Excerpt of a presentation by Fr. David Pignato at the Diocese of Arlington Men’s Conference, Jubilee Year of Mercy, March 5, 2016.
It is not possible, and it is not right, for us to contemplate God’s mercy, without also contemplating our sins. It’s not even logical to think of God’s mercy, without also thinking of our sins, because there’s no need for mercy, if there’s no sin. Mercy is God’s response and cure for sin. Mercy is God’s desired response to misery. It’s how He offers to rescue a soul from self-destruction. So, we really can’t appreciate and value God’s mercy, if we don’t also think of our need for it, which is caused by our sins. It just doesn’t make sense to focus on mercy, without also focusing on sin.
It’s also dangerous to talk about mercy without talking about the need for conversion. It’s true that God’s mercy is always there for the asking, and it’s always infinite in supply, but it’s also true that it’s our repentance and conversion that unlocks and unleashes God’s mercy and makes it available to us. Repentance is the proper attitude and disposition that is needed to approach the topic of God’s mercy. To do otherwise would be to risk the sin of presumption, by taking God’s mercy for granted. And for this reason, I’ve heard more than a few priests say that they think we needed a “Year of Repentance,” before this Year of Mercy!
I would go even further and say that there are other risks involved, if we try to think or talk about God’s mercy, without emphasizing the need for us to ask and beg for it. If we talk about mercy without talking about conversion, we risk denying the truth about our very existence as free beings. If God’s mercy is something we receive and benefit from, without any movement on our part, then we become something less than free beings whose actions have real consequences. We start to look more like robots or puppets who receive a mercy that doesn’t really change anything about us. Those who trust in God’s mercy without thinking that they need to repent don’t even understand who and what they are.
You see, no message of mercy without our need to ask for it is truly satisfying, because it denies the basic truth of what and who we are as free moral agents. Mercy without conversion denies the truth of our free will. And so, any notion of God’s mercy without the need for conversion is ultimately insulting. And it starts to look more and more like the modern notion of tolerance and relativism, which ultimately denies the need for mercy at all. Mercy is not insulting, but denying the role of our freedom in asking for it is.
As Christians, we can never forget the great truth and mystery of our free will. Human freedom, Pope Benedict XVI said, is “God’s great gamble,”2 and the “Christian faith always reckons with [what he calls] the freedom factor.”3 In other words, we cannot allow ourselves to think of God’s mercy without also thinking of our freedom. Our freedom is always somehow part of the mystery of God’s mercy.
And this means that the message of conversion and repentance must always be part of the message of mercy. Our Lord knew this. He came to bring God’s mercy to the world – to redeem the world by making possible the forgiveness of sins. But He started His work of redemption with the message of conversion. The very first words of Christ reported in St. Mark’s Gospel are, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14). The need for repentance was the opening line in Christ’s message of mercy.
And the importance of repentance was a major theme in Christ’s preaching. For example, He told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to show us how to approach God properly, with sorrow for our sins.
Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 18:10-14).
Honesty about our sins, and using our freedom to express true sorrow for them, is the only way to approach God’s mercy.
The same lesson was taught in the Psalms, which we pray as a Church every Friday in Morning Prayer (Ps 51:3-6):
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin.
My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.
This type of repentance requires honesty and humility, to admit the truth about our lives – including the darker truths about our sins – so that we can recognize our real need for God’s mercy. And to see our lives clearly, we need to measure them against the ideal of perfection found in Christ. Christ, Vatican II said, is not only true man, He is also the “perfect man.” And, “[w]hoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man” (GS, 41). Pope John Paul II said that Christ is “the perfect realization of human existence” (Fides et Ratio, 80), and that “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life.”4 In other words, Christ reveals the mystery, the meaning and the purpose of our lives.
And so, Christ is the standard by which we should measure our lives, even though we know that we can never perfectly measure up to Him. He is the ideal of perfection for which we strive. He is the model for all men who strive to grow in holiness and to discover the more abundant life that Christ came to bring us (cf. Jn 10:10). And, He is always calling us to persevere in the lifelong project of conversion.
It may be that our modern society and culture have also lost an appreciation and respect for conversion. So, we have to do what we can to remind people just how beautiful the conversion of a soul is. An experience of conversion is just as beautiful and attractive and inspiring as an experience of mercy. Think of any scene of conversion you may have seen in a movie, or read in a novel; for example, the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Conversion scenes are very moving. When we watch one, or better yet, when we experience one in ourselves or in others, we feel again that some great goodness has burst into the world, that some great goodness has been restored to the world, and that the world is suddenly a better place. And converts, like Mary Magdalen or St. Paul, or St. Augustine, remind us that goodness and truth can triumph over sin and evil. They remind us that sin and misery and ruin do not need to be the end of the story, and that the world always becomes a better place, when a soul turns back to God.
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