On Sept. 3, Pope Francis gave an address to a men’s religious congregation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their founding. In keeping with one of the major themes of his papacy, Pope Francis invited the priests to dedicate a great portion of their time to the sacrament of reconciliation. “Please, be great forgivers,” he exhorted them, and he told them the story of a friar he knew in Buenos Aires, a priest who was, Francis says, a great forgiver. “He is almost my age and sometimes he is gripped by scruples for having forgiven too much. And one day I asked him: ‘And what do you do when you are gripped by scruples?’ — ‘I go to the chapel, I look at the tabernacle, and I say: Lord, forgive me, today I forgave too much, but let it be clear that you gave me the bad example.’ ”
Theologian Jack Shea has pointed out that it was the “too muchness” of Jesus that the people couldn’t stand: too much mercy, too much compassion, too much love, and all of it too readily available — indeed available simply for the asking, free for the taking. Jesus, Shea says, made God as available as the village well and that was a scandal.
It was a scandal to the good religious people of his time, experts at measuring the mint, anise and cumin, scrupulous in tithing, and painstaking in obedience to the Law. It remains a scandal to all who work hard at earning God’s grace, who can, with satisfaction, point to all the good deeds they do, count the masses attended, rosaries prayed and novenas offered. But to the Prodigal and the Magdalene, and to all those like them, those who knew then and those who know now that they are outside that “purity zone,” it was and is undeserved mercy falling like rain from heaven on a parched soul.
Who is right: the self-righteous busily collecting grace points and jockeying for position before a calculating God, or the broken, standing on the outside, amazed recipients of an undeserved mercy that invites them in, sets a place for them at the table and welcomes them heartily? Followers of the gospel know the answer. It is the scandalous Jesus who hangs out with the sinners whom we look to as he reveals the heart of boundlessly merciful God — one as accessible as the village well.
When Pope Francis proclaimed the upcoming Extraordinary Year of Mercy for the church (Dec. 8, 2015 — Nov. 20, 2016), it is this scandalous God he is referencing. The entire People of God, those in the pulpits and those in the pews, are invited to be the face of mercy.
For those in the pulpit, Pope Francis has reminded them often of their calling to be “ministers of mercy.” Among his more memorable quotes are those which speak about the church being a “hospital for souls” and eucharist not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. He has stated that a confessional is not a torture chamber and warned against priests who are arbiters of grace rather than facilitators of it: the church, he says, is not a toll-house. Pope Francis also said recently that if priests aren’t merciful, then they should ask their bishop for a desk job and “never walk into a confessional, I beg you.”
In Evangelii Gaudium, he reminds us that while we might get tired of asking for forgiveness, God never tires of offering it and when we take that step toward Jesus, we will always find that we are greeted with mercy.
To those in the pew, it is an equally concrete invitation to make mercy a guiding principle in our lives. It begins with the inner gaze and the humble acknowledgement that we are sinners, in need of God’s mercy ourselves: The kindergarten teacher was speaking to her class one day about the difference between doing good things and bad things. At the end of the lesson she asked, “So, if red is bad and green is good, what colour would you be? One little girl pondered the question quietly for a moment, then announced triumphantly, “I’d be streaky!” So would we all!
“The mercy of God,” Shea says, “reminds us that we are not irredeemable sinners but temporarily lost sons and daughters.” When we are in touch with our brokenness, grateful recipients of God’s merciful gaze, then we are able to turn such a gaze on others. It is a “dynamic of mercy,” captured by novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner in an excerpt from one of his novels:
Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top, Gildas heaved himself up to standing. For the first time, we saw that he was missing one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leapt forward and caught him. “I’m as crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said. “If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear,” Brendan replied . . . . Gildas with one leg, Brendan sure he had misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We was cripples all of us. For a moment there was no sound but the bees. . . . “To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said. “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.” (Buechner, Listening to your Life, 1992.)
Lending each other a hand when we are falling; witnessing to a scandalous Jesus who gives us all the “bad example” of forgiving too much; mercy upon mercy upon mercy: it could be quite a year for our church!
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.