To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be noted that Jesus’ mercy was not expressed by putting moral law in parentheses. For Jesus, good is good and evil is evil. Mercy does not change the connotations of sin but consumes it in a fire of love. This purifying and healing effect is achieved if within the person there is a corresponding love which implies recognition of God’s law, sincere repentance and the resolution to start a new life.
Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, June 17, 2007
Reflection – This showed up on my Facebook news feed yesterday, just about when I was saying to myself, “Now, what on earth should I blog about tomorrow?” Never look a gift quote in the mouth is a pretty good principle, so I decided to go with it. The citation is not given, but I would suspect it is from one of the Jesus of Nazareth books. UPDATE: As per David S in the comments, it is actually from a homily given in Assisi, June 17, 2007 - link added above, as it is a great homily, well worth reading in full.
We live in an era of mercy in the Church. Mercy and joy—these have been the two key themes of Pope Francis’ papacy, along with poverty and mission. And this is a fantastic thing—mercy is at the absolute heart of the Gospel, as I have written about at some length.
If the Church on the whole, by which I really and truly don’t mean ‘those nasty bishops over there’ or ‘those horrible priests over there’ but rather you and me right now, today, can truly both receive God’s mercy and extend mercy to everyone we meet, then the world will be a considerably kinder, gentler place and the Gospel will be preached with conviction and credibility.
By the way (and yes, I digress slightly), one of the real impediments to this whole mercy business is, precisely, our tendency to immediately thrust it off onto ‘well, the bishops are horrible and the young priests (or the old ones) are horrible and the Church’s teachings are horrible and those people are horrible and these people are horrible… and so the problem of mercy in the Church is with those people over there who need to get their act together, so there! To which the only answer is the one good old Chesterton gave when asked to contribute to a newspaper series called ‘What’s Wrong With the World?’ His answer was two words long: ‘I am.’
The truth is that, if I am pointing fingers and laying blame and talking about how everyone else is so mean and cruel and unmerciful… well, the one thing I am not doing in that is practicing mercy myself. And… maybe if that’s the case, I need to start. Certainly among the many themes Pope Francis has emphasized is that the mission of the Church lies, not solely or perhaps even primarily with the bishops or clergy or whoever, but with each baptized person, you, me, everyone of us.
Digression over (actually, it wasn’t that much of a digression!). Pope Benedict’s words, then, come as they often do from him, as a welcome and helpful clarification. What is this mercy business anyhow? There can be a tendency to confuse mercy with a sort of murky, mucky sentimentalism, a muddying up of what the moral law is which leads to a great confusion and real spiritual harm.
In point of fact, it is no great work of mercy to watch someone walk over a cliff or drink arsenic without shouting out a warning, based on some mistaken notion of conscience or personal autonomy.
The Church may not and should not have any power to ‘make’ anyone do anything, but we can sure yell out ‘That’s poison!’ or ‘You’re going to fall down go boom there!’ It is in fact a great work of love and generosity, especially given the current climate, where informing someone they’re about to drink poison will get you labeled a ‘hater’ nine times out of ten.
But even better and more wonderful is his clarification of what God’s mercy really is, and what it means for us to encounter it. To have our sins, our real sins, consumed in the fire of God’s love, and to have a corresponding love awakened in us, to bring us to genuine repentance and a new life. To have the very place where we are, in fact, failing, where we are, in fact, consuming poison or falling down deep pits and injuring ourselves and others very badly—to have this become the very place where the fire of love, the healing balm of love, the joy of love comes to meet us.
This is far better, far more wonderful, far more beautiful and meaningful and far, far more real than the vague waving away of sin and fault in a relativistic sentimentalism of ‘oh, do whatever you think’. Real mercy is a thing of courage, flaming vibrancy, and genuine compassion. It is no small thing, no easy thing, not always the simplest thing to translate into the complex muck and mire of human life and people’s real situations. But that is our call—your call and mine, and yes, all the bishops and priests and ‘those people over there, too—today.