September 18, 2015


We are most like God when mercy seasons justice

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown …
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
—Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Pope Francis probably wasn’t thinking of Shakespeare when he wrote his recent letter regarding the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, but the message is the same. We are most like God “when mercy seasons justice.”

News reports about the pope’s letter understandably focused on the Holy Father’s decision to give all priests worldwide the authority “to absolve from sin those who have resorted to abortion, repenting and asking for forgiveness with a sincere heart.”

Pope Francis clearly wants everyone, regardless of his or her past sins, to have “a genuine experience of God’s mercy.” That’s why he focuses attention on those who have committed gravely serious sins, but who repent and earnestly seek God’s forgiveness, including incarcerated prisoners and women and men who have “resorted to abortion.”

Any suggestion that the pope’s action signals a watering down of the Church’s opposition to abortion misses the point entirely. It is because abortion is an unspeakable evil, the taking of an innocent human life at a time when it is most vulnerable and defenseless, that the reaffirmation of God’s forgiveness is so startling and powerful. God can, and does, forgive us even when our offenses are, humanly speaking, unforgivable.

This is a great mystery, a paradox of faith that is not easy to comprehend. Our God is a just judge who is especially harsh to hypocrites and self-righteous people who lord their authority over others and refuse to show mercy.

Pope Francis himself has hard things to say about the hardness of heart that causes us to be indifferent to the suffering of others. He reminds us that Jesus refused to cast stones at the woman caught in adultery—not because he approved of her actions, but because he wanted her to have “a genuine experience of God’s mercy” as an encouragement, and a warning, to change her life and sin no more.

The words of Pope Francis make clear what the sound bites and news reports obscure. “One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life,” the Holy Father writes. “A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.”

Like the compassionate Lord who refused to condemn sinners, Pope Francis calls particular attention to “all the women who have resorted to abortion.” He speaks sensitively “of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” He says, “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

Does he approve or minimize the evil of abortion? Absolutely not. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the sacrament of confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.”

That’s why the Holy Father wants all priests everywhere to use the Jubilee of Mercy as an opportunity “to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” The pope prays, “May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.”

What Pope Francis seeks is justice seasoned by mercy. He asks all priests to use the great sacrament of God’s mercy to forgive grievous sins while clearly admonishing us to sin no more.

We are most like God “when mercy seasons justice.” May the Jubilee Year of Mercy be a time of grace for all of us sinners who are called to welcome and forgive others.

—Daniel Conway

Local site Links: