Monday, January 2, 2017

Properly Understanding Mercy in a New Year

13 Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:13)


I remember, during my earlier childhood, reading a book on the Second World War. In it, there was a picture of an elderly Jewish man arguing with members of the SS. I recall the caption saying something to the effect of, “An elderly Jewish man argues in vain against being deported.” I also remember being confused because I thought that they should take the opportunity to escape Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until I grew older that I understood what “deported” really meant, and why this man was so desperate to avoid deportation. I can understand why a book in the children’s section of a library would not get so deep into the Holocaust. But, if I had never gone beyond what I thought was meant from these books, I would not be excused as an adult for thinking that the experience of the Jews in the Third Reich was merely “unpleasant,” instead of the horror it really was.

The point of this anecdote is showing how something can originally presented to us in a way which isn’t false, but also overlooks crucial information. This doesn’t have to be a deliberate attempt to mislead. Rather, it can come about if people assume they have the whole story and interpret what they read through that assumption. In doing so, they overlook the possibility that their knowledge may have been a mere summary, or that they missed some pieces that would put things in context and should lead them to a different conclusion.


One of the major examples of “missing pieces” in 2016 was the concept of mercy. The Pope declared a Jubilee Year dedicated to mercy. He gave many addresses encouraging the faithful to seek out confession, and encouraged the clergy to be receptive and merciful in reaching out to the faithful. The Pope desired that the faithful might come and be converted, and that stumbling blocks that might discourage them from conversion should be removed.

Yet, two groups got that Year of Mercy wrong. They equated mercy with saying it was all right to sin. One group thought this was a great idea. The other thought it was a horrible idea. These two groups fed off of each other.  Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a horrible idea pointed to the group who thought it was a great idea as if it were “proof” of  the Holy Father wanting to change Church teaching. Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a good idea pointed to the critics as trying to “block the Pope’s reforms.”

What nobody asked was whether the “Mercy = laxity” claim was even accurate. The debate between these factions was only relevant if their premise was true. If the Pope was not in favor of moral laxity, then their fight was meaningless.

The fact is, the Pope’s call for mercy could be described as reminding the Church that their role is this…

Lost Sheep

And not this…


In other words, the Pope was reminding us that we need to look at sinners as people we’re called to go out to find, not as foes we need to defend the Church against. They’re our patients, not our enemies. No doubt some will despise the Church for what she believes and seek to undermine it. Such people might need to be opposed. But even then, we can’t be harsh about it. That being said, many others simply don’t understand why we believe what we do. Some actually think we’re the enemies of mercy and compassion, and we need to teach them why our teaching is what God wills.

How We Reach Out to Others Matters

That’s not a matter of just throwing a Catechism to them, telling them to read the relevant sections and keeping them away until they get their lives together. It’s a matter of patient charity, working with their desire to do what is right and loving, so they can realize, “Because I love God, I need to change my outlook and ways.” If we drive the sinner away, and that sinner decides “This can’t be God’s Church,” we have failed in our task.

The Pope, in his calls for mercy, calls us to look at every case individually, and not assume all sinners know Church teaching and reject it out of bad will. Some are alienated because they have a wrong idea of what we believe. For example, I’ve encountered some Catholics who were deeply embittered because they (wrongly) believed they could not receive the Eucharist simply because they were divorced, even though they never remarried outside the Church and were living chastely.

The Church is not to blame for this misunderstanding, though it is possible that people within the Church are responsible for this misunderstanding. We should consider this point. Does our behavior drive people away from the Church because we lack mercy or because we have given a distorted view of the Church to others? Perhaps we should think about the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in these terms. If God has entrusted to us the task of bringing people to Him, and we drive these people away, will Our Lord respond to us like the master did to the servant who buried his talent? 

God’s Gift and Our Task

19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

God gives graces so we might respond to His call, and He makes use of human agents to make His call known, and how we are to respond to the call. Playing “goalie,” trying to keep people out who are less holy than we think we are is not cooperating with His mission. Yes, one of the spiritual works of mercy is to “Admonish the sinner.” But admonish does not mean, “Act like a jerk.” Many people look at the word with a modern meaning of “strongly rebuking.” But actually, the sense of “Warn (someone) of something to be avoided” is what we need to do.

So, yes, we do need to admonish (warn) people about the sins popular with the world. If they reject the Church because of their obstinacy, we will not be held accountable. But if they reject the Church because they think our misbehavior represents what the Church is, we will be held accountable for driving them away.

So when we reach out to the divorced and remarried, when we reach out to those committing homosexual acts, when we reach out to those considering or having committed abortion, or any other sins, we need to make sure that we are not the cause of a hostile reaction. As St. Peter put it:

19 For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. 20 But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20)

That’s harder than it might seem. Think about your own interactions on social media (I know I do). How many times have we sought to put the smackdown on someone we’re arguing with instead of patiently putting up with their hostility? What sort of witness have we left? That doesn’t mean we should be a doormat for the abuse of others. Sometimes, when facing an abusive person, we have no choice but to walk away.

But it does mean we can’t write people off as a lost cause. Our Lord told us about forgiving “seventy times seven” when we are wronged. We can’t harbor resentments or think of them as not worth saving. All of us are sinners, and all of us need God’s grace. That doesn’t mean that we decide that since all are sinners, no sin matters. It does mean that our task is a constant reaching out to get them back to a right relationship with Our Lord and the Church.


Some people hate the term, “Accompanying” because they (again, wrongly) interpret it as a Church just letting people do what they want. But that is to miss the point. The Pope has never called for that. He has called for the Church to be present for each member as they are guided back to God, looking at the situation of each person. If they’re not at the level of understanding that they can have proper contrition and firm purpose of amendment, the Church seeks to help them understand. 

But the Church also recognizes that to have a mortal sin, there has to be a gravely sinful act, full knowledge and full consent. Where one of the three is lacking, mortal sin does not exist. Of course things like abortion, divorce/remarriage, and homosexual acts fall under the category of “gravely sinful.” Nobody denies that. But when the person is ignorant of the evil, we help them to understand. When the person has a lack of sufficient consent (for example, a person who is sexually compulsive), it is often a long, difficult task getting the person to a point where he or she is able to control their acts to the point to give sufficient consent before acting.

The person who stops with the fact of grave matter, assuming the rest is not accompanying the sinner on the path back to Our Lord and His Church. If he or she acts like a bouncer trying to “keep out the riffraff,” such a person is like the Pharisee our Lord warns against when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” (Matthew 23:13).

We don’t ultimately know who will refuse God’s grace and merit hell. That’s the sort of judgment Jesus condemns in Matthew 7:1. We simply can’t give up on anyone, nor assume the worst motives.

That, in a nutshell, is Pope Francis’ call for us in being merciful.

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