“Ask a Priest: Is Mercy About Ignoring Sin?”

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Q: What is mercy? I have heard so much of the word “mercy” since the Jubilee Year of Mercy began. I do not hear often about repentance and its connection with mercy. Is it about living in a state of sin without repentance and receiving pardon and mercy from God and his Church? Is it about setting aside the teachings of Christ in expediency of a particular sinful situation? Is it forgiveness, compassion, overlooking sins, leniency, kindness, not judging, not being legalistic and rigid about faith and morals, no absolute moral norms, no sin in the world, no guilt, no naming, non-mentioning and non-labeling of sin, no admonishing of the sinner, broad-mindedness, etc.? What is mercy and what calls for mercy? –W.A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You raise a lot of good questions, and a complete answer would fill a small book. Perhaps a few points will suffice here.

Let’s start with a quick definition of mercy from the glossary of the Catechism. Mercy is the “loving kindness, compassion, or forbearance shown to one who offends.” What is interesting is that it doesn’t mention the offender showing any signs of repentance. Is that fair? Does that mean mercy implies “anything goes”?

The short answer is: no. Mercy doesn’t imply that sin is OK. It doesn’t mean setting aside Church teaching. Nor does it imply that people who continue to sin are off the hook. For God is merciful, but he is also just. Mercy is the fullness of justice, but it doesn’t negate justice.

But maybe that is getting into the abstract. Perhaps a better way to explain mercy is to look at two manifestations of it: God’s mercy, and our mercy to one another.

God’s mercy means that he is always ready to forgive someone who repents. God has lots of patience in this area. He doesn’t send down thunderbolts on us when we step out of line. Rather, he is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son who longs for the day when his errant offspring returns home repentant.

The thing is, people need to be reminded of God’s mercy. Many people stay away from the Church or the confessional because they think they are already lost, that they are beyond redemption. That isn’t true. They have access to God’s mercy if they are repentant. This is a big motivation for the Year of Mercy: to remind folks of God’s willingness to embrace them and welcome them back. Perhaps the emphasis on mercy has somewhat dimmed the spotlight that used to shine brightly on sin.

Nevertheless, God isn’t indifferent to sin. Sin led to the death of his Son on a cross.

Souls who seek mercy need to have repentance and some kind of resolve to leave behind their sinful ways. There is no fooling around here. All of us will be called to strict account at our particular judgment at the moment of death. Even forgiven sins might still carry a debt of temporal punishment that would require a stint in purgatory.

As for the mercy that we are called to show, ideally we should be willing to extend mercy to anyone, for the simple fact that God has been merciful to us.

This mercy doesn’t imply that we have to be indifferent to justice. Nor does mercy imply that we have to condone evil. We are called to love the sinner but hate the sin. We can hate abortion but be merciful and try to help a woman who has had one.

Another factor here is that we need not wait for someone to ask us forgiveness. We can forgive someone, not in the sense that God forgives someone (we can’t absolve as the Almighty can) but in the sense that we decide to let go of anger or resentment toward someone and wish the best for the person.

Mercy, too, can involve reaching out and helping people who simply have made messes of their lives. Perhaps they haven’t offended us personally, but they are nevertheless souls who seem to have made bad choices. They are stuck in the mud, and they need someone to help pull them out.

None of this demands indifference to objectively sinful behavior. We won’t show mercy by insinuating that someone’s drug addiction or promiscuous lifestyle is OK. Rather, we try to help them, either by aid or example or coaxing or prayer, all the while steering them away from the bad behavior.

There is a wide range of responses to someone’s faults. We can come down hard on the person and use condemnatory language, or we can be gentle and patient and try to encourage them in the right direction. That second approach is what the Year of Mercy is about.

(For more reading see this article.) You also might enjoy our series of free Retreat Guides on mercy: “Father of Mercies,” “Dawn of Mercy,” “Messenger of Mercy,” and “Miracles of Mercy”.

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