A strange division began ripping the Church this year. Some Catholics, including a few bishops and cardinals, complained that a new emphasis on mercy was undermining the faith.
Some of us had supposed that Catholic faith mainly meant strict adherence to rules and language and precedent from the past: faith as a set of received doctrines. Suddenly, it seemed, all of this was being pushed to the background. And the pope was blamed. The new man in the Vatican seemed to be all about mercy, not rules and judgment.
If a beginning can be assigned to this development it could be the comment by Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” when a reporter asked him about homosexuals in the priesthood. This happened on the plane taking the pope home after a visit to Brazil last year. In the full quote he said, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” It should have been taken as an unexceptional statement, but we had become too focused on homosexuality as a boundary marker. The official Church was expected to approach it with suspicion at least, not with such open good will toward persons.
Then this year we had the beginnings of the Synod on the Family, which included a suggestion that divorced and remarried Catholics could somehow be accepted in the Church without a trial — what we call the annulment process. No one knew quite how such a thing might be done; only that the current way of handling these situations didn’t seem good enough. We had focused on the formal vision of marriage as a bond of mutual life-giving love. But we weren’t doing well at preparing people for such a bond; our attempt to serve them with mercy when they failed isn’t well accepted.
The synod will continue in 2015 with that question hanging over it, the question of mercy. Doesn’t that come first in our faith?
A strong thread of placing mercy first does run through the history of Christianity. We make saints of women and men remembered for the way they nursed the sick and weak, for the way they served the poor and the outcast. That was the way Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, met people and introduced them to the saving presence of Christ. That was her calling card. She didn’t preach first with words; she preached with loving service in a meeting grounded in compassion.
There are rules and limits, of course, but they aren’t the only or the necessary guide to the will of God. The Church is a human institution trying to communicate a spirit and vision that transcend everything we think we know. We can do our best and still know that it isn’t enough. The great temptation is to settle for what we’re doing and have done. In that way we forget that the spirit of God comes in surprise and in the fresh encounter of persons inviting us to look farther and deeper.
Our God is rich in mercy; another name for love. Scripture tells us this in a great many places and ways. It is the great truth of faith that we celebrate especially at this time of year. We call it the Incarnation, or God becoming one of us. Why does God become one of us? Why does the divine accept our degrading limits? So we can see and receive in Jesus the new way to live and love and to pass it on.
We are so poor, so needy, so weak that the mercy we need must be the greatest. We are treated as a mother treats her children. We get to start over. It happens as we refocus continually on Jesus.
A happy new year of mercy is ahead, as always.