Being Mercy: Getting It Right

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

Earlier today, quite by chance, I ran into another Missionary of Mercy. He was here at Notre Dame leading a workshop. I remember meeting him in Rome in February when Pope Francis addressed the missionaries and sent us forth to preach and proclaim the mercy of God in whatever ways we could. I was behind him in the line as we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a Notre Dame backpack. I asked him if he worked at Notre Dame. He explained that he had been coming to Notre Dame for several summers to lead workshops. Now, here he was today.

We talked about the incredible grace and privilege it has been to serve the Church as Missionaries of Mercy during this jubilee year. And he said, “I’m thinking of writing a letter to the Holy Father to thank him for this incredible year of mercy and to ask him to extend it for another year. It just can’t end.” I said, “I’ll sign the letter also.”

We both recognized that this Jubilee Year of Mercy has been a tremendous gift and blessing from God. And people don’t want it to end. Of course, the mercy of God is relentless and it never ends. It will carry us into eternity. But it might be a good idea to extend the jubilee!

I said, “We’ve had enough Missionaries of Harsh Judgment for many years. We ought to have Missionaries of Mercy for many years also. We have gotten it upside down and backward for so long that it can’t be turned around in one year.”

What have we gotten wrong? We think that we are saved when we have earned it, when we stop sinning, when we become perfect. But the opposite is the truth. Salvation is turning sin on its head and allowing God to use it to save us. God loves us so much that he will use anything and everything to save us. He saves us as sinners, not as saints. God wins by making sure that we win.

For too many years we have failed to understand that the Good News is good precisely because mistake, failure and sin are all part of what redeems us. We often say that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, but do we really believe this? And do we really believe St. Paul when he says, “It is when I am weak that I am strong.”?

The great English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”

Even the fall is the mercy of God. How wonderful is this? Most people are familiar with this line from Julian’s writings: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” But people have left off the first part of the sentence, which puts it all in perspective. What she wrote is, “Sin is necessary; and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” That line brings this repenting sinner so much hope.

We have completely misunderstood what Jesus means by perfection in Matthew’s gospel when he says, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We have taken it to mean what the word means in common parlance. Perfection means being perfect. But how can Jesus mean this? We know that only God is perfect. So how can we be perfect? If being perfect means making no mistakes and being without sin, then this is not possible. I’m not even sure I want it, at least in this life.

Father Richard Rohr, OFM, writes, “The only perfection available to us humans is the ability to include and forgive our imperfections.” We find this so hard to believe. Sometimes we don’t even want to believe it. Yet this is precisely how God loves us. God loves us as he includes and forgives our imperfections and sins. What else can we mean when we say that God loves us exactly as we are?

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by getting it right. The phrase “best practices” has won the day. You hear it everywhere — classrooms, seminars, workshops, conferences, businesses. I think it’s silly. When I give workshops and presentations, I always talk about “worst practices.” We learn a lot more from our “worst practices” than from our “best practices.” It’s our worst practices that are our best teachers, just like our faults and failings and sins are our best teachers.

Just imagine what would happen if I began to believe that God loves me by including and forgiving my imperfections. If I believe this about myself, then I would have to start believing that this is how God loves everyone. Yikes! I would certainly be less tempted to be a “Missionary of Harsh Judgment” and more inclined to be a “Missionary of Mercy.”

If you watch the Holy Father closely, and maybe not even so closely, it is clear that this is what he wants us to grasp, to accept, to believe, to hold on to. The mercy of God is bigger than anything else. The mercy of God is relentless and free and available and accessible to everyone. And you cannot earn it. It’s not about merit. It’s about accepting who God is and how God gives himself to us.

Whether the Jubilee Year of Mercy is extended or not, Pope Francis hopes we will make being merciful a way of life. The teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux can help us make mercy a way of life if we can believe what she taught, that “everything is a grace.” That means that the fall and the recovery from the fall are both grace. Both are the mercy of God. Everything is a grace. Everything.

Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis has appointed to serve this year as Missionaries of Mercy.