How Giving Mercy Is to Gain Mercy
The Year Dedicated to the Boundless Compassion of God
Of all of Christ’s parables, I have always been most deeply moved by the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as a powerful expression of our God’s boundless compassion and mercy. After having experienced his wayward son’s profoundly disrespectful, heartless and ungrateful behavior, the father in Christ’s story would have been entirely justified in rejecting his return. Yet Jesus tells us that, while his son “was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him.” So great was his father’s compassion and mercy that he couldn’t contain it.
He began showering his wayward son with affection, and even ordered a feast in his honor, before his son could complete his planned apology! That is the kind of Father we have in heaven.
In recognition of and thanksgiving for the boundless compassion and mercy of our heavenly Father, Pope Francis has proclaimed that, on Dec. 8, we will enter into an extraordinary jubilee Year of Mercy. In his proclamation, Misericordiae Vultus, the Holy Father writes:
“Let us place the sacrament of reconciliation at the center once more, in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace. … God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen. … All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church. … God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising” (17, 22).
In this light, I would like to recount an experience I had many years ago — something about which I have told very few people. For obvious reasons, I always considered it a very personal event, and I think I may have also been concerned that some people would assume I was trying to make a political point. To be clear, I am not; my intention is only to recount the events of a day on which I especially felt God’s merciful presence in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Until several years ago, Catholics who lived in western Massachusetts were blessed by the presence of several holy Capuchin monks at St. Francis Chapel in downtown Springfield. In the mid-late spring of 1998, I made the half-hour journey downtown for reconciliation and the Mass that always followed. As I walked briskly to the entrance of the chapel, a 30-something, frail, unkempt man slowly made his way toward me. He began to speak to me, and I looked up somewhat impatiently, knowing that I had arrived toward the end of the allotted time for confessions that day, and the Capuchins always began and ended promptly.
He smiled and asked me if I would please give him some money for food and told me that he had none.
Having been similarly approached for money many times in the past in this general area of this city, I had come to learn that these individuals each had a “shtick” or two they had perfected over time.
The Capuchins had advised us not to give these people money, as they used it for drugs and alcohol. And I have no doubt this was true in the vast majority of cases. Once, a rather decently dressed fellow came up to me in a different location and recounted the same “emergency” story he had used a week earlier in front of the chapel (his wallet had been stolen and he was out of gas, with his wife and kids stuck waiting in the car). When I mentioned how remarkably unfortunate it was that he had suffered the same exact fate two times in one week, his eyes opened wide, and he moved off quickly to find someone else.
But in the case at hand, I simply smiled and mentioned that I was in a rush to make confession. I remember him smiling back meekly and mumbling something to the effect that he understood, as I quickly passed by him and through the next two glass doors, unhindered.
As I examined my conscience before reconciliation, the face of the man I had just passed by kept popping into my mind. I felt a vague unease or guilt about something, but I wasn’t quite certain what it was at the time.
I entered the confessional, where Father John ultimately gave me absolution. I can’t remember much about the actual confession. But I do remember having to pray a whole Rosary as a penance (the good Capuchins at St. Francis Chapel never subscribed to one Our Father or Hail Mary as penance).
When I went to a pew to kneel and pray, I noticed the man who had asked me for money sitting alone, several rows directly behind me. I remember thinking this odd, as I had never seen one of these men actually enter the Church. They always stayed outside the main doors.
While I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries, I eventually realized it would be almost impossible to finish my penance before holy Communion. I struggled a bit between the urge to rush the Rosary in order to be “ready to receive” and the understanding that rushing penance undermines both its intent and effect.
As I struggled to complete my penance, I started to make more and more mistakes in my prayers, which only made me frustrated and anxious.
Eventually, I recall thinking, “I wonder if it would be okay to receive Communion and finish my penance afterwards?” Immediately after the words went through my mind, I heard the following words disturb the sacred silence, “You’re okay to go.” I thought, “Did I really just hear that? It’s not possible.” Then, once I again, I heard even more distinctly, “You’re okay to go!”
I snapped my head around, mouth somewhat agape, looking back at the man I’d met in front of the chapel, who was still all by himself. The voice I heard was clearly his. But he stared forward rather blankly, not even making eye contact with me.
I turned back around and thought to myself, “Lord, if what he said wasn’t from you, I’m sure you’ll understand if I go up to receive under the circumstances!” I arose from my pew and received Communion, still a bit amazed. When I returned, I began to pray in earnest, thanking God for his graciousness and mercy. Then I completed the rest of my penance.
As I prayed, I began to feel an urge to give my rosary to the man behind me. I hesitated for a moment, thinking he wouldn’t be interested or that it would be awkward.
But I stood up and walked tentatively toward him at the back of the church, and he turned, looking me squarely in the eye.
Before I could open my mouth, he said, “What a beautiful rosary. I used to have one like that.” Surprised by his words for yet a second time, I smiled broadly and replied, “And you do again.” I placed it over his head.
Almost instantly, his face contorted, and he began to cry, while pleading, “Why would you do that? Why would you give me your rosary like that? I don’t understand!” His reaction seemed to convey an odd combination of confusion, gratefulness, pain and hope.
I told him that I believed God wanted me to give it to him. His eyes grew very large, and then the tears really began to stream down his cheeks. He threw his arms around my neck and sobbed like a young child.
I walked with him toward the doors so we could speak without disturbing people praying in the pews. In the daylight, I noticed a terrible scar on the side of his head and some others on his arms and neck. He began to explain that he used to carry his rosary with him in his pocket, but it had been lost recently, after he was beaten by a gang of local youths. He told me that most of his scars came from beatings and objects being thrown at him by these gangs, who considered it “sport” to beat him to the edge of unconsciousness. After some prodding, with his eyes downcast, he confided that they went after him in particular because he was a “fag”; they would scream the epithet as they beat him. As he spoke, he seemed to be reliving those traumatic events. He wondered if his life mattered at all.
At this point, I asked him his name, and he replied, “Stephen.” My heart truly went out to this poor, broken man, and I fought back tears just thinking about his plight.
I asked him if he had eaten lunch, and he said that he had not eaten since the day before. So we went off to lunch, talking about small things along the way. On the way back, I played a song I had written and recorded called The Father’s Lullaby that describes a father’s love for his child as the mirror of God the Father’s love for us. He wept openly during the song and said, “I wish every father loved his child like that!”
We then spoke for a while about God; and among other things, I asked Stephen to remember that Christ loved him and that he should always turn to him for help and healing. I dropped him off at the local shelter, gave the administrator enough money to cover his stay for the weekend and promised to pray for him. He hugged me in a way that I can only describe as childlike; then he smiled, held his rosary up and said, “I’ll pray for you, too, Michael. Thank you so much for everything!”
While I have not seen him since, I often think of Stephen, especially after going to confession, and I pray that he is well. And I wish I could let him know the great kindness he had done me that day.
Indeed, as the Holy Father expressed, “God never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising.”
Michael Forrest is a Catholic speaker, apologist and catechist
who writes from Massachusetts. He is currently studying
for the diaconate of the Diocese of Springfield.
- Nov. 29-Dec. 12, 2015