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What the Year of Mercy is Not

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Some have been misinterpreting Pope Francis' call to mercy as a general indulgence toward sinful behavior, a wholesale amnesty toward the breaking of God's commandments, a unilateral and universal spiritual debt forgiveness.

Father Roger J.

The extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy began a month ago today.

It's been embraced enthusiastically by Catholics throughout the world who are making pilgrimages to Rome or their own Cathedrals to pass through the Door of Mercy as a sign of the spiritual exodus to which Pope Francis is calling us during this special year of grace.

But in some places it has also been receiving resistance, intentional neglect, or plain disregard because of a misunderstanding of what Pope Francis and the Church mean by mercy.

Some have been misinterpreting Pope Francis' call to mercy as a general indulgence toward sinful behavior, a wholesale amnesty toward the breaking of God's commandments, a unilateral and universal spiritual debt forgiveness. They seem to have drawn this conclusion from widespread public perception of what some of Pope Francis' statements and pastoral initiatives "meant." Some have inferred, for example, that the Pope's remarks about not judging gays who are seeking God's will, his desire to reach out to those Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, and his comments about not obsessing about issues related to abortion or contraception indicate that he's soft on sexual morality, adultery, and the killing of innocent human beings.

Such perceptions have led some faithful and Catholic priests to question whether the Year of Mercy is in fact a Trojan Horse introducing reforms that will prove contrary to the Gospel, and for that reason, they've been hesitant to jump on board. On the other hand, the perceptions have also led many in situations the Church has long taught sinful to think that the Year of Mercy is not about their conversion but the conversion on the part of the Church toward them and their behavior. So they're happy to give the Church a year to reform its life and attitudes, without sensing any call to action other than grateful acceptance.

Let's address these distortions.

For Pope Francis, to speak about mercy is to focus first on God and his loving compassion for all his sons and daughters. But it also involves recognizing that we're all prodigals desperate for the forgiveness won for us on Calvary. Our need for conversion is the flip side of God's clemency.

That need for mercy is a point that Pope Francis has made repeatedly in homilies in which he has contrasted "sinners" with the "corrupt." "The problem is not sinning," he said in one homily about St. Peter's recognition of his own sinfulness, "but not repenting of the sin, not feeling ashamed of what we have done. That is the problem." The corrupt don't feel shame for their sins and don't repent.

On another occasion, speaking about the Parable of the Tenant Farmers, he said that the corrupt are "sinners like us but who have gone a step further," becoming "solidified in sin such that they don't feel the need for God."

In a Mass with Italian Parliamentarians, he stressed, "We are all sinners," but the corrupt are "more than sinners." They allow their hearts to become "so hardened that it is impossible to hear the voice of the Lord. And they slide from sinfulness into corruption," ending up people of "good manners but evil habits."

Preaching on Jesus' words about scandal, in which Jesus calls the corrupt "hypocrites" or fakers, the Pope noted that "the difference between a sinner and a man who is corrupt" is that "one who leads a double life is corrupt, whereas a sinner doesn't want to sin, but is weak or finds himself in a condition he cannot resolve and goes to the Lord and asks to be forgiven." The corrupt person "does not repent, continues to sin, and pretends to be a Christian." His life ends up "a varnished putrefaction." Like shellacked decayed wood, the corrupt might look attractive on the outside, but on the inside he's spiritually dead.

To illustrate the distinction between sinners and the corrupt, Pope Francis has presented various poster boys of polished putrefaction: the scribes and Pharisees; the sons of Eli who manipulated their position as priests in the Temple of Shiloh for graft and sexual abuse; and the most compelling example of all, King Solomon.

Pope Francis commented that King Solomon went from "the wisest man in the world" -- as a result of God's granting his petition at the age of 18 for an understanding heart to lead his people according to God's wisdom -- to becoming totally corrupted by "vanity and passions." He went from saint to sinner to corrupt. He no longer followed God's wisdom whispering in his heart but allowed lust to consume him, acquiring 300 wives and 700 concubines. And he who had built the Temple to the true God began idolatrously to erect shrines for his wives' and concubines' pagan deities.

The chief difference between Solomon and his father King David, Pope Francis emphasized, was that unlike David who repented after his terrible sins of lust, adultery and murder, Solomon "continued living as a sinner." He remained in his sins. And his fall from grace is warning that even very holy people can become corrupted when they allow sin, rather than God, to rule their lives.

In his letter for this Jubilee Year, the Pope, in the "name of the Son of God who, though rejecting sin, never rejected the sinner," made a particularly fervent appeal to those who are corrupt to "change their lives," specifically calling out those "whose behavior distances them from the grace of God," who "perpetrate and participate in corruption," or who belong to "criminal organizations." He reminded them and all of us that "everyone, sooner or later, will be subject to God's judgment, from which no one can escape," and urged us all to take advantage of the graces of the Jubilee to meet the Lord in his mercy before we need to face him as judge.

"Sinners yes, corrupt no!," Pope Francis has repeatedly exclaimed. Rather than blessing sinful lifestyles and choices, the Year of Mercy is summoning all of us to recognize that we're sinners who need God's mercy, come to receive that gift frequently, and, having been filled with the riches of God's mercy and holiness, never stop paying that wealth forward.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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