Comment Comment and Features

Watch out: mercy can be violent

Pope Francis reads a meditation on mercy at St Paul Outside the Walls Basilica in Rome (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

As a Missionary of Mercy for the jubilee year, I have preached more about mercy these past months than I otherwise would, in various places to diverse congregations. From this pastoral work I have gained a better appreciation that God grants His mercy in different ways, adapted to the difference among souls. To put it another way: if all of us need the mercy of God, then God will provide it in a way that we can receive it. Mercy given in the same measure and same manner to all would be a mercy that would miss the mark for many.

I was not in Rome for the day-long retreat which the Holy Father led as part of last week’s Jubilee for Priests, but I read the meditations he preached to priests gathered in three of the four papal basilicas – St John Lateran, St Mary Major and St Paul Outside the Walls. In the second meditation, Pope Francis corrected the tendency – sometimes evident even in official materials for the Jubilee of Mercy – to understand God’s mercy in a one-sided way, as if it always is extended in the same manner.

“The vessel of mercy is our sin,” Pope Francis began. On another occasion the Holy Father has spoken of our sins as the privileged place where we encounter God’s tender mercy, the place where we feel God’s caress. If sin is the vessel of God’s mercy, and given that sins differ from soul to soul, consequently it must be that souls receive mercy differently too.

Pope Francis then demonstrated this in a survey of how the “vessel of mercy” was different in various saints: “Paul received mercy in the harsh and inflexible vessel of his judgment, shaped by the Law … Peter was healed of the deepest wound of all, that of denying his friend … John was healed in his pride for wanting to requite evil with fire. He who was a ‘son of thunder’ (Mk 3:17) would end up writing to his ‘little children’ and seem like a kindly grandfather who speaks only of love.

“Augustine was healed in his regret for being a latecomer: ‘Late have I loved thee.’ He would find a creative and loving way to make up for lost time by writing his Confessions. Francis experienced mercy at many points in his life. Perhaps the definitive vessel … [was seeing] his brethren divided under the very banner of poverty … Ignatius was healed in his vanity, and if that was the vessel, we can catch a glimpse of how great must have been his yearning for vainglory, which was re-created in his strenuous efforts to seek the greater glory of God.”

God knows we need His mercy, so He gives it to us as we can receive it. Peter, already one of the Lord’s intimates, only required Jesus to turn and look at him after the triple denial. He was immediately repentant and began to weep bitter tears of contrition.

Such a look would not have worked with Paul who, far from being an intimate of the Lord, was zealously persecuting the early Church. For him, mercy came violently, striking him to the ground and doing bodily harm, blinding him for days. No one would prefer violent mercy to the loving look of Jesus, but if the only way we can receive mercy is by means of a divine assault, then God will give us that.

For Augustine, there was an intellectual awakening; for Ignatius, bodily injury. God’s mercy comes to us as we are able to receive it.

This is true even in the story of the Prodigal Son, the signature parable of the jubilee year, almost always presented in a unilateral way. The father in the parable does not try to reason with his younger son, as he would later do with the elder. He simply lets him go, and though possessing the means to either follow him or send messengers, permits him to reach the abyss of moral, religious and physical degradation. Even then, he allows the younger son to find conversion on his own. To the older son, the father goes out to plead with him, to persuade him, to urge upon him a conversion of heart. Two sons, two different sins, two different offers of mercy. Each son was offered that which the father thought he could receive.

The same Jesus who tells Peter to grant forgiveness 70 times seven to the one who seeks it, also tells him to shake the very dust off his feet at those who will not accept his preaching. The message to priests is the same as Jesus gave to His disciples – be instruments of mercy not as we would like to be, but as the people we serve need us to be.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.

This article first appeared in the June 10 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here