Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
As we prepare for the Year of Mercy, a blessed declaration from our Holy Father to be sure, permit me to express one concern. Fundamentally it concerns a flawed notion of mercy that is widespread in the world today, and also to some extent in the Church.
A simple way of describing the problem is to say that one of the great errors of our day is the proclamation of mercy without repentance, without reference to our sinful condition. So many pulpits have gone silent on sin! And therefore they are silent on the true glory of mercy and the astonishing gift that it is! Ah, mercy! Divine mercy! Perfect mercy! But only when we know and acknowledge our sins can this joyful cry be deep and authentic.
Yet too often today mercy is preached in a detached way and is taken by many to mean that our sins aren’t really sins, or are no big deal, and that God doesn’t really care what we do because, after all, he is merciful. And, by contrast those that do speak of sin are thereby unmerciful and mean.
Thus yet again we must state the critical and central truth that the astonishing and glorious mercy of God is accessed by repentance. It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.
Consider a medical analogy of a man who is in very poor health. Perhaps he has a host of problems such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. Now modern medicine has a lot to offer people who are struggling with poor health. The healing help includes everything from medicine to surgery, to information on nutrition, etc. But in order for this man to access that healing help, he needs to realize and admit he has a problem, schedule an appointment, keep the appointment, take the medicine and follow the advice he receives.
Now, when he does this, AND ONLY when he does this, will the healing help of the medical profession unfold for him. It is not enough for him to say, “Well isn’t it great that there are doctors and medicine out there.” That is not enough. He has to make a change and actually reach out and develop a relationship with the medical community. He has to actually take the medicine. It is not enough to praise the medicine and rejoice that healing is available; he has to act and set a new course for his life.
And this is an analogy for the spiritual life and repentance. God’s offer of mercy and healing love stand, and are offered to everyone. But these magnificent gifts must be accessed through repentance.
The Greek word that is usually translated as repentance is metanoia and it means more than simply to clean up our act. Most literally it means to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. The “meta” in metanoia signifies change. So repentance involves more than a sorrow. It involves actual change or a move or a step in the right direction. And in this way metanoia (repentance) unlocks all the blessings the healings, the mercy, and the salvation that is promised. We must allow the grace of God, interacting with our freedom to effect an actual change, a decision in our life that changes the way we think, the way we act, and puts us into a saving relationship with the Divine Physician Jesus.
Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. We need to recouple mercy with repentance.
- Isaiah had said, The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD (Is 59:20).
- And to the Disciples in Emmaus Jesus said, Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-48)
- St. Paul warns, In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Thus those who preach and teach mercy without repentance are deceivers and likely themselves are deceived. And those who think of mercy without reference to repentance are deceived.
Repentance is the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open.
But the point of the call of repentance is not simply to go out and tell others how terrible they are, but rather to tell them about the forgiveness of sin! And this is why we need a Year of Mercy! On the one hand we’re living in rebellious times, times in which many are dismissive of sin and have refashioned God into just a nice fellow who doesn’t really care all that much about sin (despite what His own Scriptures say to the contrary), reducing mercy to mere kindness and a sort of blindness of a doting God.
On the other hand, these are also times when many are scared and angry with God, rejecting His judgments and glorious moral vision. A lot of people know that their lives are in disorder: their families are broken; they are confused; greed, materialism, lust, and other sinful drives are taking a heavy toll. And many are angry with the Church because deep down they know the Gospel is right. They don’t like being reminded that people have no business calling good what God calls sinful.
But most of all, many are confused and angry because they don’t know forgiveness. All the more reason to preach the glory of mercy experienced through repentance. For indeed, if we do not know the bad news, the good news is no news.
So let’s celebrate this Year of Mercy, but do it in the only way that truly unlocks its power and highlights its glory: Repentance for the forgiveness of sin is to be preached to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem! (Luke 24:48)