Friday, September 9, 2016

Rector's Conference I: The Meaning of Mercy

A year and a half ago, Pope Francis proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the whole Church, beginning on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and closing this 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 forgiven.”

There are many dimensions to be explored in the application of the Holy Father’s Gospel of Mercy, but this evening I would like to dwell on three realities/aspects of the meaning of mercy:

1. God’s mercy on us
2. Our mercy on those who trespass against us
3. Our mercy on all who need us


But first, God’s mercy on us…

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 [1974])

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.

In other words, to be forgiven, by court or by God, you must confess…Without confession, there is no pardon.

And yet, as a recent CARA study reveals, less than two percent of all Church-going Catholics go to confession every month.  Just imagine the person who knows he has sinned.  He’s denied it, anesthetized it, maybe tried to drink or medicate the guilt away.  But like an aching tooth the sin sits just under the surface, gnawing at him and dragging down.  He tries to make his way through the world and even to strive for holiness, but this void impedes and distracts him, imprisoning up his heart in a series of inextricable knots.

We live in a world that is aching for forgiveness, but petrified to confess.


As we have already prayed several times today, as we are forgiven, so we forgive those who trespass against us. You’ve heard the stories.  Maybe you’ve even lived them.

Of the mother disowned by her daughter, who for years refuses to speak to her because of what she did, or what she said.  And then she hears the mother is dying.  Sometimes the story ends with forgiveness.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

Or of the brother who betrays his younger sibling.  It cost him his job and his reputation and it almost broke up his marriage.  It’ll follow him around for years to come.  So he refused to have anything to do with his brother, even when his father begged him to.  Sometimes that story ends with a reconciliation, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Or of the friends who stopped speaking to each other over that boy they were both dating, and how one of them married him and the other just clung to the jealousy and resentment and hurt for the rest of her life.  Sometimes that story ends in forgiveness, and sometimes it doesn’t.

You remember when the disciples go to Jesus after one of them was acting like a fool again, and they ask him “How many times?!  How many times do we have to keep forgiving him?” Then they try to impress Jesus: “We know, Lord, we’ll forgive him seven times!”  “No,” the Lord smiles patiently at them:  “Not seven times...seventy-times seven times.  Judge not, least you be judged.  Love the one who nails you to the cross by praying for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Saint Rita
Did you ever hear of Rita Lotti, also know as Saint Rita of Cascia?  She was born in a little Umbrian hill town about 700 years ago.

In those days, Cascia was inhabited by the Italian equivalant of the Hattfields and the McCoys, as frequent conflicts and family rivalries were routinely settled by the rule of vendetta...that is, you kill one of ours, we kill two of yours.  It was the ideal prescription for perpetuating violence.

Rita married Paolo Mancini, a good, if impetuous fellow, and they had two sons.  The sons grew into their teens and one day as their father was returning from work he was ambushed and killed.  Rita was overcome with grief, but even more by the fear that her two sons would seek to avenge their father’s death.

Only her tears and her begging kept them from seeking to kill their father’s killer.  But her sorrows did not end there, for within a year both sons died from heart disease.

So there she was: within a year she had buried her whole family, and it all started with the murder of her husband.  So did she seek revenge, did she become bitter, did she withdraw into a perpetual state of self-pity?  No, she became a nun and dedicated the rest of her life to serving the poor and urging everyone she met to forgive, as God had forgiven them.

Saint Rita understood and meant it when she prayed “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”   In the same measure I have shown mercy, Lord, show mercy to me.

And Pope Francis understood it as well: “The problem, unfortunately,” he wrote, “comes whenever we have to deal with a brother or sister who has even slightly offended us. The reaction described in the parable describes it perfectly: “He seized him by the throat and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’”  (Matthew 18:28.)

Listen to Pope Francis in Assisi:

"Here we encounter all the drama of our human relationships. When we are indebted to others, we expect mercy; but others are indebted to us, we demand justice! All of us do this. It is a reaction unworthy of Christ’s disciples, nor is it the sign of a Christian style of life. Jesus teaches us to forgive and to do so limitlessly: 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven' (verse 22)  What he offers us is the Father’s love, not our own claims to justice. To trust in the latter alone would not be the sign that we are Christ’s disciples, who have obtained mercy at the foot of the cross solely by virtue of the love of the Son of God. Let us not forget, then, the harsh saying at the end of the parable: 'So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart'" (Pope Francis, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, Porziuncola - Assisi, 4 August 2016.)

A Seminarian Forgiven
Father Rob Spaulding learned that lesson in the hardest possible way when he was a seminarian at Mundelein, the Seminary of St Mary of the Lake near Chicago.  Eleven years ago on a late September weekday evening he and three of his brother seminarians went to a sports bar not far from the campus.

They drank. They watched some games. They drank some more.  A little after midnight the four of them decided to drive back to Mundelein.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there, but there’s a long and winding driveway through acres of land that lead to the Seminary at Mundelein.  The speed limit was 25 and at 55, Rob felt the tire slip as they smashed headlong into a tree.

Mark walked away with a broken arm.  Rob had a broken scapula and torn kidney. Nurses pulled shattered glass out of his face.  

But Jared and Matt Molnar were dead.  Never to be ordained. No new chalices with their names engraved. No framed photos of them in their roman collars in their parent’s living room. No comfort of feeling Christ’s touch on their heads as the Bishop imposed hands. No joy of saying their First Masses and hearing their first confessions.

For their mothers: No sitting in the front row at the ordination, wiping tears of joy from their eyes. No receiving Holy Communion, freshly consecrated by their own son.  No kneeling to receive their sons’ first blessings. No kissing their sons’ freshly anointed hands, sweet with the smell of Chrism.

Rob’s blood alcohol level was 0.135, almost twice the legal limit.  He pled guilty to three felonies and was sentenced to 18 months house arrest, 30 months of probation and 250 hours of community service.

The mother of one of the seminarians who was killed, Pam Molnar, was given an opportunity to address the court:  “People ask me how I feel about losing my son and how I must hate the guy that was driving. I do not hate ‘the guy’ — he has a name — who was driving,”  “Hate is a terrible word. Hate is like a cancer that eats away at your heart and soul and makes you a bitter person.”

Seminarian Rob Spaulding was forgiven by both sets of parents of the deceased seminarians. 

After two years he returned to a different seminary.and was ordained in 2009 for the Diocese of Casper in Wyoming.  The mothers of the two seminarians he had killed were present at his ordination and his first Mass. (This story was largely taken from a Homily at Saint John’s Seminary by Father Michael Barber on March 27, 2012.)

Mercy….so merciful…like this man…


The stories are told of the meetings of Father Luigi Giussani and Bishop Eugenio Corecco, two of the founders of Communio e Liberation.  Once, as Bishop Eugenio was close to death, he began to pray that his suffering would, in some way, prove fruitful in his ministry as a Bishop.

“The essential thing for a bishop,” he said, for “a pastor, or an abbot [the essential thing for each of them] is charity. Charity is what is fruitful, what changes and converts the people...Charity is what regenerates love. The world does not forgive. Charity always begins loving again...There’s no greater miracle than discovering in yourself charity, a love that wasn’t there before.” 

"What does love look like?” Saint Augustine once asked. “It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like."

So the third form of mercy is love for those who have no one else to love them.  Loving not because someone is big or beautiful and can love me right back, but love for them precisely because they are little.  As a brand new saint once taught…

Pope Francis was even more blunt in giving advice to seminarians:  “What does Jesus ask of us?  He desires hearts that are truly consecrated, hearts that draw life from his forgiveness in order to pour it out with compassion on our brothers and sisters.  Jesus wants hearts that are open and tender towards the weak, never hearts that are hardened.  He wants docile and transparent hearts that do not dissimulate before those whom the Church appoints as our guides.  Disciples do not hesitate to ask questions, they have the courage to face their misgivings and bring them to the Lord, to their formators and superiors, without calculations or reticence.  A faithful disciple engages in constant watchful discernment, knowing that the heart must be trained daily, beginning with the affections, to flee every form of duplicity in attitudes and in life. (Pope Francis Mass with Religious and Seminarians at John Paul II Shrine in Krak√≥w. 30 July 2016.)

Fr. Kenneth D. Brighenti is the Vice Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary.  He was here for some formation workshops just last week, and one night he told me about one of his advisees.  His name was Brian Bergkamp and he was from Wichita in Kansas.  Here’s Brian at his pastoral assignment in June.

One month later, Brian was kayaking with four friends when they hit turbulent waters and one kayak turned over.  The woman was now in the water, unable to swim and not wearing a life jacket.  Brian jumped from his kayak, removed his life jacket and placed it on her.  Shortly afterwards he was pulled under the water.  Three days later they found his body downstream. He layed down his life for a friend, in the model of Christ Jesus, the great High Priest who taught us mercy from the Altar of the Cross.


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. So, like Francis, Brian and Teresa”

1. Repent! Confess to the “God [who] never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 3)  

2. Forgive!  Seek out all who have hurt you, drawing from the Church her ”endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of her own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”  (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 3) 

3. And Love!  Love the little and the lost and all who need you, loving the least as the first in your life.

Thank you.