Category Archives: Divine Mercy

The Boredom of Heaven

Perhaps it is because I am bald, but I cringe at the theological hair splitting that often goes on in the Church.  It is not just “professional” theologians that are guilty of this, but priests and ordinary lay folks as well.  Don’t get me wrong— I think making distinctions, defining your terms and the like are very important to coming to understand the truth.  But it is when the split hair itself becomes the answer that I feel the shiver in my spine.  There are two questions that immediately come to mind.  I will save the second for another time, but in today’s post I would like to look at the first—“how can a loving God send people to hell?”

To ask it is almost to reflexively answer it—“God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose hell.”  In most cases that is sufficient for the prosecution to rest.  But the better prepared interlocutor will demand a cross-examination.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats it certainly seems as if the wicked are being sent by God to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).  Even though it may not fit with the image of God we are trying to portray, the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many references to divine judgment to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell.  There must be a more tactful answer.

Now, I have made the reader cringe.  God becomes not Father but harsh Judge, the exact image you are trying to overcome with your hair splitting answer.  The reflexive answer to the question really only serves to perpetuate two common misconceptions about heaven; misconceptions that are often stumbling blocks to our desire for Heaven.

Heaven May Not Be What You Think It Is

The first delusion embedded in both the question and the answer is that Heaven is a reward for being good and hell a punishment for being bad.  But that is not true.  Heaven is the (super)natural consequence of being holy.  Sure, everyone in Heaven is good, but only because they are holy.  No amount of goodness can make us holy, even though holiness makes us good.  The author to the Letter to the Hebrews says “without holiness no one will see God” (Heb 12:14).

One of the reasons why someone like Aristotle could only get so far in his thinking about God was that he could not conceive of a way for the gods and men to be friends.  Friendship can only occur between equals and since there was a great chasm between the two, while men might placate the gods, they could never enjoy their friendship.  What Aristotle didn’t consider is that the real God was Love and desired nothing more than to be friends with each man.  To make that happen, He would first become equals with us so that we might become equals with Him.

God makes us equals with Himself by filling us with the Divine life, what St. Peter calls becoming “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).  Catholics call it sanctifying grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you call it, it is the only thing which makes friendship with God possible.  We really must be “like God,” but only on His terms and not our own.

The problem with the answer is that it only feeds the “faith vs works” controversy.  Holiness is bigger than either faith or works.  It is accepting the invitation of friendship with God and then having that friendship grow.  This is why the authors of the New Testament repeatedly stress the necessity of Baptism and all the great missionary saints like St. Peter Claver saw it as their mission to enflame a desire for baptism in the natives (or in the case of St. Peter Claver, slaves) and then baptize them.  Baptism is the only sure way we know of to become friends with God.

Heaven, then properly understood, is the culmination of a lifetime friendship with God.  This leads us to the second delusion veiled in the question and answer and that is the tendency to see Heaven as the place where you finally get everything you ever wanted.  But Heaven is the place where you get the One Thing you really wanted—God.  Heaven is only heaven because God is there.  It is not a collection of the best things of earth.  There may be many other things there, but it is only God that matters.  All of the other things that are there are there simply to increase the enjoyment of Him.

Hell is hell because God is not there.  It may have many other things, but once God is removed their emptiness becomes apparent.  That is why the pain of loss, that is rejection of the free invitation to friendship, is considered to be the greatest pain of hell.  There is a diabolical corollary to the divine maxim “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you”—“seek ye first all these things and the Kingdom of God will be forfeit unto  you.”

Medieval art often presented Heaven with cherubs playing harps on clouds.  For those operating under our two embedded assumptions this image of Heaven is not awe-full, but awfully boring.  While it remains just an artistic representation, these images contain a truth that Heaven is about being with God and nothing else.  For those who are interested in that sort of thing then the experience will be far beyond what we could possibly image (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9).  But for the worldly man it would seem boring.  He would soon get weary of heaven because he would continue to hear only about one subject which he has no real interest in hearing about.

Increasing the Desire for Heaven

This is one of the reasons Catholics have a decided advantage thanks to the Mass.  Mass really is training for Heaven.  It is Heaven with a Sacramental veil over it.  If you love the Mass then you will love heaven.  If you don’t love the Mass, then get to work on growing in love with it.  Pray for this singular grace and persevere in that prayer.  As Blessed John Henry Newman says, “‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’ will sit with us the same way ‘Let us pray’ does now.”

Although the conclusion might not seem obvious at first based on what we have said, it is most certain that God “sends” people to hell because hell is not really the worst thing that can happen to someone.  The worst thing that can happen to a man who is not holy is to go to heaven.  Newman said, “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”  Heaven is a place of happiness only for someone who is holy.  Otherwise it would be a place of eternal torment.  God is “a consuming fire” that burns hotter than the fires of hell.  Only those who have been clothed with grace can withstand and enjoy the heat of His Presence.  The thicker the cloak, the closer one gets.  That is why God does not cease to be merciful even to those in hell.  Returning to Newman once more: “even supposing a man of unholy life were allowed to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”

King Jesus and Queen Mary

Although the Church does not officially celebrate an Octave proceeding from the Solemnity of the Assumption, the timing of the liturgical celebration of the Queenship of Mary eight days later sets up what could still be viewed as an “Octave in spirit.”  The timing is especially apt because her coronation completes the picture first presented to us in the Assumption.  Quite literally, it crowns everything that we know about Mary and, even more importantly, about her Son, Jesus Christ.  It is in the spirit of entering more fully into these two Marian celebration that it is particularly helpful to reflect specifically on her role as Queen.

The Church often finds herself in a defensive stance when it comes to proclaiming the truth about Mary.  This posture mostly follows from a belief, even if only unconscious, that Our Lady’s greatness diminishes Christ’s greatness.  We grow anxious that we might love Mary too much and thus take away from Jesus.  But everything that we believe about Mary flows from the fact that she was predestined to be the Mother of God.  God never calls a person without also giving that person the necessary natural and supernatural endowments to carry out their mission.  Mary’s plentitude of grace comes from God because of her role as the Mother of God.  Her union with her Son was not just mystical but natural and His dependence upon her made her cooperation in His work of redemption wholly unique.

Mary’s Role as Mother of God and Its Consequences

There are consequences that follow from her role as Mother of God.  Related to our particular reflection, she was the mother of the One Whom God would give “the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).  In short, she is the Mother of the King of Kings.

St. Gabriel’s message confirms what we already find in many other places in Scripture, namely that the Davidic kingdom provides a blueprint for the Kingdom of God.  And like the other the other near-East kingdoms of the time, the Mother of the king or the Gebirah in the Davidic kingdom played a pivotal role in the management of that kingdom.

This unique role of the Gebirah has been studied and written about extensively (I especially recommend Dr. Edward Sri’s book called Queen Mother), so I won’t duplicate those efforts here (**see footnote).  Instead, I will point out two passages that are particularly illustrative.  Both involve David’s wife Bathsheba, the mother of future King Solomon.  Early in the First Book of Kings (1:6) when an aging David is coming to the end of his reign, she enters the royal chamber in a posture of obeisance and offered homage to the king.  While acknowledging her, he pays her no particular honor.  Fast forward a chapter (1Kings 2:19ff ) and we find that once Solomon becomes king she enters the royal chamber and the narrative finds him bowing before her, having a throne brought in and placed at his right hand.  She intercedes on behalf of Adonijah and the king says he cannot refuse her.

The juxtaposition of these two passages confirms for us two things and help us to see more clearly what role Queen Mary, as the Gebirah, plays in the fulfilled Davidic Kingdom.  First, Bathsheba has no authority as wife of the king, but once her son becomes king, she is given a throne.  Without her son on the throne, she has no authority so that her authority depends upon his royal authority.  Likewise, all that we say about Mary’s Queenship flows only from Christ’s authority.  She has only a share in His authority.  But as is always the case with the Church’s Marian beliefs, take away from Mary and you diminish Christ.  Mary’s exaltation puts flesh, literally and figuritvely, on what we believe about Christ.  Without those beliefs, the teachings about Christ gravitate towards abstraction.  If  you take away her queenship, you will be saying that Christ is not the true heir to the throne of David.  The throne of David always had a throne at the king’s right hand for the Queen Mother.

Second, the Queen Mother was no mere figurehead but had royal authority.  The king could not refuse her.  This helps us to shed light on what can otherwise seem like a rather odd interaction between Our Lord and Our Lady at Cana.  As Queen Mother, Our Lord could not refuse anything that His Mother asked even though His “hour had not yet come.”  She assumes He will do it, because she had such authority to “command” Him.

Why Mary Should Steal Your Heart

While this biblical proof-texting is necessary, we must always have the same goal in sight that Pope Pius XII had when he instituted the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen in his encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, namely, to “renew the praises of Our Heavenly Mother, and enkindle a more fervent devotion towards her, to the spiritual benefit of all mankind.”  The reasons for our devotion might satisfy our heads, but unless it also engages our hearts it will remain sterile facts.  The aforementioned Pontiff helps us begin the longest 18-inch journey by summarizing what we have already said and pointing out that “…as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity. For from her union with Christ she attains a radiant eminence transcending that of any other creature; from her union with Christ she receives the royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”

Well-schooled in democratic logic, we reflexively dismiss monarchical terms and neglect their import.  We must not forget that we are citizens in the Kingdom of God, not in the Democratic Republic of the United States of Humanity and Divinity.  Christ is the benevolent King and seated at His right hand is the benevolent Queen.  You cannot have Christ as King without Mary as Queen.  You cannot honor Him while neglecting to honor her.  A man who pledged loyalty to the King while disrespecting the Queen would be labeled as a traitor.  Our devotion for Christ should overflow onto His Mother (which will always flow back on Him).  We must see her as both Queen and Mother.

A sure way to increase that devotion is to reflect upon the fact that Our Lady has a “royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”  The role of Advocate and Queen are practically synonymous—the Queen Mother in her royal office in the kingdom of David exercised her role primarily as an advocate, interceding for the people of the Kingdom.  In fact she did not share in any way in the royal judicial power.  Our Lady is never referred to as the Mother of Justice, but Mother of Mercy because her role is to distribute from the treasury of her Son.  When we realize that she has real power and real authority and that she exercises it as a Mother to each one of us, it is hard not to fall more deeply in love with Our Queen.

In a very real way, then, we see why the Queenship of Mary completes the Assumption.  Although her earthly life came to an end at the Assumption, her throne reminds us that her mission was really only just beginning.  She is the Advocate who always makes an offer that can’t be refused and our celebration of her Queenship must be a time of gratitude to God for so solicitous a Queen and to her for her constant intercession before God.

**For those interested in looking up some further passages supporting this see the succession narratives from 1 and 2 Kings, when each of the kings is mentioned, his mother is also mentioned with him emphasizing her important place beside the king.  The Queen Mother is alsodescried as having a crown (Jer 13:18), a throne (1 Kings 2:19) and is a member of the royal court (2 Kings 24:12-15).

 

 

Believing in Jesus

Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen.  First, there will be beer commercials.  Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16.  It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message.  Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”

As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying.  First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19).  Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities.  They either happened or they didn’t.  Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t.  This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him.  This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.

This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor.  This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity.    This is simply to believe Him.  Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code.  The invitation is for something deeper and more personal.  Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

What Christianity Is

In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to.  We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies.  We believe in another person.  In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair.  It is an invitation to trust.  Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey.  Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.

The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it.  It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me.  It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me.  It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us.  Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.

Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is.  Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough.  “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…”  As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397).  Jesus, I trust in You!

Faith and Works

Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust.  The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics.  It is about trust.  “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved.  Trust not, and you are already condemned.  There is no other way to be saved.

We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith.  That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith.  The act of faith is the trust that we have in God.  The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes.  The content of faith is what we believe.  In both senses we will use the word faith.  We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.

While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable.  The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe.  They are motives of credibility.

In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly.  He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata).  Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being.  He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.  He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse.  He will do these things when he is in love.”

The Great Feast of Mercy

Among the vast spiritual treasures that Pope St. John Paul II left to the Church, Divine Mercy Sunday may be his greatest gift.  During his canonization homily of St. Faustina, he declared that the Sunday after Easter, the final day of the Octave of Easter, would be called Divine Mercy Sunday.  The timing was no accident.  Among the requests that Our Lord gave to St. Faustina, was His request that a Feast of Mercy be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.  In the midst of the terrible “Century of Sin,” Our Lord desired to give the Church new channels for the outpouring of His grace—“where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Romans 5:20)—through devotion to Divine Mercy, and more specifically through the Feast of Mercy.  Our Lord told St. Faustina that “on the day of My feast, the Feast of Mercy, you will go through the world and bring fainting souls to the spring of My mercy.  I shall heal and strengthen them” (Diary, 206).

Divine Mercy and Private Revelation

First, a word about Private Revelation in general is necessary.  All too often we will look at certain devotions like Divine Mercy as something optional, that is, not binding on us in faith to believe as Catholics.  But this is an overly simplistic way of looking at them.  If the Church deems some apparitions and private revelations worthy of belief, then we should treat them as anything else that is sufficiently proved, namely that it is true.  In other words, we may not be bound in faith to believe these things but we are bound by reason and logic.

We should treat St. Faustina then as a great prophet of our age.  She brought no new doctrine or dogma, she added nothing to the deposit of faith.  What she did add is a blueprint for how the Gospel can be lived in our age.  Public revelation may have ceased at the death of the last Apostle, but prophecy did not—“where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18).  Faustina, the prophet’s message?  A radical trust in the mercy of God.

Our Lord promised through the pen of St. Faustina “to heal and strengthen” fainting souls on the Feast of Mercy.  What was He promising?  Our Lord promised to “grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy” (Dairy, 687).  What are “the unimaginable graces” attached to Mercy Sunday?   “Whomever approaches the Fountain of Life on this day will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” (Diary, 300).

This is unimaginable indeed!  Those who approach the Fountain of Life, that is Our Lord in the Eucharist, will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishments.  It is as if the person is to receive the Baptismal grace again, a spiritual do-over.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more!

We can see that one of the obstacles then to celebrating the Feast of Mercy is that it is practically unbelievable.  The Father who is “rich in mercy” is a prodigal Father, pouring graces everywhere and anywhere.  But like the lost son in the parable, there are conditions on our part.  It is not a magic wand, but like all things depends on how well we prepare for the Feast.

How is it then that we, “the fainting souls”, can approach “the spring of Our Lord’s mercy”?  Jesus lays out the conditions to St. Faustina; the things that we must do to “be healed and strengthened.”

A Special Grace Won

The first we have already mentioned, that is to receive Communion on the day of the Feast of Mercy.  If the “unimaginable grace” attached to the Feast is one similar to the grace of Baptism, then it will be delivered through the Eucharist.  In other words, if Our Lord is to bestow a grace of a “second Baptism” He will do so through the Eucharist.  Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist with that intention will only strengthen our own resolve to both desire and receive this extraordinary grace.

Provided we receive Our Lord worthily, that is in a state of grace, then we may receive this extraordinary grace.  Those who are conscious of mortal sin must first approach the Sacrament of Confession.  However, that is not the only reason why going to Confession prior to the Feast of Mercy is a good idea.  One of the graces of Confession is to receive true repentance for our sins, a condition of receiving the unimaginable grace.  Our imperfect contrition meeting Our Lord’s perfect contrition on the Cross through the Sacrament, brings with it the grace to have true repentance for our sins.  The better disposed we are to receive the grace of the Feast, the more likely we are to have it lead to true conversion and not a mere one time event.

Our Lord, repeatedly tells St. Faustina how important Confession is calling it the place where “the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy” (Diary, 1602).  Our Lord tells St. Faustina that “every time you go to Confession, immerse yourself entirely in My mercy with great trust, so that I many pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul.  When you approach the confessional, know this, that I myself am waiting there for you” (ibid).  The Confessional is the place where we encounter Our Lord, face to face and where we find the “fount of mercy.”

This extraordinary grace, seemingly too good to be true, can only be received by those who are willing to admit the possibility that God really is that merciful.  In other words, only those who have a radical trust in the mercy of Jesus can win this grace.  This is why Our Lord attaches this necessity—an absolute trust in Him—to its reception on the Feast of Mercy.

This is also why veneration of the image of Divine Mercy is also a key component of the Feast.  It is a visual reminder, with the Blood and Water flowing from the Sacred Heart that we always have access to God’s mercy by offering “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Only Begotten Son Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With this great Feast of Mercy upon us, let us approach Our Lord’s throne of Mercy well prepared to receive all that Jesus wants to give us.  Jesus, I trust in You!

The Little Way and Purgatory

When the Church canonizes a Saint it is not only their witness of life that is being acknowledged, but the Church is also canonizing their teachings as well.  In other words, the Saints are recognized as credible witnesses in both deed and word.  This makes perfect sense when we admit that sanity breeds sanctity and sanctity breeds sanity.  The Saints show us how the unchanging Gospel is to be understood and lived in ever-changing times.  In this regard, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow (Oct.1 ) is no different.  When he canonized her in 1925, Pope Pius XI said that “the Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above… that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation.”

When he declared her a Universal Doctor of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II said that her emphasis on the Gospel message of the Little Way gives her an “exceptional universality.”  Her Little Way is based on an equally radical trust in God’s goodness and her own nothingness.  She saw within herself a great desire for holiness that she insists God would not have placed there unless He planned to give it to her.  Her response was not so much to try harder, but to trust more that He would achieve His purposes in her.

The Little Way is really just the Gospel in a thinly veiled disguise.  The message is the same—trust.  It is a lack of trust in God that leads to the Fall.  “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397).

Every sin reveals a lack of trust in God.  God, Who made us as creatures to be loved, knows best what makes us lovely.  We don’t entirely trust that what He tells us is actually what is best for us and so we try to do it our own way.  If we trusted Him, then we would do what He says.  Once that trust is restored however we are willing to do everything He says precisely because we know He has our best interest at heart.  No matter how vexing or how hard it appears, we will do it because our Father has told us it is what is best.

This perspective of sin’s relationship to the Divine Fatherhood was a favorite of John Paul II’s.   “Original sin attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228).  The Father’s solution is not simply to say “trust Me,” but shows us how trustworthy He is.  It is Our Lord’s radical trust in His Father that establishes the truth of God’s Fatherhood once and for all.

Little Flower

Based on her own radical trust, Thérèse offered herself as an oblation to God’s merciful love, composing a beautiful Act of Oblation as a Victim of Divine Love

In order that my life may be one Act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a Victim of Holocaust to Thy Merciful Love, imploring Thee to consume me unceasingly, and to allow the floods of infinite tenderness gathered up in Thee to overflow into my soul, that so I may become a very martyr of Thy Love, O my God! May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear in Thy Presence, free me from this life at the last, and may my soul take its flight–without delay–into the eternal embrace of Thy Merciful Love!

This prayer is often a stumbling block to those who would put the Little Way into practice.  How can she offer herself as a victim of holocaust to Divine Love?  Why must this offering involve becoming a victim (i.e.suffering)?  As Theresa of Avila once said, “Lord if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

To answer this we have to, like Thérèse, recognize our nothingness or littleness.  This is not so much about humility but an acknowledgment that we are fundamentally broken.  We entrust ourselves to the Divine Physician to heal us.  Like any good doctor we trust, we know that God will often first have to wound us in order to heal us (Job 5:18).  He will choose the least invasive procedure, but He will never be so cruel as to stop the surgery in the middle.

Could God heal us without first wounding us?  While I think we will all be surprised when we find out all the hidden ways God has healed us, the answer no, not completely.  This is because He wants to re-establish that relationship of trust.  To give us everything without us knowing the cost builds, not trust, but mistrust and jealousy.  This is especially true considering how He distributes His gifts unevenly among His children.  The only way to show Himself as Father is to truly father us—raising us as sons and daughters in Christ, disciplining us, and never allowing us to become spoiled.

There is nothing passive in the Little Way.  St. Thérèse offers herself as a living sacrifice, but she knows that like most living sacrifices they tend to crawl off the altar.  Trust takes effort because we are pre-disposed to the lack of trust that comes with our condition as fallen creatures.  Trust is difficult because there is always a voice telling us why we shouldn’t trust.  But small acts of trust bring about larger ones until we are capable of absolute trust.

In Thérèse’s mind there are practical implications of the Little Way; one of which seems shocking at first.  She thought those who practiced it could avoid Purgatory altogether.

Thérèse was deeply distressed by the resignation that most people had (and still have) that they will need Purgatory after death.  In a letter to Sr. Maria Philomena she said

You do not have enough trust. You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this. You should not fear Purgatory because of the suffering there, but should instead ask that you not deserve to go there in order to please God, Who so reluctantly imposes this punishment. As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to Purgatory.

Notice that she is not saying that Purgatory is unnecessary, but that it can be avoided.  She even says that God is grieved over souls going to Purgatory because they are kept from Him.  The Little Way preaches that God will give us all the means we need to be purified in this life.  To the extent that we trust He is at work, then it will be effective in us.  To the extent that we resist, we will need other means (up to an including Purgatory).  The soul that completely trusts in God knows He is at work and so they abandon themselves to His Providential care.  In other words, she says the infallible way to avoid Purgatory is to graciously receive it here on earth.

St. Thérèse was well aware of the profundity of her understanding of God’s love and her role in preaching the Little Way as a means of sanctification.  She begged God to give her a legion of “little souls” that were follow her.  “I beg You to cast Your Divine Glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg You to choose a legion of little Victims worthy of Your LOVE!”  Through her powerful intercession, may we make of ourselves an oblation to Divine Love.

To Forgive is Divine?

Last week, I wrote an essay on the importance of praying the Creed during Mass with greater intentionality.  This week, I would like to build upon this theme by reflecting upon one specific article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe… in the Forgiveness of Sins.”

Recall that the notion of the Creed as Symbol or Symbolon was also discussed along with the importance of looking at each of the articles of the Creeds not as a bunch of different articles haphazardly put together, but as a whole that is organically linked.  With this understanding in mind one can readily understand why the belief in the Forgiveness of Sins follows from the belief in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Catholic Church.  In His first post-Resurrection appearance to the Apostles in the Upper Room, Jesus gives the Church the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins (c.f. John 20:22-23).  This same gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins is also invoked in the formula of absolution during the rite of Confession—”God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  This article then is tied up with the Sacrament of Confession as the ordinary means that God has put in place for the forgiveness of sins.

On the other hand though, it seems almost self-evident that Christians should believe in the Forgiveness of Sins, especially given all that is said in the Creed about the Incarnation.  One might begin to wonder why this should be included except perhaps to serve as a reminder of this often overlooked gift.  I am not just speaking of the gift of the Sacrament of Confession (we will cover that another time) but the overall gift of the forgiveness of sins.  I think most of us would rather have a different gift instead—the excusing of our sins.  We may not openly profess this in a Creed but our actions bear it out.  We have a really vicious habit of trying to make excuses for our faults rather than admitting them.  We would rather be excused than accept responsibility.  With a moment’s reflection however we can see that this is sheer insanity and yet another proof that sin makes us stupid.

Why do we spend so much energy and useless anxiety with making excuses when God gives forgiveness so readily?  Certainly if there are extenuating circumstances then God will be quick to excuse us for the role these played.  But ultimately the fact that we rationalize shows that we do not believe this doctrine.  Our Lord recognized that there would be a temptation to a lack of faith in this doctrine and so He repeatedly emphasized the “joy in Heaven” that comes when God exercises His mercy.  We should not seek to be absolved of responsibility but to be absolved of our poor use of responsibility.  In many ways excuse-making traps us in perpetual chains of victimhood, while seeking forgiveness frees us.  This desire for the freedom that only forgiveness offers cannot be stamped out regardless of how much we deny it and label it as “Catholic guilt.”  We can either exercise it in the manner that God intended—through the Sacrament of Confession—or by treating therapists as the new priests and thinking nothing of the “tell-all” interview on Oprah.  Either way, the desire has to be expressed.  So, who is the wise man building on rock?

armstrong and oprah

This idea that forgiveness brings freedom is no trivial point.  First it is freeing from the perspective of God’s forgiveness of us.  It is only when I readily admit my sins that grace begins to transform me.  To “firmly intend with the help of Your grace to sin no more” changes us.  God needs no laundry list of our sins—He already knows everything.  He wants us to see both our complicity and our total weakness so that He can grant to us the freedom we are truly seeking.  One of my favorite prayers of St. Philip Neri captures this perfectly: “Lord, look out for Philip today, he may betray you!”

The second dimension in which forgiveness leads to freedom is our own forgiveness of others. When someone is stuck in unforgiveness they unwittingly give power to the person whom they refuse to forgive. They harbor grudges and ill-will toward the other person and likely will not be satisfied even with their downfall. Nearly every Exorcist will tell you the same thing about unforgiveness—it is the number one way that the Devil keeps people in his clutches (especially through Oppression, Obsession and Possession). It may not be the way that he initially gains entry, but he is able to continually pick at the wound of unforgiveness and keep the person enslaved.

That our forgiveness of others is vitally important seems obvious from the teaching of Our Lord in the Lord’s Prayer and from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35). But we must first make sure we understand what He is really saying before we can begin to understand how we can forgive. Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness somehow depends upon the manner in which we forgive others. In other words, our forgiveness is not the cause of God’s forgiveness, but the other way around. His forgiveness is the cause of our own. The reason why we pray this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is because we are seeking the awareness of God’s forgiveness in our own lives so that we forgive others. The same thing in the parable—the King first forgives the man, but then because of his unawareness of true depth of the forgiveness he has received, he fails to exercise it.

I find that most people struggle with unforgiveness because they do not understand what forgiveness means. Like forgiveness from God, forgiving others from our perspective cannot be confused with or substituted with excusing others. Christian forgiveness does not mean we are to become doormats. Jesus may have told us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) but when He was struck by the High Priest’s servant He asked Him “Why did you strike Me?”(Jn 18:23). Christ may have forgiven the servant, but that does not mean He should simply take the abuse.

To understand forgiveness on a human level, we have to understand the goal. The goal is to restore the relationship back to the level of justice. Justice is a necessary part of love even if it not the most complete form of it. Often “loving our neighbor” simply means ensuring they are justly treated.

Recalling from St. Thomas that justice consists in “rendering to each his due,” we see that it is governed by a principle of reciprocity. This also means that we can treat someone justly while they may treat us unjustly. When we understand this, we can make the important distinction between forgiveness given and forgiveness sought (or received). Christ’s commandment is for us to forgive the other. What they do with that forgiveness is up to them. It can only be offered. But in order to be received they must attempt to restore what is due to us. A sincere apology is certainly a starting point but it usually involves more than that. In justice we have to set out to restore something of what was lost. Teaching children this part of forgiveness is very important from an early age. We do them a grave disservice by teaching them that saying “I am sorry” is always enough. They come to expect forgiveness as a right. It is better to teach them to ask, “will you forgive me?”

Forgiveness offered consists in willing the good of the other person and ensuring they are treated justly. What would it mean to forgive someone who murdered a family member? At a minimum forgiveness would consist in willing that they receive a just trial and fair punishment. It might even mean defending them against the death penalty since it would be an unjust penalty. Christian forgiveness would mean praying for their repentance and conversion so that God would be given His due. Forgiveness would not mean simply forgetting what they have done and pretending it didn’t happen.

If we should not merely “forgive and forget” then we should finish by discussing a key aspect of relationships and that is trust. Forgiveness does not mean that we should instantly operate on the same level of trust as before the offense. Forgiveness may be divine, but it does not absolve us from being prudent in our relationships. While Jesus may have said that Peter should forgive his brother a practically infinite number of times, He was not saying that Peter should set himself up allowing the same thing to happen over and over (Mt 18:21-22). If someone is not trustworthy then we should enter into relationships that require trust with them. This would be excusing and not forgiving.

Apostles of Mercy

Pope St. John Paul II has been referred to by many as the “Mercy Pope.”  When the Diary of St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul was banned by the Vatican because of a faulty translation, it was he who was then Archbishop of Krakow that initiated the process to remove any impediments to the spreading of the devotion to Divine Mercy.  As pope he canonized St. Faustina as the first saint of the Third Millennium and established Divine Mercy Sunday for the Universal Church.  Even Pope Benedict recognized this “Mercy Pope” when he pointed out in a homily that “Providence decided that he should die right on the eve of that day [Divine Mercy Sunday—April 2, 2005] in the arms of Divine Mercy” so that his first day in Heaven was Divine Mercy Sunday.  Clearly this was a man who God used to reveal His mercy is a unique way.  With the celebration this Sunday of God’s Divine Mercy, it is a good time to reflect on the Mercy of God and use this saint as our guide.

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In his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, John Paul II wrote what would serve as the framework of his mercy apostolate. He offered an extended meditation on the Prodigal Son in order to remove our “prejudices about mercy [that] are mostly the result of appraising them only from the outside.”  His point is that we struggle to experience mercy and give mercy because we do not understand it.  We do not understand what we mean when we say that God is merciful and therefore what it means for us to be merciful.

In his commentary on the line from Ephesians 2:1, “God who is rich in mercy,” St Thomas says that God’s merciful love is the basis for the divine love of mankind.  He distinguishes between mercy and justice by pointing out  that when “a man’s love is caused from the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice but when loves causes the goodness in the beloved then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is presented here as the root of the divine love.”  God’s love for us is what causes all that is good in us.  So mercy is not just primarily about forgiving our sins but a recognition that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).  We all are beneficiaries of God’s mercy not just those who have sinned greatly.  All too often we offer pious platitudes to His mercy without ever consciously experiencing it.  Once we recall that it is His mercy that elevates us however we will see it everywhere in our lives.

This is the model for our own mercy towards others.  Mercy is not a lowering of myself to help those less fortunate than I.  This is one of the prejudices the Holy Pontiff warns us of:  “(W)e see in mercy above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it.”  Our acts of mercy ought to raise others up.  But true “mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him.”   It is a desire to help another restore their proper dignity.  This is the affective aspect of mercy that leads us to compassion.  But in order to properly be an instrument of God’s mercy then it must also be effective.  Effective mercy does something to relieve the needs of others.  Humanly speaking both aspects are needed—the man who performed great acts of “mercy” with no feeling would probably frigidly scare most people away.

John Paul II goes on to say that “mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission. His disciples and followers understood and practiced mercy in the same way.”  What he means is that the early Church saw it as her mission to spread and make known God’s mercy.  They were to be Apostles of Mercy by living out the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7).  To remind all of us of this mandate, Jesus gave a similar message to St. Faustina  “I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it.” (Diary 742).

Jesus has given us the Mercy Mandate and the Church has instructed us on how to realize it through the Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy.  We must remember that they are done first of all with the intention of loving God.  This intention ought to animate everything that we do.  This is why we are infused with the virtue of charity in Baptism.  It gives us a share of God’s love for Himself and infuses into us the habit of loving like He does.  Like all habits it grows in strength each time we exercise it.  So when we love our neighbor for God’s sake, it is not some disinterested love that they merely benefit from.  Instead it enables us to love them more purely and to desire their good more intently.

Only by doing them with this spirit can they truly be acts of mercy; acts that aid in the restoration and remembrance of the great dignity of those we serve.  It is the love of God that awakens this sense.  The Canonized Pope goes on to makes it a point to mention how important the approach that we take in brining others to mercy.  He says that it is only when the prodigal’s “sense of lost dignity had matured” that he decided to return to his father.  This should serve as model of conversion and evangelization for us.  Christianity is not primarily a moral message but an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, Mercy Incarnate.  Once someone has been restored to sonship, they will act like it.  But first they must know (or be reminded) of their great dignity as beloved of the Father.  This seems to me to be at the heart of the overall message of Pope Francis that many people recoil at.  It is not that the moral teachings aren’t true or are unimportant.  But they are not the Gospel.  They need to be preached, but preached as second things.  They are preached to those who have encountered Jesus and now turn to Him and ask “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”

I spoke recently with someone who was counseling someone against moving in with her boyfriend.  He said he was having difficulty reaching her because she was filled with the values of the world.  He asked for what arguments he should make.  Recalling what John Paul II said above, I told him to tell her “she is worth so much more than that.”  She deserves to be loved for who she is and not merely tried out as if she was a used car.  That is the first step that he is talking about.  The message is still clear—moving in with your boyfriend is wrong, but it is first a message reminding her of her dignity.  Like the prodigal son, it is the recollection of her dignity that will set her on the path of mercy.  Remembering whose daughter she is, she no longer desire to be a mere servant.