I had a strange dream over the weekend. I was in a hospital with a bunch of patients who suffered from a variety of terrible diseases. Some people looked healthy even though a deadly disease ate away at them from the inside. Others had hideous red and purple scars all over their bodies. I soon realized that I wasn’t just visiting this place. I was a patient myself, with festering scars all over my body.
A woman dressed in white with glowing white hair came into the room. She went to the people with hideous scars and anointed each scar. The oil healed the wounds and the patients began to smile. Excited, I couldn’t wait for her to get to me and heal my wounds.
To my utter shock, the healthy-looking patients got up, started striking the disfigured patients and yelling at the woman dressed in white, saying things like, “They don’t deserve that. Don’t give that to them. They failed.” They choked and writhed in their madness.
Then the white-robed figure came over to me. She was beautiful, with a strange tattoo on her head in some unknown language. She touched me and said, “God’s mercy to you.”
Okay, so I didn’t actually have this dream. But those images came to my mind as I read Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) and the numerous opinions from lay theologians, priests and wide-eyed crazy-ass conspiracy bloggers on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation. We are the patients, in need of the mercy that lady, the Church, is bringing to us. We all need it. Especially the family.
When it comes to the ideal Catholic family, I’ve failed. I more than contributed to my half of the catastrophic system failure of my marriage. Divorce, like murder, can’t be hidden. It’s there, like a severed head lying in the middle of the floor. I will always have to endure the looks of sympathy, disapproval or questioning glances. And, even more disturbing, the looks of fleeting fear that say, “Oh god, that pathetic guy, that could be me, please God, don’t let that ever be me” as they hug their wives and children tighter.
When you go through that, and realize it’s half your fault, you realize that only mercy will save you. There’s no room for arrogance when your 7-year-old daughter keeps asking why you and mommy have to be divorced.
I don’t want the church to changes its teachings on the family just for me. I do want grace and mercy. I know that I’m not alone. There are millions of us out there, on the outside looking in at the so-called perfect Catholic family. We don’t enjoy being divorced. It’s not fun to have an “irregular family.” To know that my three kids have another family with their mom.
But really, there is no picture-perfect Catholic family, no matter how hard some of us try to pretend. It doesn’t exist. Those of us with visible hideous scars are not the only ones who need the mercy of “Amoris Laetitia.” Pope Francis wrote it for all of us, because even those perfect Catholic families have serious issues and are in need of grace, love and understanding. His whole purpose is to show how families can be hospitals to heal.
Papa Frank did his job. He stood in Jesus’s place, and wrote a beautiful document that gives us failed marriage people hope. He told us that we are in need of mercy because we are sinners (yes, Church Militant, he did), and the church is obligated through Christ to give it to us. Whatever discussions are going on about gay marriage, divorced people taking communion, and other assorted hobby horses, are practices in missing the point. This entire document is an act of God’s grace, embracing those people who have failed, whether through divorce or through their day-to-day family practices. Pope Francis is telling us that God’s mercy is for all of us and we should show mercy to each other.
It’s the latter part that is so difficult for us.
There’s a parable that scares the shit out of me. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant whose massive debt is forgiven by his master. That forgiven servant then goes and has a fellow servant thrown in jail for a lesser offense. As you can expect, the master hears about it, and brings the hammer down on the servant. Our Lord tells us is this is what happens when we don’t show mercy to others. No mercy will be shown to us.
This parable should stick in our minds when we read Amoris Laetitia. It should guide us in how we approach our families and those who have failed in their family life. Mercy is always to be the practice of patients with our disease. If it’s not, we can’t possibly expect to be healed. And judgement will come. Jesus’ parable didn’t say, “protect the standard by which debts are measured.” It said only the Master has a right to judge. We, the servants, must show mercy.
Lord have Mercy. Christ Have Mercy. Lord have Mercy. On every family, regular or irregular.