I have to apologize. I know that this is the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. And I know that the Pope requested that every parish remain open on Friday for twenty-four hours of confession—kind of a festival of mercy. Well, I admit that we did not remain open for twenty-four hours for confession. We did not have time. And I can console myself by noting that we weren’t partying.
In fact this Saturday—and every Saturday every week there were four priests hearing confession between 11 and 12. And we have been doing that for quite some time now. As well, we were saying Mass and seeing people in the office. We were consoling the bereaved and arranging for Baptisms and coordinating Quinces. We were scheduling Confirmations and First Communions. We were handing out charity—this one needed food—this one needed a bus pass. We visited the sick. It was pretty busy—and I think we were doing the work of the Lord—and I think we were pretty naturally extending Our Lord’s Mercy to those who needed it.
Actually this happens everyday—We are in the office from nine to nine—and then when the secretaries go home- a priest answer the phones. I will admit to sounding grumpy at two in the morning when the chaplain at MacNeal calls. But I manage to stumble out of bed, run a comb through my hair. I don’t even put on socks. But I get to MacNeal—and there in the ER or in ICU I find the poor sick person who is likely at the very end of their life. Now, the family of the dying person—often enough—does not go to church anymore. They really don’t have a parish. Sometimes they do not even know what the name of the parish in their neighborhood is. And that is—I think—part of the Great Apostasy that may be upon us. But at least they know that they need and want a priest to give the last rites to their beloved mother or father— grandmother or grandfather. They know—at least—God has to be involved in this moment—and they are right.
Sacred Heart of Mercy
Actually I sometimes think that what is happening is that the Sacred Heart of Jesus is fulfilling His promise of Mercy. What do I mean by that? Well, maybe a long time ago—when this dying person was a little boy or little girl in some Catholic school—or Catholic family—certainly they grew up in a more religious culture—back in the 50s—they were told about the Nine First Fridays. They heard—that Jesus told St. Margaret Mary that if someone went to Communion on the First Friday of each month for nine months in a row—for the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—they would receive at the end of their lives—final penitence—final sorrow for sins—and the last rites of a priest. I picture Jesus in heaven—almost as if He is at some heavenly switchboard—scrambling to get a priest to this person’s bedside—before they die—to fulfill God’s part of the bargain. I know—call Saint Odilo! \
Maybe that is a childish way to look at it. And I am sure all the brilliant theologians and Bishops in Europe and America would chuckle at the naiveté of it all. “Oh tut tut—that is just more of that Neo-Pelagian stuff. Tut tut—don’t be so silly. Do you think that sacraments and Jesus actually work like that?” Well actually I do think that is how it all works. And if God is merciful—this is how He is merciful. In real situations with real people. In fact God’s mercy is so real that it comes with definite expectations and definite rewards. And the conditions are this: Jesus says: “You must love me—You must pray to me—You must be sorry for your sins—even if imperfectly—You must do what you can to repair any damage your sins have caused—and you must change your way of life.”
Mercy Ain’t Cheap
If we can fulfill those conditions then He gives the gift Mercy—His part of the bargain—but not a moment before. It is only after penitence—after sorrow—after firm resolutions to sin no more—that Jesus says to the person: “Come into my kingdom.” Mercy is not some cheap routine where God says to us “That’s ok—do whatever you want. Continue in your life as you are. I will not judge—Don’t worry—be happy. Don’t even bother saying your sins—in confession—that’s too hard.” Well that is not mercy. Because that doesn’t make sense. And God—if anything—makes sense.
Even the person in a coma at McNeal in the middle of the night-who receives the Last Rites—needs at least to have had the fear of hell in their hearts before they slipped into the coma—in order for the Last Rites to work. That is called “imperfect contrition.” Imperfect contrition is the least we need—before God can work His mercy and forgive our sins.
No-contrition means that a person did not want God’s forgiveness—nor did they care about God’s justice. No-contrition means a person is perfectly content to go to hell. And God will not go against that exercise of free will. So the least we need—is imperfect contrition—where at least we do not want to be punished. Its not perfect—but it is good for starters. Do you think that the Prodigal Son would have been forgiven by his father—if the son wanted to bring all his prostitutes and pigs with him? “Oh father—you have to take me back—and take me as I am—and with all my friends—who are you to judge?” The father would not have accepted that. The father offered mercy—but mercy depends upon justice—and justice demands that the sinner first repent of the evil—then accept mercy. The father said to the Prodigal Son: “You leave the old life of sin behind—or you do not come another step.”
Mercy exists when God does that which God does not have to do. God does not have to forgive us. God does not have to take us to heaven. God can say—in justice—you have sinned-and you will be deprived of life. But God does not leave it at justice. He makes—as a part of His justice—mercy—but He does so freely. Justice is necessary—but Mercy is freely given. God says to us sinners—if you are sorry and willing to change your lives, if you resolve to fix what you have ruined— and determine not to do it again—I will not condemn you as your sins deserve. I will forgive you.
Did I mention confession? Is there a sacrament more full of justice than confession? Is there a sacrament more full of mercy than confession? And may I teach with the Church—that in the sacrament of confession—the penitent who has repentance and resolves not to sin again—mentions by name and number—their mortal sins. Every sacrament must have form and matter—the matter for confession is the enumeration of our serious sins—the form is the absolution given by the priest. A person does not have to go into morbid detail—but they need to say what they did wrong and how many times. And this is not to shame the person or to satisfy morbid curiosity. It is meant to help the person come to grips with the enormity of their sin—and help the priest understand better how he might be able to help. But Mercy—even as it comes in confession—is not cheap. It comes with a price. The price of mercy is repentance. But the reward is greater than the cost—it is life eternal in heaven.