Rolheiser: Risking God’s mercy

24 October 2022

Appears in: Columnists

Shortly after ordination, doing replacement work in a parish, I found myself in a rectory with a saintly old priest. He was over 80, nearly blind, but widely sought out and respected, especially as a confessor.

One night, alone with him, I asked him this question: “If you had your priesthood to live over again, would you do anything differently?” From a man so full of integrity, I fully expected that there would be no regrets. His answer surprised me. Yes, he said, he did have a regret, a major one: “If I had my priesthood to do over again, I would be easier on people the next time. I wouldn’t be so stingy with God’s mercy, with the sacraments, and with forgiveness. You see what was drilled into me in my formation was the phrase, The truth will set you free, and I believed that it was my responsibility to challenge people to protect that. That’s good, but I fear I’ve been too hard on people. They have pain enough in their lives without me and the church laying further burdens on them. I should have risked more God’s mercy!”

I was struck by this because less than a year before, as I took my final exams in the seminary, one of the priests who examined me, gave me this warning: “Be careful,” he said, “never let your feelings get in the way of truth and be too soft, that’s wrong. Remember, tough as it is, only the truth sets people free!” Sound advice, it would seem, for a young priest beginning his ministry.

However, as every year goes by in my own ministry, I feel more inclined to the old priest’s advice. We need to risk more God’s mercy. Admittedly, the importance of truth may never be ignored, but we must risk letting the infinite, unbounded, unconditional, undeserved mercy of God flow freely. The mercy of God is as accessible as the nearest water tap and we, like Isaiah, must proclaim a mercy that has no price tag: “Come, come without money and without virtue, come everyone, drink freely of God’s mercy!”

What holds us back? Why are we so hesitant in proclaiming God’s inexhaustible, prodigal, indiscriminate mercy?

Partly our motives are good, noble even. We have a legitimate concern over some important things: truth, justice, orthodoxy, morality, proper public form, proper sacramental preparation, fear of scandal, and concern for the ecclesial community that needs to absorb and carry the effects of sin. Love needs always to be tempered by truth, even as truth must be moderated by love. However, sometimes our motives are less noble and our hesitancy arises out of timidity, fear, jealousy, and legalism – the self-righteousness of the Pharisees or the hidden jealousy of the older brother of the prodigal son. No cheap grace is to be dispensed on our watch!

Nevertheless, in doing this, we are misguided, less than good shepherds, out of tune with the God that Jesus proclaimed. God’s mercy, as Jesus revealed it, embraces indiscriminately, the bad along with the good, the undeserving with the deserving, the uninitiated with the initiated. One of the truly startling insights that Jesus gave us is that the mercy of God cannot not go out to everyone because it is always free, undeserved, unconditional, universal in embrace, reaching beyond all religion, custom, rubric, political correctness, mandatory program, ideology, and even beyond sin itself.

For our part then, especially those of us who are parents, ministers, teachers, catechists, and elders, we must risk proclaiming the prodigal character of God’s mercy. We must not spend God’s mercy, as if it were ours to spend, dole out God’s forgiveness as if it were a limited commodity, put conditions on God’s love as if God were a narrow tyrant or a political ideology, or cut off cut access to God as if we were the keepers of the heavenly gates. We are not! If we link God’s mercy to our own assessment of things, we then link it to our own limits, wounds, and biases.

It is interesting to note in the gospels how the apostles, well meaning of course, often tried to keep certain people away from Jesus, as if they weren’t worthy and were somehow an affront to his holiness and purity. Repeatedly, they tried to send away children, prostitutes, tax collectors, known sinners, and the uninitiated of all kinds and always Jesus over-ruled their attempts with words to this effect: “Let them come! I want them to come to me.”

Little has changed. Always in the church, we, well-intentioned persons, with the same motives as the apostles, keep trying to keep certain individuals and groups away from God’s mercy as it is available in word, sacrament, and community. God doesn’t need (nor want) our protection. Jesus wanted every kind of person to come to him then and he wants them to come to him now. God wants everyone, regardless of morality, orthodoxy, lack of preparation, age, or culture, to come to the unlimited waters of divine mercy.

-Rev. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Before taking his current position he taught for many years at Newman Theological College.