In life’s hard journey, we all must dive into the ocean of mercy
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
As the media began reporting last month on the release of Pope Francis’ document on marriage and family, titled The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia), I thought of the story of the conversion of St. Matthew and the response of Jesus to those who criticized him for “eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus responded by saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Mt 9:11)
Some of the media were all too quick to announce, erroneously I might add, that Pope Francis had changed Church teaching. Some commentators expressed disappointment with what Pope Francis said, while others were dismayed by what he didn’t say.
Then there were the “Facebook moral theologians,” as one priest called them. But I believe an essential point was missed by those offering quick conclusions and criticisms, just as it was missed by the Pharisees and scribes who were critical of Jesus. What they missed is the very meaning of mercy.
In a society that increasingly wants all public reference to God removed, the meaning of “mercy” has increasingly become confused and thought by many to be synonymous with “acceptance” or “tolerance.” As the adage goes, “He who defines the terms wins the argument.” But the Church is not trying to win arguments so much as to win souls — to bring people to an encounter with Christ, who didn’t first approach St. Matthew with a condemnation of his sinful practices. Nor did Christ condemn those he sat at a table with in St. Matthew’s home, which scandalized the Pharisees.
St. Matthew’s conversion followed as a result of the encounter with the merciful heart of Jesus by turning away from the money table that had enslaved him. Christ never said to St. Matthew, “You can remain a tax collector,” but he did say, “Follow me.” And the path that St. Matthew followed Christ on led to an ocean of mercy — on Calvary.
Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation issued by Pope Francis, is filled with words of love, mercy, and pastoral guidance. It confronts complex issues faced by families living in these challenging modern times. While addressing these issues throughout the document, Pope Francis also reaffirms an unmistakable commitment to our long-standing Catholic teachings and traditions. “With inner joy and deep comfort, the Church looks to the families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel, encouraging them and thanking them for the testimony they offer,” Pope Francis wrote.
My personal experiences with my own family and many of the sections within the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation remind me that family life is rarely, if ever, “perfect” from the start. There are tremendous joys when things go well. There also is the recognition that family life in our modern world often defies easy solutions to complex problems and circumstances. For that reason, Pope Francis urges us to “accompany” families and individuals in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Moreover, he urges that we offer acceptance and welcome to individuals, offering people opportunities to experience the “joy of love.” We need to be the face, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to all those we meet, and especially those we encounter who are struggling with marriage and family issues.
I remind all of the faithful that I shepherd that we are called to be merciful because God has been merciful to us. This means we need to be patient and compassionate toward those who are suffering or are afflicted. We need to have concern for the physical, as well as spiritual, needs of those who are hurting. We need to have empathy for others in their trials and sufferings. We need to walk alongside people over extended periods of time and see them through their healing process. This is the way we can demonstrate being the face, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to the afflicted.
There are some who believe the Church’s teaching on marriage needs to be changed and The Joy of Love be rewritten. Rather, I encourage us to humbly and gratefully receive the truth from the Vicar of Christ and pray ourselves into the depths of this teaching.