Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Thoughts on Reading Pope Francis' "The Name of God is Mercy"

This isn’t a book review of the Pope’s new book The Name of God Is Mercy. Rather it is a reflection on some of the points that really struck home with me and the ideas they raised in me, leading me to say, “This is amazing!” Admittedly, a large portion of the book does fall under that description, so if I wanted to quote all the excerpts that impressed me, I’d probably be posting the entire text.

Let’s just say right off that many people have wronged Pope Francis. Both those who hope he will “decriminalize” their favorite sin and those who fear he will abandon Church teaching have wronged him. The reason I say this is because the book recognizes a link that the Church has long taught: To receive mercy requires us to be sorry for our sins. That is a theme running through the book. Once a person understands this basic concept, it becomes clear that the panic within the Church over the Pope’s words and actions are wildly inaccurate. He’s not looking for ways to bring people who are at odds with the Church to Communion without a need to repent. He’s looking for ways to encourage such people to get right with God through the Church. In other words, people have spent the past 3 years rejoicing or panicking over something he never intended and missed the point of what he was calling people to.

I would describe it this way. What people misinterpret as a “liberal” Pope is actually an attempt to show mercy to those who think they are irredeemable, letting them know that Our Lord is constantly calling them back. At the same time, he is warning those who think they are fine as they are and don’t need to change that they are wrong. In one excellent passage, the Pope is asked if there can be mercy without the acknowledgement of sin. His reply is:

Mercy exists, but if you don’t want to receive it… If you don’t recognize yourself as a sinner, it means you don’t want to receive it, it means that you don’t feel the need for it. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what happened. Sometimes you might feel skeptical and think it is impossible to get back on your feet again. Or maybe you prefer your wounds, the wounds of sin, and you behave like a dog, licking your wounds with your tongue. This is a narcissistic illness that makes people bitter. There is pleasure in feeling bitter, an unhealthy pleasure.

If we do not begin by examining our wretchedness, if we stay lost and despair that we will never be forgiven, we end up licking our wounds, and they stay open and never heal. Instead, there is medicine, there is healing, we only need take a small step toward God, or at least express the desire to take it. A tiny opening is enough. All we need to do is take our condition seriously. We need to remember and remind ourselves where

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 510-517). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But how many of us actually want to receive mercy instead of vindication? I think many of us want to be proven right. We want the Church to admit she has done “wrong” in teachings we run afoul of. The individual does not want to admit that they have done wrong in being divorced and remarried or in contracepting or in rejection of authority to changes the Church makes in terms of discipline. We look for flaws in the behavior of individuals in authority in order to deny the authority of the Church. If the individual Pope or bishop can be shown to have done wrong on X, we think it justifies our rejection of authority on Z (a totally unrelated subject). But when we approach the teachings of the Church this way, we’re showing we don’t want to receive forgiveness.

The Pope also deals with another aspect of mercy. He uses the imagery of the Torah and the exclusions of lepers to avoid contamination and to protect the clean. He points out that Jesus showed mercy to the lepers in healing them—He is concerned with the well-being of the leper, not just the clean. He extends this image to the concerns of the Church, with showing mercy to the sinner and avoiding having the faithful brought into sin:

This excerpt from the Gospel shows us two kinds of logic of thought and faith. On the one hand, there is the fear of losing the just and saved, the sheep that are already safely inside the pen. On the other hand, there is the desire to save the sinners, the lost, those on the other side of the fence. The first is the logic of the scholars of the law. The second is the logic of God, who welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good, transforming and redeeming my sin, transmuting condemnation into salvation. Jesus enters into contact with the leper. He touches him. In so doing, he teaches us what to do, which logic to follow, when faced with people who suffer physically and spiritually. This is the example we need to follow, and in so doing we overcome prejudice and rigidity, much in the same way that the apostles did in the earliest days of the Church when they had to overcome, for example, resistance from those who insisted on unconditionally following the Law of Moses even for converted pagans.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 588-595). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Of course we need to both protect the sheep inside the pen and save those outside of the pen. But it is wrong to think of one at the expense of the other. The Pope isn’t saying either-or. He’s saying do both…avoiding the danger caused by solely thinking about the protection of the clean and avoiding the concept of mercy which is devoid of turning back to God. Oh yes, contrary to the claims by people who hope or fear that the Church will change her teaching. The Pope makes clear that the Church speaks about sin because she has to speak the truth:

The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: “This is a sin.” But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God. Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him. We must go back to the Gospel.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 477-480). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Which makes perfect sense. As St. John put it:

Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. 10 If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 


 New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 John 1:5–10.

The Church speaks about sin because, unless we recognize that we walk in darkness, we deceive ourselves and cannot act in truth. If the Church wants to be the vessel of God’s mercy, she must speak truthfully about sin. Otherwise, we’re flailing about and unable to recognize the mercy God has for us—because we will not seek it. So all the calls for “changing Church teaching” in changing from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin” is not being merciful.

So, unpacking these sections of the book, I see the Pope making three important points that we all have to remember:

  1. All of us have to recognize that we are sinners who are in need of mercy. We have to avoid thinking that we are good enough as we are with no need to change. If we will not repent and turn back to The Lord, we do not want to receive mercy.
  2. All of us have to recognize that protecting the flock in the pen does not permit us to neglect the sheep outside of the pen.
  3. The Church teaches about sin because the has to testify to the truth that sin separates us from God. If the Church will not teach about sin, she cannot testify to the truth about God.

With these three points, all of us have to ask about our relationship with God and His Church. Are we refusing the opportunity to accept mercy? Are we refusing to show mercy to others? Are we recognizing that the teaching about sin involves recognizing that which separates us from God and where we need to change? Are we refusing to accept that the teaching of the Church is not arbitrary rules, but speaking the truth so that we might accept God’s mercy?

Each one of us will have to look into their own heart and seek out where repentance is needed. Each one of us will have to seek out reconciliation with God through His Church as He established as His means of doing so. God’s love and mercy are unmerited gifts. God does not owe them to us, but He does want to give them to us, if only we will accept them.

This is something important to consider for us as we go through this Year of Mercy (and afterwards too).

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