Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
March 7, 2014
The central message of Pope Francis’ papacy has been the incredible gift of God’s mercy.
This gift is something deeply personal for him. His motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, points to the fact that just like Jesus called St. Matthew to be an apostle precisely in the act of forgiving him so God called the young 16-year-old Jorge Bergoglio to be a priest in the act of forgiving him in a Buenos Aires confessional. When he was elected Pope and asked if he would accept the office, he replied, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
And he has sought to bring his deep understanding of God’s merciful love to the Church and the world and help everyone to receive that inestimable gift.
I’ll never forget his first Sunday as Pope when he called the small parish of St. Anne, just inside the gates of the Vatican, and said that he would like to celebrate the Sunday morning Mass. There he preached off the cuff a message that he would incorporate into his first Angelus address to a packed St. Peter’s Square a short time later. “The Lord never tires of forgiving. Never!,” he exclaimed. “It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving.”
There are two parts to his proclamation of God’s mercy. The first is a theological point about God, that he never tires of giving us his merciful love. It’s God’s greatest joy to forgive, as Jesus taught us in the Parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son.
The second part is moral. We have to respond to this great gift, which basically was the motivation for the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Pope Francis says that we must never tire of asking for that the mercy that God never tires of giving.
The world has been hearing with enthusiasm the first part of the message, but it’s been tone deaf to the second. And it’s not for lack of Pope Francis’ trying to get that message across.
He declared that he himself never tires of asking for God’s mercy, going to receive it every two weeks in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
He has put into practice the priority of drawing others to the Sacrament and of setting an example for priests to make it available by himself prioritizing hearing confessions at World Youth Day and every time he visits a Roman parish.
He has preached often about the need for Catholics to take advantage of the gift of the Sacrament of God’s mercy. On Feb. 19, he asked the tens of thousands who had assembled in St. Peter’s Square for his general audience, “When was the last time you made your confession? Everyone think about it: Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years? Everyone count, everyone say, ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if much time has passed, do not lose another day. … Be courageous and go to Confession!”
There are clear dangers in only hearing the first part of Pope Francis’ message of mercy.
The first danger is a failure to understand what he’s teaching about morality. For example, when he said, “Who am I to judge?,” it wasn’t to indicate, as many in the media portrayed it, that he was about to change Church teaching on same-sex sexual activity or look the other way on priests’ living a gay lifestyle!. He was specifically a describing a situation in which someone “commits a sin and then converts,” who is “searching for the Lord [with] good will,” and who goes to the Lord and the “Lord forgives.” He was describing a situation in which a priest judged his own conduct to be immoral and came to receive the mercy of God and live a new life.
The second danger is that, in failing to come to receive God’s mercy, we will become “corrupt.” This is a term he has used in six different daily Mass homilies to distinguish between sinners who come to receive God’s mercy and sinners who don’t. The latter, those who tire of receiving God’s mercy or who refuse to acknowledge their need for it, he calls “corrupt.”
The corrupt are “sinners like us but have gone a step further.” They have become “solidified in sin [such that] they don’t feel the need for God,” he said on June 3. This corruption happened, he described, with the Pharisees and Herodians (June 4), those who cause scandal (Nov. 11), Judas (Jan. 14) the sons of Eli (Jan. 16), and even King Solomon (Feb. 13), who despite his great early service of God ended up through vanity and lust giving into the idolatry of various of his 700 wives and 300 concubines. He never repented like David his Father.
“This is the difference between a sinner and a man who is corrupt,” Pope Francis said on Nov 11. “One who leads a double life is corrupt, whereas a sinner is one who would like not to sin, but who is weak or who finds himself in a condition he cannot resolve, and so goes to the Lord and asks to be forgiven.”
Pope Francis emphasized that corruption is a real danger for Christians.
“A Christian who boasts of being a Christian but does not lead a Christian life is corrupt.” The life of someone who is corrupt, he said with unforgettable imagery, is a “varnished putrefaction,” a whitewashed tomb, someone Jesus doesn’t refer to as a “sinner,” but rather “a hypocrite.”
He ended a few of these homilies with a refrain: “Sinners, yes. Corrupt, no!”
“Let us ask the Lord,” he said on June 3, “for the grace to know that we are sinners — truly sinners — as well as for the grace not to become corrupt… [but] to follow the way of sanctity.”
That is a great prayer for all of us as we begin the season of Lent.
The greatest antidote we have to never becoming corrupt even though we’re all sinners is by never forgetting our need for God’s mercy and never tiring of coming to receive it in the Sacrament of Penance — because God never tires of waiting for us there in the person of his priests.