I offered the following reflections on the Jubilee Year of Mercy as a part of my annual address to the Plenary Meeting of Saint John's Seminary Faculty this afternoon.
Last March, Pope Francis proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the whole Church, beginning on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and closing next year on the Solemnity of Christ the King.
There are many fascinating aspects of this exciting and much needed year of reflection on the mercy God shown to us through Christ Jesus his Son, and much to be explored in a world where, as one wag put it “nothing is sinful, but nothing is ever forgiven.”
There are many dimensions to be explored in the application of the Holy Father’s Gospel of Mercy, but one I have found particularly helpful comes, ironically, from the American political experience of Watergate.
In his 1975 article “On Executive Clemency: The Pardon of Richard M. Nixon,” Michael McKibbin provides the definitive juridical analysis of this important action by President Gerald Ford, which did, as he hoped, provided an end to “our long national nightmare.”
McKibbin provides a fascinating narrative of the events and legal issues, beginning with Nixon’s denial of guilt and the now famous subsequent events which brought the events of Watergate to the attention of the American people and the judgement of the Senate Watergate Committee, Attorney General, Special Prosecutor’s Office and even the Supreme Court.
He notes that President Ford’s pardon is rather broad in its scope, granting “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 10, 1969 through August 9, 1974. (39 Fed. Reg. 32601-02 )
My present point in this extraordinary narrative is that this act of executive mercy had one foundational requirement: “the acceptance of a pardon is an acknowledgement by the grantee that he is guilty of the offenses contained therein. A denial of such guilt by the grantee will be construed to be a rejection of the pardon.” (page 351)
Thus, Richard Nixon was forced to admit in writing that his ". . . motivations and actions in the Watergate affair were intentionally self-serving and illegal" in order to receive a presidential pardon.
The multiple Supreme Court rulings that underpin the establishment of confession as a prerequisite for clemency are rooted in the unwavering insistence by the Church that contrition and confession must precede absolution.
By contrast, the Holy Father’s oft-misquoted “Who am I to judge” has been taken by many as a willingness to absolve without the need of contrition.
A close examination of the Holy Father’s words and actions, however, reveals a Pope and a Church deeply appreciative of our traditional teachings about the dynamics of Christian conversion.
The famous interview on the plane began with a discussion of the accusations against a certain Vatican employee who was alleged to have carried on sexual relations with men in a nunciature years before. The Holy Father begins by saying that his investigations have turned up no evidence, and then proceeds to lament those who would deny the efficacy of repentance and conversion from the sins of our youth, both real and imagined. Here is what he actually says:
….if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins.”
He then proceeds to the accusations of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican and says that this particular cleric was found not guilty of the accusation. But, he continues, he seems to have been labeled as “gay,” as someone who has a tendency for same sex attraction.
Now, notice the Holy Father is not talking about a person who is guilty of being part of a “gay lobby” or someone who is actively involved in sexual relationship with a person of his own sex. He is simply talking of someone who is attracted sexually to people of their own sex.
In that context, listen to what the Holy Father actually said:
If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying ...“no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”.
Pope Francis’ comments on the plane are not, therefore, very different from the remarks offered by Pope Benedict XVI to Peter Seewald some years before.
The now Pope emeritus reflected candidly at the time that “It is no secret that there are homosexuals even among priests and monks.” However, he counseled, “the persons who are affected must at least try not to express this inclination actively, in order to remain true to the intrinsic mission of their office.”
This is not cheap grace. This is love and respect for all persons, even the sinner, but such a deep love that it longs for the day when “they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)
This is why Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Because, as reminds us in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, mercy is the greatest of the virtues. This is so, he quotes Saint Thomas a writing, “since all the [other virtues] revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree”. (EG, no. 37, cf. S. Th., II-II, q. 30, a. 4)
Thus, in this year of mercy, the Holy Father calls on sinners to repent, reminding us that “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” (EG, no. 3) But, likewise, he urges us never to forget that the Church, like her Lord, ”has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”
So, we must preach mercy. In our classrooms, by our actions and in our lives. A mercy that ever calls the sinner to repentance in love, but only in love…not in delectation over my being the virtuous and ‘that one being the sinner,’ but in love. For, as Romans reminds us, “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Let us conclude, then, by praying together, Pope Francis’ prayer for the Year of Mercy:
Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things; made Peter weep after his betrayal, and assured Paradise to the repentant thief. Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman: “If you knew the gift of God!”
You are the visible face of the invisible Father, of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy: let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God. Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing, so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord, and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed, and restore sight to the blind.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy, you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.