G.K. Chesterton once said that his umbrella helped reveal to him why he knew the Catholic Church was for him. He said that whenever he went to non-Catholic churches, he would customarily leave his umbrella by the back door during the worship service. In these churches, his umbrella would always be there waiting for him when he went back out. But the first time went into a Catholic church to hear Mass, his umbrella disappeared from the back of the church. Someone had stolen it.
His conclusion? If the Catholic church offered such a generous and open doorway to the rabble, being a home for both sinners and saints, then he had indeed found a home where he could also fumble along into the kingdom. He also added, “Every one on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given.”
A gentleman I knew in Florida, a cantankerous old salt, said to me once,
You know, it takes all the strength I can muster to hold back one biting remark. I used to get discouraged, but a priest once told me in Confession, “You know, Jesus looks on your one effort to refrain from an unkind remark as having far more value in his eyes than the thousand kind words spoken by someone who is naturally kind. God just wants small heroisms from you that no one will ever notice.” That made my life much more bearable.
In moral theology, the “law of gradualism” allows us to see that God takes human beings as they are, meeting them in their real-world circumstances with all their present strengths and weaknesses, and leads them along the way to take the next best step. The heights of holiness for one will look very different than the holy heights of another. In the realm of holiness, appearances are indeed deceiving. If we simply take the abstract demands of the moral law, or some single pristine image of mystical sanctity, and lay these on people without respect to who they are, with their real limits and varied life circumstances, we set them up for despair, or for cycles of guilt and shame, or for an unsustainable and delusional pursuit of perfectionism.
While we never bend the moral law to accommodate human weakness, we do confess faith in a God who bends down (descéndit de cælis) to meet the fallen sinner on the ground in order to love her into life, to heal her and raise her up. We have no need for God to canonize or condemn us, but to have compassion on us so we can carry on each day with hope.
I need this God.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).
Pope Francis gave us the Year of Mercy in 2016 to remind us of this marvelous place between lax indulgence and priggish perfectionism called mercy. Mercy is the most human aspect of our faith. It embraces our broken human condition and empowers us to rise from the ashes. Mercy permits us to become more human, after the image of Christ who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.
The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. (Pope Francis, 2013 interview with La Civita Cattolica)