‘Mercy’ has been the word of the day in many corners of the Church. What does it mean to be merciful, anyway? Does it mean that we stop teaching doctrines that have been intrinsic parts of the Catholic faith for 2000 years? Does it mean we never say anything to hurt anyone’s feelings? Does it mean we reverse 2000 years, again, of consistent practice and invite everyone unconditionally to the reception of the Eucharist?
Or does it means we essentially stay the course on these matters (which is my own firm belief), that we are to teach boldly and fearlessly the truth of God about sex, marriage, and family life, and continue to patiently explain why there is a connection between reception of the Eucharist and freedom from mortal sin?
But if that is the case, what does mercy mean, exactly, in that context? This is where I think we have to take very seriously that our Holy Father is calling the Church to examine the question of mercy, the call to mercy more deeply. My own firm belief is that the conversation has been utterly sidetracked by the question around communion and the related issues around annulments. It is not principally a juridical question, a matter of rules to be changed and ‘policies’ to be re-evaluated.
Mercy is not a policy. Mercy is not a program. Mercy is not something that a bunch of old guys in Rome (with all respect to them) are going to discuss, process, chop up, and then issue as a position paper or even as an apostolic exhortation, and then we will have dealt with the mercy question in the Church.
Mercy, and the call to be merciful, is something much deeper, much more personal, much more intimate. It is a call from the Lord Jesus to each one of us, a call that invites us into a Christian maturity, a level of commitment and engagement in the mission of the Church that is far beyond what many of us feel comfortable with or equipped for.
We want to just be told the rules, and then we have the rules, and then we keep the rules, and tell everyone else the rules, and if other people break the rules we can judge them, and it’s all nice and clear and simple. And spiritually infantile. Mercy calls us to become adult men and women driven by a deep concern for the salvation of souls and so engaged at every level of our being—our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our worldly goods—in what is factually good for the one in front of us, what this person needs right now from me.
I wrote a whole book on this subject, which some people at least have found helpful. Towards the end I pose the question ‘what does it mean to be merciful, anyway?’ This is what I wrote:
The life of mercy: our home away from home, the way home itself, and the constant choice that brings us there. The awesome inestimable reality of God’s mercy, the truth of His tender love and compassion, given to us so we can give it to others. And yet, as I have often said throughout this book, how hard it is for us to believe in this, to really accept it, to absorb it into our very being.
“The problem is that we cannot absorb this. This is how it seems to me. And the only way we can try to absorb it is to act like He does.” Oh, so that’s the key! We can only absorb this deep truth of mercy by practicing it ourselves. To be merciful, as the Lord reveals to us, is blessedness itself, since it is by being merciful that we absorb the awesome joyous truth of God’s mercy to us, and are opened to receive this mercy into the depths of our being.
To be merciful – what is it? What does it mean to be merciful? Well, I don’t think it’s complicated. It is to be as generous as we can with whatever share of life’s goods we possess; it is to honestly try to refrain from judgments, harshness, accusation of our neighbors; it is to forgive our enemies from our hearts; it is to strive to become free of all anger, hatred, jealousy, bitterness, violence. To be merciful: it is the life of joy and freedom and beauty, even now, even while we still wait outside that final Door.
Going Home, 126-7
The sharing of our goods certainly includes the bold proclamation of the Gospel—our faith is the greatest good you or I have been given, right? It also includes being very generous indeed with our possessions. What are we doing to help people in difficult situations—unwed mothers, and the like? Anything? Teach, yes, but don’t be in the position of the lawyers who ‘put heavy burdens on men’s back and lift not a finger to help them.’
But in all that teaching, to truly, honestly, and deeply not judge people. Yes, there is truth, good, evil, and these are objective realities. But people are confused today, and the moral law is anything but clear to many millions of people. So don’t judge anyone’s conscience—period. Cut it out, right now! Neither you nor I nor the Pope nor anyone besides God Himself knows what is happening in the depths of anyone’s heart and mind, even if we do know that their choices are wrong and harmful.
And to live free of anger, hatred, bitterness—that is so crucial. We have to guard our hearts constantly against this. A person who presents Gospel teaching and the moral good with anger and contempt and scorn is… well, not very effective. And, honestly, not doing such a crack job in living out what they are teaching, either.
Mercy—it’s the word of the day, and it’s a serious word, a vital word, a word that pushes and pulls us into a depth of following of Christ, a depth of Christian maturity and evangelical generosity. Let us strive for it, not be distracted by misuses of the word, but reclaim it as the heart of the Gospel (which it is) and live it out today, as best we can.