“Ask a Priest: Why All the Talk of Mercy?”

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Q: Is it true that when you die, Divine Mercy, Jesus’ love for people, ends and you are judged? Judged very hard and critically, I might add. If that is true, why is there so much lovey-dovey talk on Catholic TV and at most churches about God’s love for us and mercy? I would rather hear the harsh reality of God and his judgment then happy talk geared for children. I just saw an old “Mother Angelica Live” clip of a Catholic priest who was near death from a car accident and told Mother Angelica that Jesus told him he was going to hell, because he only thought of himself. To be honest, I am terrified now and depressed. If a Catholic priest can go to hell, what about me? I am just a piece of dust. Please give me your thoughts, and God bless you. -J.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Church emphasizes God’s mercy because that is what Jesus emphasized. “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20).

From a pastoral standpoint, people are more likely to be attracted by a message of mercy than of condemnation. They can quickly shut down if they hear too much of the latter, and that doesn’t help anyone move forward.

On the other hand, God’s mercy is not meant to be an excuse for us to be spiritually mediocre. Just because God is always willing to forgive us doesn’t mean we should be cavalier about sinning. On the contrary, God’s goodness and mercy should attract us to him, should make us want to be close to him and follow him.

In the Gospels, those who experienced Jesus’ mercy were always changed. They left behind their sinful ways and began the long and exciting pilgrimage of faith in Jesus, a pilgrimage that each one of us can begin at any time — precisely because God’s mercy makes it possible.

If you hear people preaching God’s mercy as a way to give themselves an excuse to do whatever they want, then you can be sure that that is not what the Church is trying to get across. The Church preaches God’s mercy in order to invite all people, even the greatest sinners, to trust in God’s goodness and follow Jesus along the path of salvation.

You sound a bit ambiguous yourself. On the one hand you seem to want to hear fire-and-brimstone talk. On the other, you are terrified by talk of a priest who thought he was heading for the wrong place.

None of us is guaranteed salvation because of our vocation, and this includes priests. Suffice it to say that we all have a chance at heaven if we correspond to God’s graces in our lives. That includes being humble and making use of the sacrament of confession.

Mercy on our part is not an option. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). More chillingly Our Lord warned, “For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Beyond being something lovey-dovey, the message of mercy needs to be heard … and heeded. Our Lord’s justice, which will be demanding, complements his mercy without precluding it.

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