“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of My hands are crowned with mercy.” -Divine Mercy in My Soul, paragraph 301
“I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
I am an addict. The matter of my addiction is between God and me but, because there is a Church and I am a part of it, it’s also between me and a priest. Now this sin appeared like clockwork; I could only fight so much and so long before I felt my will crumble. It was, as the Pope might say, a neo-pelagian exercise, because it was precisely my will that was doing the fighting. And the experience proved, before I had the words to describe it, that grace and will are categorically different; that there is no hope of willing myself out of sin and into sanctity. As the Pope says of the neo-pelagians in Gaudete et Exsultate:
When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. . . . Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities. . . . Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words. (Paragraphs 49 & 50)
Not grasping this at the time, my frustration grew until I gave up hope that Christ would ever set me free. It’s ironic that I had come to doubt Christ when, in fact, I had never really begun to rely on Him. In a stunning show of languid logic, I had reasoned that my own will’s failure was also God’s. So, not knowing what else to do, I went into the parish office, asked if Father was around, and waited for the secretary to call him. He was in. Down the metallic hallway I went, no longer pretending to be cheery now that only the walls could see me.
I turned the corner into his office and waved hello. He said something wry (he always said something wry) because he knew I would laugh. Then I sat down and awkwardly began. In tears, I told Father that I was on the verge of giving up the whole thing and settling into being an atrocious Catholic. I could not avoid committing this sin, a sin which upended my life and inner peace, and God would not help me. What was the point? I told him that this sin kept me from communion at practically every Mass.
Father listened without speaking, leaning back in his chair. There was no humor now. His face was pensive. The room was quieter than felt natural. I looked at him, then at the floor, convinced I would be told that I was not trying hard enough, that I had not tried long enough, that I must not have really made up my mind to be good. Father’s answer was worse than anything I imagined.
“That’s not really a big deal,” he said.
Not a big deal? He had misheard me. Or he was lying to make me hold on. It was a big deal. It was ruining my life. It was the biggest deal I had ever faced. Before I could correct him, he continued.
“It is a problem, of course. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. But it’s a problem for God, not for you. It’s a problem that you can’t solve. And you are going to do it again, and again, for probably some time. But it isn’t that big a deal.”
“So there’s nothing I can do?” I demanded. “I just ignore it?”
“Are you trying?” he asked.
“Constantly,” I said.
“Then you aren’t ignoring it and it isn’t your problem to solve, or you would’ve solved it,” he replied. “What God asks you to do is try, but also wait. Pray. And stop giving up communion because of it.”
This is where I couldn’t go along with Father anymore– he couldn’t be serious. “It’s a mortal sin,” I told him, assuming he had forgotten his catechism.
“It’s a grave sin,” he corrected, “But when you struggle under its weight and break, that isn’t you casting off God. That’s just being weak. That’s just being human.” Father noted that what was happening was a compulsion– and insofar as it was a compulsion, it wasn’t a free choice. “Confess it, of course, but it can’t run your life.”
It was the first time I had ever experienced what had till then been a theoretical distinction between a sin that is gravely wrong and a sin that is deadly to the soul. How could I have even known what that looked like? I had never recognized what the Catechism meant when it said:
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” (Paragraph 1857. Emphasis mine.)
“The first time you do this sin,” he said, “Don’t stay away from communion. It’s never the first time with these sins that you have to worry about; it’s the second time. It’s when you say, ‘I already sinned, why try? Why pray? It’s all pointless anyway.’ Never let that attitude take root. You just can’t do this by yourself. God will have to help you. But He wants to give you an experience of His mercy first.”
I had nothing left to say. I was surprised at the conversation’s resolution. It had not gone as I expected.
“Is there anything else?” His voice jolted me from my meditation.
“No,” I said.
“Are you sorry?”
He raised his hand. “Then I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he said matter-of-factly, making the sign of the cross over me. “Go in peace.”
I stood up to leave and stuttered a thank you. Father interrupted, “Joe.”
“Go in peace.”
I had been shown mercy before but not quite like this. In every instance before this, I had been forgiven of my sins but confident that I could really put them aside by trying hard enough. I gave lip service to God’s grace but, in the end, was convinced that I could be good if only I tried hard enough. Finally, I hit the brick wall of depravity and ego. There was no more illusion of my own abilities. And as that mirage faded away, there was peace.
What I’m trying to tell you in all this is that if I hadn’t been shown that mercy– if I hadn’t been told that Jesus really doesn’t expect me to resolve my own sins by becoming a hero with an iron will– I would have given up entirely on the spiritual life. I would have embraced despair. Eventually, I doubt I would’ve even kept the vestiges of the Catholic life; Mass and prayer would have become more and more painful.
Mercy is not optional. It is not “optimistic” or starry-eyed. Seeing mercy as naive is like seeing a mountain peak as groundless: they suffer from a lack of vision. Nothing is more grounded than a mountain peak. Sharp as a diamond, mercy is the only thing that can cut down sin. Mercy is gratuitous, it’s true. We can’t earn it. But, by God’s unfathomable logic, we do have a right to it. It’s why St. Faustina can say that the greater the sinner, the greater the right to God’s mercy. Mercy is not ignoring sin and it is not making light of it. Mercy is dissolving sin in the love of God, like throwing salt into the ocean. And I can tell you that, for someone who needs mercy, nothing else can save them.
Mercy, in the confessional, didn’t overlook my sins. It didn’t pretend they weren’t real or didn’t need to be wrestled with. What it did was put them in their proper place: an expected reality and an outgrowth of my broken condition. It was Father’s insight into these facts that enabled him to see what was really going on, while I only saw the surface. It was why he could give me hope in the face of despair. He didn’t see my sins as generalized or theoretical; he saw the very real line between my choices and my brokenness. Revealing that distinction in my life forever changed how I repented, how I prayed, and how I saw myself before God.
I have seen Pope Francis derided for many things by self-styled orthodox Catholics but perhaps nothing so vehemently as his love of mercy. The Holy Father talks endlessly about mercy: the mercy of God, mercy toward our neighbor, mercy on ourselves. For being the original Christian message– really, the core and crux of Christianity itself– this talk of mercy never ceases to fluster the self-assured critics. They mock the idea of mercy as if it’s wishy-washy, weak-kneed, naive. I wonder if this is because they have never been given any mercy themselves. I cannot fathom why else they would not rush to extend it to others.
Here’s my advice to you: go to a place in your town that you don’t like. Look around at everyone you see. They may be fighting in the bars or advertising on the street corners or doing drugs. Take a long look. Then remind yourself: these have more of a right to God’s mercy than the righteous. See that they are Christ to you. Christ is in every one of them. If you do not find Him there, you will not find Him in the host or the chalice.
Jesus’ attitude is striking: we do not hear the words of scorn, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, which are an invitation to conversation. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Ah! Brothers and Sisters, God’s face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God’s patience, the patience He has with each one of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, patience with us, He understands us, He waits for us, He does not tire of forgiving us if we are able to return to Him with a contrite heart. “Great is God’s mercy,” says the Psalm.
— Angelus on March 17, 2013
Joe Dantona is a convert living in eastern Ohio. He studied political science, history, and theology. He divides his free time between entertaining his wife and daughter with dad jokes and reading good books while smoking his pipe.