One of the best ways to analyze a theory is to see if it works. The Holy Father recommends that we priests get out more and embrace those who need forgiveness and healing. We are to welcome all and show the mercy of God to all.
I love it. I love the devotion of the Divine Mercy. I think it is the answer to the world’s sorrows. I want to get away from my desk more and be with my people. I want to embrace all with the love and acceptance and mercy of Christ. I don’t want to condemn anyone. After all, we’re all sinners.
But sometimes reality hits.
Here are a couple of examples of what might happen.
Let’s say this guy and his family turn up one Sunday at church. He’s good looking. So is his wife. They have six kids. I give them a warm welcome and find out that he has made an appointment to see me. He tells me his story. He is a millionaire businessman and a lifelong Catholic. He’d like to enroll his six kids in our struggling school and says, “Father, we’re really looking for a parish where we will receive a warm welcome and where we can really be involved.”
I’m thinking…”I could sure use a few more committee Catholic millionaire businessmen in the parish…”
Then he tells me about his first wife who he married when she was pregnant at the age of eighteen, how that marriage ended within two years, then his second wife and their bitter divorce, and how be met his third wife and how she was divorced and how the two families with three kids each have come together and they are all living happily ever after. He’s got paperwork in to the tribunal and is hoping for a decree of nullity.
So I say: “First of all, this parish welcomes all. We’d love for you and your family to be part of this parish. We’ll get the kids enrolled in school and help you with the decree of nullity and hope we can get the irregular marriage sorted out for you. I must ask, however, until that happens that you and your wife do not present yourselves to receive communion.”
If he gets angry and stomps out blaming me for being judgmental and condemnatory what’s to do?
Here’s another one: Ben and Jerry have had their civil partnership agreement and they join the parish. They sit together at Mass and hold hands as they leave church. Eventually they decide to adopt a child, and they want to have the baby baptized.
Any suggestions on how to be merciful and accepting while still upholding the Catholic teaching on the sacrament of marriage?
What is mercy anyway without judgement and what is judgement without mercy? It seems to me that mercy and judgement are two blades of the same scissors. They are interdependent and we cannot begin to exercise mercy without judgement nor can we exercise judgement without mercy.
Mercy without judgement is relativistic sentimentalism. Judgement without mercy is dogmatic legalism. This is why the Holy Father’s words about discernment in his interview yesterday are words I need to read and re-read because in fact, in parish life, and in our own personal lives we all struggle with the contradictions, hypocrisies and failures all the time. Every parish priest must know of people in his flock who regularly present themselves for communion who (if appearances are correct) are living in mortal sin. Every Catholic must know of inconsistencies and problems in his own path to sanctity for which he pleads for mercy and forgiveness and not judgement.
This struggle between the high standards of our faith and the realities of life are constant. On the one hand we do not abandon the high standards–on the other hands we realize daily our failure to meet those high standards. This is why we come back time and again to the place where mercy and judgement meet: the confessional and Holy Mass.
So in his interview the Pope says how important it is for the confessor to avoid being either too lax or too strict. The sin is not just an objective breaking of the rules which has a just punishment. Nor can the priest just say, “There, there, it doesn’t matter. It’s not really a sin.” He must get involved with the person and walk with them. In that action justice and mercy are met.