Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Heart of St. John Paul II

The father's fidelity to himself - a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed - is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home "he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him."

He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son, that generosity which so angers the elder son. Nevertheless, the causes of this emotion are to be sought at a deeper level. Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son's humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved. Indeed, it has been, in a way, found again.

The father's words to the elder son reveal this: "It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found." In the same chapter fifteen of Luke's Gospel, we read the parable of the sheep that was found and then the parable of the coin that was found. Each time there is an emphasis on the same joy that is present in the case of the prodigal son. The father's fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son's return home.

Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son, the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son's dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: "Love is patient and kind.. .love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful...but rejoices in the right...hopes all things, endures all things" and "love never ends."

Mercy - as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son - has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. 

When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and "restored to value." The father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been "found again" and that he has "returned to life. This joy indicates a good that has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father's son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself.

Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5-6

Reflection – This will be my last post from St. John Paul II on mercy – I really do recommend reading the rest of the encyclical, folks, as it is quite beautiful. In my opinion, the first two encyclicals of St. John Paul’s papacy are necessary to understand the rest of his papacy. This is the heart of the man, the core of his doctrine and his own presentation of the Gospel. In particular, we cannot understand his writings on human sexuality and the theology of the body without grounding them in the anthropology of Redemptor Hominis and the theology of Dives in Misericordia.

Indeed, why should we care what God says to us about morality and sexuality and humanity unless first he is holding before us the very pattern of fullness of human life in Jesus Christ, and unless he is doing so because of the richness of his mercy and love for us, his fatherly care and solicitude? Really, if that were not the case, why on earth would we bother with this God of ours and his rules?

It is never about the rules; it is always about the person, and the true dignity and value of the human person. The mercy of God comes to each human being, not to leave them exactly where they are living exactly as they choose to live—the father in the parable waited for the son, but he did not go live in the pig sty with him. The mercy of God comes to each of us to call us home, to call us to our true dignity as sons of God, a dignity only found as we are conformed to the pattern of sacrificial love and holiness of the Son Himself.

This is the joy of Easter, you know. Not that it’s finally spring, or that we have ended the time of fasting and can eat nice foods, or that the liturgy has lots of alleluias in it—all good things, mind you. The joy of Easter is that God is merciful, and in that mercy has raised us up with Christ to life, and that mercy is given freely and fully to the whole human race, and that wherever this mercy is received new life is given, sin is consumed in the fire of mercy, and the true dignity and beauty of each human person is restored and shines forth. And that is the joy of Easter, shining from the Cross and the empty tomb, reflected in the human person who enters into that joy.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Merriment of God

In the parable of the prodigal son, the term "justice" is not used even once; just as in the original text the term "mercy" is not used either. Nevertheless, the relationship between justice and love, that is manifested as mercy, is inscribed with great exactness in the content of the Gospel parable.

It becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice-precise and often too narrow. The prodigal son, having wasted the property he received from his father, deserves after his return to earn his living by working in his father's house as a hired servant and possibly, little by little, to build up a certain provision of material goods, though perhaps never as much as the amount he had squandered.

This would be demanded by the order of justice, especially as the son had not only squandered the part of the inheritance belonging to him but had also hurt and offended his father by his whole conduct. Since this conduct had in his own eyes deprived him of his dignity as a son, it could not be a matter of indifference to his father. It was bound to make him suffer. It was also bound to implicate him in some way. And yet, after all, it was his own son who was involved, and such a relationship could never be altered or destroyed by any sort of behavior.

The prodigal son is aware of this and it is precisely this awareness that shows him clearly the dignity which he has lost and which makes him honestly evaluate the position that he could still expect in his father's house.

This exact picture of the prodigal son's state of mind enables us to understand exactly what the mercy of God consists in. There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. The conduct of the father in the parable and his whole behavior, which manifests his internal attitude, enables us to rediscover the individual threads of the Old Testament vision of mercy in a synthesis which is totally new, full of simplicity and depth.

The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return, merrymaking which is so generous that it provokes the opposition and hatred of the elder brother, who had never gone far away from his father and had never abandoned the home.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5-6

Reflection – St. John Paul II, pray for us. St John XXIII, pray for us. Sounds nice, eh? We were able to watch highlights of the canonization Mass in Rome yesterday evening – very beautiful, very joyous (including the fleeting glimpse of our MH deacon Michael who is finishing up his studies in Rome this spring).

It is this quality of joy that strikes me profoundly in this section of the encyclical. I have to admit that, in spite of having written a whole book on the subject which includes an entire chapter on the joy and merrymaking of the household at the son’s return, that the particular point the pope makes here is new to me.

Namely, that this joy and merrymaking is the deepest heart of all, of the Father. The deepest and most perfect expression of mercy and love is not only the compassion and the care, but the sheer joy at the son’s return. We tend, even if we genuinely and truly believe in the mercy of God, to think of God in pretty serious, solemn terms. Perhaps this is natural to us—God does come to us in the most serious, deep, interior aspects of our being and lives, and few of us come into the presence of God without a bit of trembling and awe (if we have the slightest clue of Whose presence we are in, and who we are as His creatures).

And yet… it would seem that at the deepest level of God and of our life in God, there is laughter and dancing, merriment and feasting, not quivering lips and tears and high solemn ceremony and drama. Life is a comedy, not a tragedy, in the end, and the comic actor who lowers the curtain in the final act to general laughter and good humor is the Father of all.

And yet in this, there is something revealed about God, about us, about the whole of cosmic reality that is so deep that it is worth pondering. And as we have had occasion this weekend to think of the saints in heaven and the whole mystery of the ‘upward mobility’ of Christian life, so to speak, it is good to sit with this picture of merriment and frolicking fun.

What is heaven like? We haven’t a clue, really… but we know that we are going to be intensely happy there, to a degree that we do not achieve except from brief moments on earth. It will be fun. There will be, in some sense, music and dancing, laughter and play, fellowship and communion, food and drink. And presiding at the head of it all, not remote, not a stranger any longer to us, not ‘up there somewhere’ but right there, right in the midst of the fun and the joy, in some strange way we cannot foresee ‘having fun’ more than anyone, are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, delighting in the mercy they have shown us, delighting that we have received the gift of mercy, delighting, delighting, delighting in themselves and in us for all eternity. And that is the heart, the absolute core, the final word and final reality, of our Christian religion.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The God We Worship

Although the word "mercy" does not appear [in the parable of the prodigal son], it nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a particularly clear way… as a profound drama played out between the father's love and the prodigality and sin of the son.

That son, who receives from the father the portion of the inheritance that is due to him and leaves home to squander it in a far country "in loose living," in a certain sense is the man of every period, beginning with the one who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice. The analogy at this point is very wide- ranging. The parable indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin…

The inheritance that the son had received from his father was a quantity of material goods, but more important than these goods was his dignity as a son in his father's house. The situation in which he found himself when he lost the material goods should have made him aware of the loss of that dignity. He had not thought about it previously, when he had asked his father to give him the part of the inheritance that was due to him, in order to go away. He seems not to be conscious of it even now, when he says to himself: "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger." 

He measures himself by the standard of the goods that he has lost, that he no longer "possesses," while the hired servants of his father's house "possess" them. These words express above all his attitude to material goods; nevertheless under their surface is concealed the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship.

It is at this point that he makes the decision: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'" These are words that reveal more deeply the essential problem. Through the complex material situation in which the prodigal son found himself because of his folly, because of sin, the sense of lost dignity had matured. 

When he decides to return to his father's house, to ask his father to be received-no longer by virtue of his right as a son, but as an employee-at first sight he seems to be acting by reason of the hunger and poverty that he had fallen into; this motive, however, is permeated by an awareness of a deeper loss: to be a hired servant in his own father's house is certainly a great humiliation and source of shame. Nevertheless, the prodigal son is ready to undergo that humiliation and shame. 

He realizes that he no longer has any right except to be an employee in his father's house. His decision is taken in full consciousness of what he has deserved and of what he can still have a right to in accordance with the norms of justice. Precisely this reasoning demonstrates that, at the center of the prodigal son's consciousness, the sense of lost dignity is emerging, the sense of that dignity that springs from the relationship of the son with the father. And it is with this decision that he sets out.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5

Reflection – Happy Divine Mercy Sunday! This is such a glorious day in the life of the Church – Popes St. John XXIII and John Paul II, the conclusion of the Easter Octave, the example of Thomas and his doubts and then faith, and the celebration of the mercy of God over and through and above all. Not to mention the fact that it is a gloriously sunny day here in Combermere—all in all, a good day.

I want to keep sharing at least some bits of the encyclical on mercy from St. John Paul II for a few more days. The whole thing merits a good read, and can be found here. His use of the parable of the prodigal son, which (ahem) I have also written about is profound. It is this whole question of human dignity and where it comes from. It comes from our relationship to God the Father.

It is only in this relationship that ‘dignity’ – that which is truly ours, truly due to us, is assured and secured. Any other path of dignity is doomed to failure sooner or later. If we think dignity lies in strength, our strength will fail us. If it lies in personal autonomy, that will fail us eventually. If it lies in getting what we want or some variation on that, we will stumble and fall. If it lies in being treated well by others, if dignity depends on our civil and human rights being upheld… well, that’s a pretty fragile proposition at the best of times, and we are not necessarily living in the best of times. All these paths of false dignity, false notions of how to secure our human greatness, ultimately plunk us down in the pig yard, starving to death in the mire.

Dignity flows from knowing who we are in a depth that cannot be stolen from us, that cannot be degraded. And this must open us up to One who is unchanging and over all, and who is especially unchanging in his attitude of merciful love towards us, his constant awaiting our return, his constant choice to come out to us in compassion and tenderness. And this is the God we worship, this the God of Jesus Christ and of the Catholic Church.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Living Without Mercy

The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of "mercy" seem to cause uneasiness in man, who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it.

This dominion over the earth, sometimes understood in a one-sided and superficial way, seems to have no room for mercy. However, in this regard we can profitably refer to the picture of "man's situation in the world today" as described at the beginning of the Constitution Gaudium et spes. Here we read the following sentences: "In the light of the foregoing factors there appears the dichotomy of a world that is at once powerful and weak, capable of doing what is noble and what is base, disposed to freedom and slavery, progress and decline, brotherhood and hatred. Man is growing conscious that the forces he has unleashed are in his own hands and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them."

The situation of the world today not only displays transformations that give grounds for hope in a better future for man on earth, but also reveals a multitude of threats, far surpassing those known up till now. Without ceasing to point out these threats on various occasions, the Church must at the same time examine them in the light of the truth received from God.

The truth, revealed in Christ, about God the "Father of mercies," enables us to "see" Him as particularly close to man especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and dignity. And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God. They are certainly being moved to do this by Christ Himself, who through His Spirit works within human hearts. For the mystery of God the "Father of mercies" revealed by Christ becomes, in the context of today's threats to man, as it were a unique appeal addressed to the Church.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 1

Reflection – Another great installment from this encyclical. I may end up sticking with this on the blog for a little while longer, in honor of Pope St. John Paul II and his legacy to the Church. After all, the theme of mercy has loomed rather large in my own writings, too. And as much as people associate this pope with the theology of the body and its creating re-stating of the Church’s sexual morality in positive visionary terms, I believe his presentation of the mercy of God as the defining reality of the human person is even more fundamental a legacy.

Here, we address the resistance to mercy that is a very real aspect of humanity. I believe it is something that goes very deep in us, something that is not particularly connected with any religious world view or philosophical stance. There is something in the human person that does not want to have ‘mercy’ be the defining reality of our lives.

Instead, we take other paths. There is the way of power, for example. There are winners and losers in life. It is good to win and lousy to lose, and that’s all there is to say about the matter. Try to be a winner, and if you don’t make it, tough. The law of the jungle, the rat race, the Machiavellian-Art-of-War tough guy thing. There is no opening for mercy in this, of course. And many live this way, or perhaps embrace it in more subtle forms. There are so many ways to be a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ in our human variations—it’s not always a question of the corner office and the fashionable address. But whenever life is defined in terms of ‘doing it right’ and ‘not doing it right’, and there is no reference to any deeper reality, anything richer and more beautiful than that—mercy is no longer what it should be in us.

And then there is the whole matter of the denial of sin. Because of course mercy as the defining reality of our humanity at least implies that we live in a fairly wretched state. And that ultimately the successful outcome of our lives rests entirely on whether or not God is gracious to us. This is… a bit scary, right? 

Much better to just deny the whole sin business and proclaim that everyone is good (except those nasty ugly people who still talk about sin and the moral law—they’re bad!) and everything is good (except saying that there is an unchanging and binding moral law – that’s bad!) and everyone goes to heaven (except… well, you get the drift). Then there’s no need for mercy – we deserve heaven, cuz we’re all so darned nice!

But God is merciful, you know, nonetheless. So we can talk about sin and the fact that we’re all sinners, and that nobody gets to heaven at all on any ticket except the one stamped ‘forgiven’, and that meanwhile in all our struggles with sin God comes and meets us daily with his merciful bountiful love. 

We don’t have to deny anything—I am a sinner!—or be afraid of the moral law and its unchanging rigors. God is merciful, and it is this, not the moral law, that is the defining reality of our lives. We cannot and must not deny or rewrite the moral law which has come down to us from millennia of human reflection and divine revelation, but it is not the last and ultimate word.

The struggle with mercy is a deep and abiding one, and nobody is entirely free from it. But meanwhile, and this too is mercy, God stands before us, the merciful one, never giving up, always offering Himself to us, and this is the true hope and true joy of Easter in our lives.