Truth be told, I sometimes feel a bit sorry for sin. All this fuss about mercy, what with its Year and Doors and oddly Zaphod Beeblebrox-like logo. But what about the thing that makes it all possible?
In fact, the same goes for the entirety of the Christian message: repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, salvation. None of it makes an iota of sense without sin. And not just a little bit of sin, mind. But a vast, foetid pile of it, hidden deep within … well, me.
We can grasp the magnitude of this problem by reflecting on the sheer extravagance of the means by which God chose to rectify it. The power and ingenuity of the triune God is proclaimed throughout an observable universe – created by fiat, let’s not forget – of some 93 billion light years across. And yet, the depth of human disobedience could, it would seem, only be fixed through a scheme that Scripture itself admits looks for all the world like “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
The actual God had to become an actual man, actually die – in fact, he was murdered – and actually rise again. (Incidentally, each of those “actuallys” reflects a necessary point of doctrine, hard-won in the Church’s first few centuries.)
If that was really the easiest solution, how intractable must the problem have been? How enormous must human sinfulness be if the Almighty has, literally, to take matters into his own hands?
The reality, ubiquity and gravity of sin is at the very heart of the Christian message. Simply put, if we do not acknowledge our sins, then we fail to appreciate the One who (as our Holy Father is at pains to remind us) is even “greater than our sins”.
He can, as Alyosha puts it in The Brothers Karamazov, “forgive everything, forgive all and for all, because he himself gave his innocent blood for all and for everything”. Without sin, we would have no debt in need of redemption; no estrangement in need of reconciliation; no just sentence against which to receive, with amazed thankfulness and joy, mercy.
Accordingly, Christian history witnesses to the fact that those who are most appreciative of God’s mercy are also those most aware of their own sinfulness. Paul is, of course, the classic example: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might … make me an example” (1 Timothy 1:15). Likewise, it is no coincidence that the theme of mercy should have been so prominent in the devotions entrusted to the little shepherd-seers of Fatima and the Polish visionary St Faustina Kowalska. Both arose at a time when humanity was showing itself, on an unprecedentedly global scale, to be in desperate need of salvage.
Pope Francis, of course, needs no reminding of this. As is well known, he talks about forgiveness and mercy a great deal. But – and this fact often gets lost in the reporting – he rarely ever shuts up about sin either. Take, for example, this quotation from his recently published book-length interview, The Name of God is Mercy: “To follow the way of the Lord, the Church is called on to dispense its mercy over all those who recognise themselves as sinners, who assume responsibility for the evil they have committed, and who feel in need of forgiveness” (my emphases).
Francis has been known to quote Venerable Pope Pius XII’s 1946 warning to a group of American catechists: “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” This captures well, I feel, the biggest obstacle facing the current Year of Mercy.
If even traditionally sin-obsessed Catholics have, in recent decades, lost a keen sense of sin (as freefalling – or rather, by now, long since freefallen – statistics for Confession suggest), what hope is there for the rest of the world?
In fact, this is a concern that goes far beyond the current Year, and whether it will come to be seen as a success or failure. Rather, it affects the prospects of the new evangelisation as a whole. In order to receive the Good News as good news, it is surely essential that we recognise ourselves in Paul’s assertion “that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). For if we are not sinners – and if we are not, at least sometimes and however inadequately, heart-rendingly sorrowed by that very fact – then what exactly do we imagine that Jesus Christ has come to save us from?
Stephen Bullivant is consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Theology MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant