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When Mercy Shows Up at Your Parish

When Mercy Shows Up at Your Parish June 3, 2021

I want to speak briefly to the problem of the horrible people you go to church with (or don’t, because they are horrible).  A lot of times when we talk about “mercy” what we really mean is “things aren’t that bad” or even “actually that’s just fine.”

It’s super easy for a modern, affluent, suburban, pretty-cleaning-livin’ Catholic to get to the part where Jesus dines with prostitutes and be like, “Oh yeah. I’m broad-minded and loving and welcoming like Jesus was, not like those Pharisees over there who turned their noses up at ‘sinners’ . . ..” It’s easy to be like that because we don’t actually live with prostitutes.

We’re all big-hearted in our minds because it is only in our imaginations that we have any encounter with the trauma, and the coercion, and the alienation, and the slavery-to-something that swirls around that world so foreign to us.  In real live parish life, where are the prostitutes?  Either successfully sanitized into good parochial citizens or . . . not there.

Most of us longtime Catholics don’t have experience accompanying wretched persons loved by Jesus but who fail at being good-enough to pass muster.

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Misty mountain landscape photo courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0, © Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/

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This is achingly relevant because your parish is run by clergy and religious and laity who are just as bad in a different way.  We fail to see it, because parish culture and diocesan culture apply a giant It’s Okay Filter on the sins of church-people who Make the Cut.  And that, dear friends, kills mercy.

We say the word “mercy” but what we mean is “quit complaining, it’s not that bad.”

Guys.  It’s not mercy if it’s not about bad.

You can be merciful towards the person caught up in sexual sin, or you can say about those sins, “Well, actually, that’s not really a sin.”  One or the other, not both.

You can be merciful towards your pastor’s serious failings as a leader, or you can say about those failings, “Well, honestly he’s good enough at what he does, quit being so picky.”  One or the other, not both.

You can be merciful towards the institutional and personal wrongs that are committed by staff, volunteers, and fellow pewsitters, or you can say about those wrongs, “Well, ya know, big tent, doing our best, nothing perfect short of heaven, this is pretty darn great.”  One or the other, not both.

In contrast, what about when we patiently train ourselves not to mind the sniffling of the guy with the sinus problems, or the wiggly toddler rustling the bulletin, or the priest who honestly can’t sing on-key, believe us he’s tried? Okay, that is getting along and accepting people for who they are and how God made them.

–> It’s not mercy, it’s just you finally growing into a decent a human being, or maybe it’s you finally figuring out what to eat for breakfast or what to take for your migraines.

Mercy is when Father, or a staff member, or that ugly-souled meanie who sits in the front row, does something evil, and yet you forgive them.

It’s fundamentally different.  Mercy and forgiveness depend on you acknowledging that the other person freely chose to do something harmful, and you are going to love that person anyhow, and reconcile with that person as much as is practicable this side of the grave.

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Waterfall photo courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0,

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I write about this because I think parishes and dioceses and Catholic environments generally tend not to believe in mercy.  (We’re hardly alone here. The secular world does it too.)

To believe in mercy is to believe in sin.

What we substitute is a belief that the people running our churches and filling our pews and working Catholic media are all pretty much AOK, and our various lapses are just minor quirks that hardly matter.

We have to believe this if we don’t believe in mercy, because without mercy there is no hope for the condemned.  In a merciless culture, you must be perfect-enough, or you’re gone.

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Still waterscape photo via Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

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This topic came to my mind because I wanted to write about some real struggles that Catholics and non-Catholics face in parish life.   I wanted to say: People! Listen! We have some problems! These problems are keeping well-meaning souls from finding Jesus!

And the thing is, when I do that, someone invariably replies: No, actually, parish life is fine. 

Well, if parish life is fine for you, you can be very successful at evangelizing other people who discover that parish life is fine for them, too.   Obviously parish life is fine-enough for some people.  Otherwise your parish closes.

But I wanted to comment on the soul-searing experience of some well-known persons who are finding that parish life isn’t fine.  It’s not manageable.  And the reason these people are pushed to their breaking point is because of the sins of the people in charge.

And hence: Mercy, mercy, mercy.

If you have no access to mercy, you must tell yourself you are without sin.  Otherwise you’ll implode from the torment.

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Photo of wooden bridge over creek in the forest courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Most of us who are in some form of Catholic leadership, whether that’s occupying a formal position, or doing something more soft-influence like being a Catholic writer, or just being an Upstanding Member of the Parish? We feel this intense pressure to be sinless.  We can vaguely admit that Confession is awesome and the Penitential Rite is on point, but we’d better not actually be bad.

Y’all.  We’re bad.  Actually bad.  Not just wink-wink cute-quirks “bad.”

We sin. For real.  In ways that hurt people.

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Photo of elephant crossing the road via Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Without access to mercy for ourselves, we lose the ability to evangelize.

As a leader, you can’t hear the cry of the crushed soul struggling in your parish, because to hear that cry is to admit to your sin.

Thus the only way to fully evangelize — to reach those who can see your sins, and not only those who are blind to them — is to be someone who drinks deeply and fully from the wellspring of mercy.

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Photo of tree branches covered in pink blossoms courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Note to newcomers: Welcome! If you like it when I talk about this stuff, you might like the book.

PS: All clergy who try to sing the singing-parts of the liturgy, no matter how badly it comes out despite your pretty-good efforts, you are HEROES.  THANK YOU.  The sound you make is beautiful.  Keep on makin’ it.


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