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Today's chapter of RB, How the Abbot must have Special Care for the Excommunicated (RB27), is one that deserves close attention. We are dealing here with an imperfect situation, with people who have offended against the community in some way and incurred the penalty of excommunication. Excommunication takes many forms, and in the Rule we see a graded system at work according to the seriousness of the fault. Benedict, however, is anxious that excommunication, separation from the community, should never become absolute. Indeed, the abbot is commanded to have a special care for the excommunicated, to send experienced and wise brethren to comfort the offenders and encourage them to reform. Love is to be reaffirmed and everyone is to pray.

This is a real challenge to anyone who has ever had to "take disciplinary action" because it is easy to assume that all blame lies with the offender. It may do, but that doesn't mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for his/her conduct. It is also a challenge to the Churches as we struggle with our interior dissensions and disputes. How do we maintain that "bond of unity which the Spirit gives" when some of our members seem to be adopting positions diametrically opposed to the historic faith and belief of our Church? How do we reconcile all this "comfort-giving" stuff with the need to be clear and firm in our belief and practice?

Benedict is wise enough not to answer that question. Instead, he demands of the abbot an almost super-human degree of effort to win back the straying brother, reminding him that he has undertaken the care of weak souls not tyranny over strong ones, warning him not to give up just because the task is difficult. Ultimately, he uses the example of the Good Shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and going in search of the one that is lost. He adds a poignant detail, however. He assumes the lost sheep was found and that the Shepherd "had such great compassion on its weakness that he deigned to place it on his own sacred shoulders and so brought it back to the flock."

It is rare to find such a clear statement of the obligation to be compassionate, to take on one's own shoulders the burden of another. We can dodge it; we can fudge it; but we can't finally escape it, because it is part of what it means to be Christian and a member of society. I hope that thought makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me.