Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The late Francis Cardinal George once wrote “In the United States, everything is permitted, even encouraged. … But, while practically everything might be permitted, practically nothing is forgiven. By contrast, in the Church much is not permitted. … But while much is not permitted, everything can be forgiven. Our culture pulls us towards vengeance, our faith towards mercy.” On this Divine Mercy Sunday, his words echo powerfully in my heart, for we indeed live in a time when permissiveness is run amok and forgiveness is in short supply. Today it is often referred to as cancel culture – a form of ostracism from community or profession, often encouraged by social media and carried out in media and in person – and the inclusion of the word “culture” is what disturbs me most. It means that the human tendency to seek vengeance (an effect of original sin) which can be overcome by the mercy of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, has been so exaggerated in our time that it has become a defining characteristic of our entire cultural milieu, rather than an unfortunate attribute of some personalities. In its beginnings, this culture seemed to be reserved for public figures, but it increasingly includes ordinary people. What is worse, the culture pervades even personal relationships, such that many people no longer communicate with one another because of things posted on personal social media accounts. The comments section of any news article (a tool of the devil if ever there was one) is rife with sniping and even threats. In Fairfield, we recently saw this form of doxing take place with teenagers who behaved in a morally sinful way. Adults attacked them and their families online, so caught up in condemning the action that they forgot to call the sinful to conversion. Cancel culture is profoundly sinful because it is rooted in pride and utterly lacks charity. The height of its hypocrisy is the insistence that no one has the right to judge anyone else, yet cancel culture by its very nature both judges and condemns with a hopeless severity. Cancel culture can only exist and thrive when we lose sight of God’s infinite mercy, when we fail to experience His mercy in our own lives, and when idolatry of self has clouded our vision completely.
When we are faced with the reality of evil – whether in the world or in our own thoughts, words, and deeds – we can be comforted that Jesus ate with sinners, that he spent time with those who were judged by their society. We do well, however, to remember that our Lord always called them away from their sinful lives and into a lived relationship with Him. When we are tempted to translate the cancel culture normally reserved for nationally known public figures to a local application, we do well to remember our Lord’s strong admonition “Judge not, lest you yourself be judged” (Mt. 7:1). Our culture takes this phrase to mean that Jesus approves of every action, that He is permissive. On the contrary, these words of our Lord are a call to mercy. In teaching us not to judge, Jesus teaches us to step back and allow God to be God, to yield to the Just Judge. In reminding us “lest you yourselves be judged” our Lord is gently reminding us that we are sinners in need of mercy. Deeply embedded in our society, though, is the idea that Jonathan Edwards first gave us, that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. As our society has become increasingly secular, the angry God is replaced by angry citizens. Said angry citizens see only the sins of others and need no mercy for themselves. Our Catholic faith, however, teaches us a radically different lesson. We are sinners in the hands of a loving, merciful God. We are sinners who need mercy, and who can receive Divine Mercy if only we would open our hearts and minds to say yes to this infinite gift. To open our lives to Divine Mercy is to receive not only forgiveness for ourselves, but also to become instruments of God’s mercy for a wounded world.
Catholicism places this need for mercy squarely in front of us in two powerful ways: the Mass and the sacrament of Confession. Every Mass begins with the public admission of sin and the plea Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy! Throughout the Mass, we stand together before the Father asking for mercy. The Eucharistic Prayers all acknowledge that of our own merits we have nothing, but God who is merciful counts us worthy to come together before Him, we sinners who need abundant mercy. In the Eucharist, we receive that abundant mercy, for the Eucharist is the spiritual food we need if we are to carry the mercy of Christ to the world. The Mass reminds us of who we are, and that in spite of our sin, God loves and welcomes us, He restores what is fallen, raises up what has been made low, and shows us that sin is not meant to define our lives. In the sacrament of Confession, we personally experience the mercy of the Father. “Lest you yourselves be judged.” Confession teaches us to bring before the merciful gaze of our loving Jesus those things we would never want judged by the world. One-on-one, in confession, we find forgiveness and mercy. The more frequently we find this mercy, the more we are able to see the need for mercy in the world around us. If Catholics made use of this encounter with the living and abiding mercy of Jesus more frequently, the world would be a more merciful place. We cannot give what we do not have – and if we have not received mercy for our own sins, we can never be bearers of mercy for those who sin in the world. What the world needs now is not permissiveness but forgiveness.
I will spend this week participating in a retreat for priests. This retreat is geared toward helping priests receive the merciful, healing love of the Father and grow as instruments of the mercy of Jesus in their parishes. I am grateful to Fathers Silva and Blatchford for taking care of things in the parish while I am away. Please pray for me this week.