Millstones and Mitres: Recovering the Lamb by Forgiving the Wolf

As I write this a week before it goes live, Cardinal Mahoney is slated to attend the upcoming papal conclave.  There are numerous calls for him to respectfully decline to attend.  I don’t usually go in for armchair episcopacy, and in truth I don’t feel strongly one way or another on this question. But part of me hopes he’ll go.  Here’s my reasoning:

1. I don’t think he’ll do any harm to the election.

With a 2/3rds majority required for an election, any single vote isn’t going to be a tie-breaker.  And frankly? Given Mahoney’s reputation at this moment, he’s not exactly going to be Mr. Persuasive.  If anything, his presence will remind his fellows of the need to think carefully about whom to elect.

2. Mahoney is, by all reports, guilty of some truly nasty evil-doing. 

Mortal sin with a capital M.  It’s amazing the guy’s not in jail right now, or out on bail awaiting trial.

–> 2.5 Before moving on to thought #3, let’s get a few things clear:

  • Forgiveness does not require sticking around for further abuse.  You can forgive your enemies with all your heart, and still be absolutely right in choosing to avoid situations that would let them harm you again.  (Done. Thank you Archbishop Gomez.)
  • While forgiveness can be extended at any time, it can only be accepted when the guilty party repents.

3. But here’s the clincher: We’re still Christian. 

We still believe and practice mercy and forgiveness.  And as much as my darker side wants to dispatch Mahoney to a locked room with 100-some of his peers and let them at him, there’s a sliver of Christian goodness in my soul reminding me that presumably our bishops won’t jump the man, hold him down, and take turns beating him with statuary in between rounds of voting.  There might even be some incident of mercy.

4.  And mercy is the foundation of all evangelization.

We really have to be merciful?

Actually, yes.  And mercy means forgiving people, and healing our relationships with them, even when they have done something really, really bad.  Our obligation to forgive isn’t limited to situations in which the person didn’t really sin.  When it was all a big misunderstanding, or an accident, or an honest mistake.  We also have to forgive those who freely choose to do really evil nasty horrible life-damaging things.  To us.

This is difficult to accept.  It’s easy to think we’re spreading the message of forgiveness as we evangelize, when all we’re doing is absolving our new friends of this or that thing they did to someone else.  “Gosh, you slept around.  Well, you’re forgiven, God loves you.”  That is important, of course.

But there’s a world of difference between that and, “You just destroyed my life.  I’m going to carry the pain and damage you did to me to the end of my days, which will now entail a whole lot of suffering, thanks to your callous, cold-blooded, self-centered actions.  God forgives you and so do I.”

It’s the hardest of teachings.

But the Church cannot function without it.

Mercy and the Gift of Administration

Recall that “Adminstration” is one of the charisms bestowed by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:28).  It’s not just a list of boring to-do items we leave to our lowest-paid parish staff.  Administration indeed requires all the grace the Holy Spirit can give us, because there can be no administration without mercy.

When we lack mercy, everyone must suddenly pretend to be sinless.  Our venial sins are brushed off as little differences of opinion, or misunderstandings, for in the absence of mercy, to sin is to be condemned.  It becomes impossible to say with any authority, “What you are doing in your ministry is wrong.  You have to change ________, because to do otherwise is to continue to sin against yourself and the people entrusted to you.”  It becomes impossible to solve problems.  It becomes impossible to admit error, and when we cannot admit error, we can cannot move forward.

Just as venial sin can be a “gateway” to mortal sin in our spiritual lives, an organizational culture of fake perfection is the ideal climate for serious sins to fester.  The habit of hiding wrong-doing, of not confronting problems, of not admitting to error — all these habits build in the collective souls of the group.

Good administrative practices such as auditing accounts, confirming appropriate policies are being followed, and responding promptly to concerns raised — all these practices have at their heart the one goal of preventing sin.  In a merciless Church, there is no room for the sinner.  There grows a powerful incentive to suppress good administration.

Mercy, Administration, and Evangelization

There are two ways that the culture of unforgiveness destroys evangelization. The first is practical: A poorly run parish, diocese, religious order, or apostolate is hampered in its ability to get things done.  Evangelization is something we do.  It’s an activity.  The better we function as a living body, the better we can carry out the mission of that body.

The second is far more serious: When we don’t really believe in mercy, we have no faith to share.  We can in all Christian charity have the world’s worst filing system, or a perpetually leaky roof, or a mix-up, once again, about who was supposed to take out the trash after the parish pot-luck.  But regardless of how competent or incompetent we are, if we haven’t got Christian charity — mercy — we haven’t got anything.

The Gift We Hate to Love

The Christian message is radical.  There is no sense inviting our pagan friends to church, if church is just the Rotary club warmed-over. Why should the rich young man give up all he has to follow Christ?  What is it that Christ offers, that no one else can?

Well, we know that Christ our Head is abundantly merciful.  That He extends eternal life to us all.  That God Himself wills that we humans should all live in endless happiness and fellowship with Himself — and with Cardinal Mahoney as part of the gang. (It’s up to each of us, including the Cardinal, to choose to accept that offer.)  But weirdly, Jesus didn’t stick around in the flesh to be the earthly collector-of-souls.  He made us, the Church, His body.  We’re the ones who deliver that message of mercy on behalf of Christ our head.

And that means that we have to not just like Mercy as a last-minute divine favor to perk up the afterlife.  We have to suck it up and become little Christs even now.  Even when a no-good, rotten, self-preserving jerk has helped nail innocent people, people we love, to a cross of unspeakable suffering.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  Mercy requires a martyrdom at times more excruciating than any physical torment or deprivation. To be merciful towards those who have truly, searingly painfully, sinned against us, is to seed the field for an abundant spiritual harvest.

Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

One response to “Millstones and Mitres: Recovering the Lamb by Forgiving the Wolf”

  1. […] as much as I do, because so far no one has commented on my post this month at New Evangelizers. In which I take up the topic of whether Cardinal Mahoney ought to attend the conclave, and how that ….  And good administration.  You knew that was going to be fit in […]

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