Doing Mercy: Dividing Lines, Dividing Minds

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

Pr 9

On the main quad at Notre Dame, there is a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the patron of Holy Cross priests. At the base of the statue there are four simple words in Latin, Venite Ad Me Omnes. Come to me, everyone. The words are taken from the Gospel for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

I’m tired and burdened these days. Perhaps you are tired and burdened for the same reason. Let me explain.

On July 1, we celebrated the Feast of St. Junípero Serra. Pope Francis canonized him in 2015 when the Holy Father made a pastoral visit to the United States. As you well know from the news, unless you’ve only been watching the Weather Channel like my dad, Serra is embroiled in a lot of controversy. Statues of him have been vandalized and toppled in San Francisco, in Los Angeles and in Sacramento. Other cities have removed statues of him.

His supporters say one thing while his detractors say quite another thing. His supporters see him as a good and holy man who did so much to bring the Gospel message to California, earning him the title of “Apostle to California.” His detractors say that he treated the indigenous people of California terribly. His supporters say that Serra brought a better way of life to the Native Americans and that it is not fair to judge what happened in the second half of the 18th century by today’s standards. His detractors say that he forced the faith upon the Native American peoples of California.

We have seen this situation play out all around the country with statues of historic figures being vandalized and toppled, with questions about the Confederate flag, with a call to rename some military bases and more. Princeton University recently removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from their School of Public and International Affairs. The list goes on.

I am not defending one way or the other. Rather the point of these few words is to encourage us to get beyond this dualistic way of approaching everything. It is not helping us. It is destroying us.

Sadly, we are wired in a dualistic way of thinking — to classify every person or action as good or bad, to evaluate every situation in black and white terms, no gray area. I always say that my dualistic thinking began as a little boy. When I was playing, my mom would say, “in or out.”

When you do this, you have to be correct, which means that you have to defeat the other person and show why they are wrong. You have to defend the choice that you have made, so you dig your feet in. You have to stick to that stark, either-or choice. That is a false choice. And that is precisely why people cannot talk with one another, why America is so angry today.

Two days after the Feast of St. Junípero Serra, we celebrated the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. This Gospel is one that we are all familiar with. Even non-believers know the phrase “doubting Thomas.” I am more intrigued, however, by the community than by Thomas.

In the Gospel we hear that Thomas was not with the rest of the apostles when Jesus appeared to them. They tell Thomas about it and he doesn’t believe. He says, “Sounds like fake news to me! I won’t believe until I can see him myself and put my finger in his wounds.” The following week Jesus appears again. Thomas is there this time and has the opportunity to put his finger in the wounds. Thomas believes and cries out, “My Lord and my God.”

When Thomas shares his doubt with the rest of the apostles, they do not tell him that he cannot remain in the community. They do not say, “Well, Thomas, since you do not believe, you can’t stay. You do not believe what we believe, so go find some other community that will tolerate your doubt.”

On the contrary, rather than kick him out because he does not believe, they believe for him, until he can believe on his own. They are willing to wait until he can come to belief. It speaks volumes of how the early Christian community lived and understood itself. They didn’t draw a line in the sand. They didn’t have to be right or wrong. Instead, they spoke to one another.

The behavior of the early Christian community challenges us to not draw lines in the sand. The early community of believers does not draw a line in the sand and tell Thomas that he is on the wrong side of the line. Rather, they tell him clearly that they have seen the Lord and are willing to wait with him until he can see the Lord. If the community had shunned him, he might not have ever come to believe in the Risen Lord.

The implications for us in our day are obvious. We must stop these culture wars, especially those in the Church. We must stop drawing lines in the sand and saying who belongs and who does not. We must believe for people who cannot yet believe.

We have to allow God to rewire our dualistic mind so as to grow into having a contemplative mind. This takes time and practice and does not happen overnight. This does not mean that every action or idea is equal or that certain things should not be challenged. But it does mean that we have to discover the kind of mind that desires to see God in all things and in all people, the contemplative mind that is willing not just to talk with, but to listen to the other.

I believe that this can help turn society around. I might be wrong, of course, but I can assure that going on like we are now is destructive. A contemplative mind can help move us in a better direction.           

The Church and the world are in desperate need of people who can go beyond dualistic thinking and are able to engage in conversation with people across the lines drawn in the sand.

Heeding the call of Jesus to come to him, to rest in him, will help us go from our dualistic mind to a contemplative mind. And if we must draw lines in the sand, let’s at least acknowledge that God is on both sides.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Father Joe Corpora works in the Alliance for Catholic Education and Campus Ministry, and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. He has written two books of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God and Being Mercy: The Path to Being Fully Aliveboth published by Corby Books. A third book, Doing Mercy: A Path to Contemplation, is scheduled to be published in November.