During his homily this past weekend, our priest talked about the championship soccer game between Chile and Mexico that took place on June 18 in Copa America Centenario quarterfinal held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

Chile beat Mexico 7-0.

Father cited a Mexican sports commentator who, after the Mexico loss, mentioned that he was grateful for the way Chile handled the game. Being clearly in the lead, the Chilean team did not hold back from giving it their all, which is what many teams might have done.

Why beat the tar out of the opposing team when you’re likely to win the game anyway?

The Mexican sportscaster saw the Chilean team’s behavior as a sign of respect for the Mexican team. By continuing to give it full force, they were acknowledging the skills of the Mexican team and acknowledging the fact that they were worthy opponent. He saw it as a sign of respect.

Our priest saw it as an ultimate act of mercy. Sometimes, he said, it’s more merciful to be less merciful.

That’s exactly why I chose the spiritual director that I did. He was a gifted spiritual advisor, and also a writer himself. So we could relate to each other from many angles. More importantly, he was less merciful.

What I mean by that is this: He had the insight and ability to push me very hard spiritually while at the same time being compassionate enough to sense when I was at my limit. When I first approached him, I laid down one "rule” – that he not let me off the hook easy by any means. I had some spiritual baggage, bad habits, and was stuck in some real spiritual ruts that I wanted to break out of. Only his expert guidance and hard, hard work could make that happen.

It worked.

I’m certainly not perfect, but we were able to make some significant headway in the 10 years that we worked together.

It can be more merciful to be less merciful, and my spiritual director was indeed merciful to me.

If he hadn’t expected so much of me, I wouldn’t have expected so much of myself and I wouldn’t have grown spiritually nearly as much. He showed mercy by withholding mercy, so to speak.

And, like the Chilean soccer team, my spiritual director was showing a sign of respect for me.

He has since passed away, but I still keep in mind the methods he used and the lessons he taught me. I hope I’m doing him justice in the continuation of my spiritual growth.

This is something I think about when I work with others in different kinds of relationships as well. Of course, it’s not good to go around acting like a drill sergeant. Sometimes there is good reason to be gentle. But at other times, people need to be shown that they have more potential than they give themselves credit for.

That’s when it’s more merciful to be less merciful.

For example, when you have a friend who is caught in a sinful habit. What’s more merciful – to call them to the task and insist that they are better than that or allow them to wallow in their sinfulness and weakness?

Certainly it would be more merciful to show them their strength, point them to God’s grace, and give them the encouragement they need to straighten their path.

I think we sometimes fall short of calling each other to the task because we assume that the other is incapable of making any change. Worse, I think we often turn her head the other way, proclaiming “it’s none of my business.”

I don’t think that’s what our Lord wants.

He told his disciples, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” (Lu 17-3)

Jesus didn’t mean brother in the literal sense; he meant all those with whom we associate.

The greatest act of mercy is helping another on his/her path to heaven. Sometimes that means expecting more of others than they expect of themselves. We do that by showing them that we are confident in their capability to do so and in praying for their continued strength.

Can it be more merciful to be less merciful?

I believe so.