An Authentic Pastoral Approach Incorporates Mercy and Truth to Reconcile the Sinner to Christ
Of all the wondrous things that can be said about God, His greatest attribute is His inexhaustible mercy. As His Church, the faithful must be instruments of mercy and unceasingly proclaim God’s rich mercy, and a good place to begin is with the great gift that the Lord has given us on Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast observed the second Sunday in the Octave of Easter.
This Sunday’s Gospel account reveals how Christ established the Sacrament of Penance after he had risen from the dead. He breathed the Holy Spirit on his Apostles and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23).
The first manifestation of God’s mercy was calling us, His creatures, into being by His Word. God did not create because He lacked anything. He did not create us because He needed us. He created us out of His superabundant love so that we could share in His infinite happiness.
But even when His creatures turned away from Him, God sent His only-begotten Son who is equal in his divinity, taking on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and sacrificial offering on the Cross to pay the price of all the accumulated sins in the history of humanity.
Immediately upon His death, Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Good News to them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Christ went down into the depths of death,” so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” By dying, Jesus, “the Author of life,” destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Christ completed the work of redemption by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. Saint John Chrysostom proclaimed this good news saying, “Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.”
There is a tendency to think that the God of the Old Testament is a “God of wrath” whereas the God of the New Testament is a “God of mercy.” In fact, the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament are one. The Savior foretold in the Old Testament is fully revealed in the New. Even in the Book of Genesis, we see God’s justice is tempered by his mercy. The punishment of Adam and Eve are mitigated by the promise of a Savior. God says to Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel. (Gen. 3:15) In Catholic tradition this is called the “protoevangelium” or the “first gospel” because it is a prophetic foreshadowing of the Savior who is to come.
Moses sings this truth in his canticle of mercy: “In your mercy you led the people you redeemed; in your strength you guided them to your holy dwelling.” (Exodus 15:13). The Prophet Jeremiah assures us that the Lord’s mercy will always be available to us, but at the same time we must prepare ourselves to receive His mercy. “The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and Savior, is the fullest manifestation God’s mercy to the world. With compassion for those burdened by sin, Christ also labors for those suffering under the weight of pain, sickness, injustice, loneliness, ignorance, or any other bitter human condition.
While Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to take away every sin that had ever been or would ever be committed in the whole world, in order for Christ’s work of redemption to be effective for us, we must repent of our sins, believe in Him, be baptized, and remain part of His people by obeying His commandments just as Saint John the Evangelist points out: “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
The Lord gives a “new hope” to all He rescues from sin and to all who suffer in times of distress. It’s this redemptive mercy of Christ that St. Peter proclaims with great depth of emotion:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time. (1 Peter 1: 3-5)
This new hope of mercy is the greatest need in the world as Sister Faustina Kowalska reveals in her diary about Jesus’ appearance to her in Poland in the 1930s. Jesus requested the first Sunday after Easter to be recognized as the Feast of Divine Mercy, a request officially fulfilled later by Saint Pope Saint John Paul II, whose great devotion to the Divine Mercy inspired him to write the encyclical Dives in Misericordia in 1980. The document provides a deeply theological examination of the role of mercy: God’s mercy and human mercy, affirming that God’s merciful love is stronger than all the evil there is in the world. The Pope declares that the Church “professes and proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer – when she brings people close to the sources of the Savior’s mercy.”
This theme continues today through Pope Francis, who petitioned Christ on Good Friday to teach us that God never forgets any of His children, and He never tires of forgiving and embracing us with His infinite mercy. The pontiff further emphasized that we should never tire of asking forgiveness, and that we should believe that God’s mercy has no limits.
There is time of mercy and there is time of justice. God now comes as the King of Mercy, but at the Last Judgment He will come down to earth as the King of Justice. The King of Mercy, through love, sends necessary graces for the sinner to repent, who then amends his life and fulfills necessary reparation after this life-changing conversion. Accepting the Lord’s graces through repentance brings about great peace through the mercy of God.
It is, therefore, important to remind everyone that the Lord will forgive and show his loving mercy to all who repent. He is ready to forgive even abortionists — if they repent. He is ready to forgive the woman who killed her child in the womb — if she repents. He is ready to forgive all who sin against God’s plans for life and family — if they repent. The Lord will send His healing graces to all who repent, canceling their guilt and offering his merciful love.
It is good to remember Pope Saint John Paul II’s words about this:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. (Evangelium Vitae, #99)
We must beware of the tendency in our times to think that God’s mercy and truth about the moral demands of the Gospel are somehow in opposition to one another. Recently Cardinal Paul Joseph Cordes stated that, “A responsible shepherd cannot be guided by a blurred ‘mercy.’”
It should be evident that the mercy of Christ has to be presented in accordance with his Revelation and the doctrine that Church has defined under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not truly merciful, for example, to state that that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is to be preserved, but to propose at the same time a pastoral approach that would allow the persons in that situation to receive the Eucharist without amending their lives accordingly.
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the Major Penitentiary of the Catholic Church, recently stated, “In Christianity, mercy and truth are co-inherent, inseparable, so much so as to be not properly distinguishable…A mercy without truth is not Christian, and at the same time truth without mercy is not Christian.”
Thereby the most compassionate and merciful thing to do, as the Church Faithful, is to speak the truth in love. Be instruments of God’s mercy: Help people to know God’s love, truth, and mercy through words and actions. Pray that they will believe in the Gospel, repent of their sins, turn with trust to the Lord, and be forgiven of their sins and be saved. Remember, Our Lord Jesus Christ began His mission of mercy by saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)