be people of peace. As we say “peace be with you” each week, let us examine ourselves honestly about the relationships we have where peace, where wholeness, is lacking. Let it be a moment to motivate and inspire us to go forth from the Mass committed to follow Matthew 18.
Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I would find myself in a moment of conflict, or find myself triangled into someone else’s situation and a mature brother or sister would ask, “have you followed Matthew 18?” If my answer was no, they gave the gentle admonition to go to the person 1:1. This is an example of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) that I appreciate so much.
Today is the Feast of St Maximilian Kolbe. St Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe and described him as the “martyr of charity.” Kolbe was certainly no stranger to conflict! But he was sold out in his love for God and his love for God’s people. Being people of reconciliation after Kolbe’s example is one way that we exercise charity. Following Matthew 18 is a way to offer radical love to another person. Following these steps of conflict resolution is difficult. Sometimes it feels impossible. Kolbe was one of history’s disciples of Jesus most committed and devoted to our Blessed Mother. Let us today ask his intercession to help us be bold in our radical love for others and commitment to follow Matthew 18, and let us run to the loving arms of our Mother, asking her to help us to follow her Son’s teaching. Perhaps it would be helpful to pray the Rosary today as we ask our Mother to help us grow in this area of our discipleship.