Year of Mercy Makes Sense Only if You Haven’t Lost the Sense of Sin

COMMENTARY: In The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis provides a catechesis on sin so we can truly appreciate God’s mercy.

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During his 2013 interview returning home from World Youth Day Rio — hijacked by the famously taken-out-of-context “Who am I to judge?” remark — Pope Francis made an observation overlooked by the media. The Holy Father mentioned the importance of a “theology of sin” to understanding the truth about God’s mercy.

His recently published book-length interview with journalist Andrea Tornielli, The Name of God Is Mercy, gives insight into Pope Francis’ theology of sin — which provides us, in turn, with an invaluable resource to help us observe this special Jubilee of Divine Mercy.

Pope Francis highlights the difficulty facing pastors and people when discussing the reality of sin and God’s merciful offer of forgiveness. In particular, he talks about two types of people — those who’ve lost the sense of sin and those who’ve lost a sense of God’s mercy. Both attitudes are harmful because they stop us from encountering the healing grace of God’s merciful forgiveness.

Early in his interview with Tornielli, Pope Francis refers to a fundamental problem that has been identified and considered by many popes since Venerable Pope Pius XII — the crisis of the loss of a sense of sin. Pope Francis says: “Pius XII, more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin.”

Pope Francis also shares Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s concern about the influence of relativism on our sense of sin: “Relativism wounds people too: All things seem equal; all things appear the same.” In a homily, Pope Francis has said the devil seeks to deaden our consciences so we can’t tell right from wrong, which is the hallmark of relativism:

“The man ends up destroyed by the well-mannered method the devil uses, by the way the devil convinces him to do things, with relativism: ‘But it is not ... but it is not much ... no; relax; be calm.’”

Furthermore, Pope Francis — again, like his immediate predecessors — warns about the disastrous influence of this loss of the sense of sin in the Church. He distinguishes between sinners, who retain a deep sense of sin, and the corrupt, who have lost their sense of sin.

The corrupt are those individuals who arrogantly deny or reject their need for repentance and God’s forgiveness and who make their sin a habit and way of life. The corrupt mistake their sin for “true treasure,” justifying themselves and their behavior. They pretend to be Christian, masking their vices with “good manners, always managing to keep up appearances,” leading double lives. Pope Francis gives a shocking example of this:

“We cannot be arrogant. It reminds me of a story I heard from a person I used to know, a manager in Argentina. This man had a colleague who seemed to be very committed to a Christian life: He recited the Rosary, he read spiritual writings and so on. One day, the colleague confided, en passant, as if it were of no consequence, that he was having a relationship with his maid. He made it clear that he thought it was something entirely normal. He said that ‘these people’ — and by that he meant maids — were there ‘for that, too.’ My friend was shocked; his colleague was practically telling him that he believed in the existence of superior and inferior human beings, with the latter destined to be taken advantage of and used, like the maid. I was stunned by that example; despite all my friend’s objections, the colleague remained firm and didn’t budge an inch. And he continued to consider himself a good Christian because he prayed, he read his spiritual writings every day, and he went to Mass on Sundays. This is arrogance.”

However, even though such individuals have hardened their hearts, Pope Francis doesn’t consider the corrupt beyond the mercy of God. Though they are ordinarily immune to contrition and remorse, the Holy Father has observed that God attempts to save them through “life’s great ordeals,” which break their hard hearts, opening them to God’s grace.

The other group particularly identified by Pope Francis is made up of Christians who don’t seek God’s mercy even though, unlike the corrupt, they have a painful awareness of their sin and woundedness. These all share in common the failure to seek God’s mercy due to losing touch with the true Christian sense of God’s merciful love for sinners.

According to Pope Francis, there are Christians who don’t want God’s mercy because they suffer from a “narcissistic illness,” clinging to their woundedness because it gives them the unhealthy pleasure of bitterness:

“Or maybe you prefer your wounds, the wounds of sin, and you behave like a dog, licking your wounds with your tongue. This is a narcissistic illness that makes people bitter. There is pleasure in feeling bitter, an unhealthy pleasure.”

Another group of Christians don’t seek God’s mercy because they make the error of believing their sins are so evil God will not forgive them: “Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven.” Pope Francis refers to these people as those who have come to the erroneous conclusion that they are too great of sinners to encounter Jesus.

One of the key messages of Pope Francis’ The Name of God Is Mercy is there is no sin, there is no habit of sin, and there is no relapse into sin that is beyond the mercy of God:

“There are no situations we cannot get out of; we are not condemned to sink into quicksand, in which the more we move the deeper we sink. Jesus is there, his hand extended, ready to reach out to us and pull us out of the mud, out of sin, out of the abyss of evil into which we have fallen. We need only be conscious of our state, be honest with ourselves, and not lick our wounds. We need to ask for the grace to recognize ourselves as sinners.”

Another theme that runs throughout The Name of God Is Mercy is Pope Francis’ candid admission that he is a sinner. From the beginning of his pontificate, when he was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”  by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro in an interview, Pope Francis hasn’t been shy about identifying himself as a sinner:

“I do not know what might be the most fitting description. ... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

The Holy Father encourages us — sometimes gently, sometime forcefully — to seek the grace to make the same honest and frank admission, because he knows from personal experience that knowing and admitting we are sinners will liberate and transform our lives.

In answer to Andrea Tornielli’s question, “How do we recognize that we ourselves are sinners? What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel like one?” Pope Francis answered:

“I would advise him to ask for the grace of feeling like one! Yes, because even recognizing oneself as a sinner is a grace. It is a grace that is granted to you. Without that grace, the most one can say is: I am limited; I have my limits; these are my mistakes. But recognizing oneself as a sinner is something else. It means standing in front of God, who is our everything, and presenting him with ourselves, which are our nothing — our miseries, our sins. What we need to ask for is truly an act of grace” (p. 30).

Sinners are those individuals who have the humility and sense of woundedness to admit they are weak and in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Pope Francis believes one can be a great sinner but not fall into corruption. Pointing to the examples of Zacchaeus, Matthew, the Samaritan Woman at the Well and Nicodemus, the Holy Father says their sinful hearts were open to God’s mercy:

“Their sinful hearts all had something that saved them from corruption. They were open to forgiveness, their hearts felt their own weakness, and that small opening allowed the strength of God to enter. When a sinner recognizes himself as such, he admits in some way that what he was attached to, clings to, is false.”

In order to place us in a position to admit our attachment to what is false, Pope Francis undertakes a basic catechesis on the nature of sin. This is urgently needed in Western culture — so heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to be in a state of denial about the objective reality of sin and dangerously attracted to embracing the demonic shadow.

It shouldn’t surprise us that as a consequence of his formation as a Jesuit, Pope Francis has no problem talking in stark and explicit terms about the evil represented by our sins.  The first week of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises commences with a meditation on the catastrophic damage caused by angelic and human sin. Pope Francis, likewise, wants us to truly look at the dark reality of sin in the light of God’s mercy, because without God’s mercy such knowledge would be overwhelmingly harmful. He wants us to take responsibility for our sin.

When asked why we are sinners, Pope Francis answers very simply: “Because of original sin,” our nature “is wounded by original sin”:

“It’s something we know from experience. Our humanity is wounded; we know how to distinguish between good and evil, we know what is evil, we try to follow the path of goodness, but we often fall because of our weaknesses and choose evil. This is a consequence of original sin ... something that actually happened at the origins of mankind.”

The Holy Father doesn’t pull his punches about the evil nature of our sin compared to the goodness of God. Our sins not only wound us and damage our relationships — our sins also “displease God,” and we should be displeased with what displeases God. Quoting the Church Fathers, Pope Francis writes that knowing our sins displease God should shatter our hearts:

“The Church Fathers teach us that a shattered heart is most pleasing to God. It is the sign that we are conscious of our sins, of the evil we have done, of our wretchedness and of our need for forgiveness and mercy.”

This is why Pope Francis views our sin from the perspective of the ancient tradition of the Easter Exultet, with its shocking praise of Adam and Eve’s catastrophic sin as a felix culpa (“happy fault”). The Holy Father knows that an honest knowledge of our sin and our need for God’s mercy will lead us to experience the love of “so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”

Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections program.