Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.
For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.
“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
The great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.
1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most common images associated with Catholicism. Numerous Catholic churches and schools are named after the Sacred Heart and many churches contain an image or statue of the Sacred Heart.
But how often do we stop to think what the devotion to the Sacred Heart is actually all about? What was Christ communicating to us when He revealed His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century? Why did the Church establish a feast day devoted to the Sacred Heart and does this devotion still have relevance for us today?
For human beings, the heart symbolizes the very center of our being since it is the organ that keeps us alive by pumping blood around the whole body. It also symbolizes the depths of our feelings and therefore our capacity for love. We speak of being ‘heart-broken’ when something tragic happens to us, when someone we love dies, a friend betrays us or our love is rejected. When we desire to be close to others we refer to ‘speaking from the heart’ or having a ‘heart to heart’ conversation.
All of this tells us much about why Jesus desired a devotion to His Sacred Heart. He wanted to be close to us, to reveal to us the depths of His love for us, and to call us to respond to this love by loving Him in return and extending that love to others. Indeed He gave the commandment to His followers to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15: 12).
Since St. John told us that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), devotion to the Sacred Heart is nothing other than acknowledging and reinforcing this revelation of who God is, and asking us to enter more deeply into his love.
From 1673 to 1675, Our Lord appeared several times to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun, in the French town of Paray-le-Monial. The first apparition took place on 27 December 1673, the feast of St. John the Evangelist. Interestingly, it was St. John who was called the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’, and who rested his head near Christ’s heart at the Last Supper (John 13: 23).
Christ showed St. Margaret Mary His Sacred Heart which was crowned with flames and a cross, and encircled by a crown of thorns. She also saw that His heart was pierced. This corresponds with the fact that Christ’s side was pierced with a lance when He hung on the cross (John 19:20).
Jesus expressed to St. Margaret Mary His desire that a devotion to His Sacred Heart be established and a feast day on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi.
As part of this devotion, Jesus asked that people receive the Holy Eucharist on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, in honor of His Sacred Heart. This is known as the First Friday devotion.
The feast day of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was officially established in 1765 and in 1899 Pope Leo XIII consecrated the entire world to the Sacred Heart.
In his encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII wrote:
… Christ Our Lord, exposing His Sacred Heart, wished in a quite extraordinary way to invite the minds of men to a contemplation of, and a devotion to, the mystery of God’s merciful love for the human race … Christ pointed to His Heart, with definite and repeated words, as the symbol by which men should be attracted to a knowledge and recognition of His love; and at the same time He established it as a sign or pledge of mercy and grace for the needs of the Church of our times.
He further wrote: “The Church gives the highest form of worship to the Heart of the divine Redeemer.”
Let us celebrate the great feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with particular fervor, since it announces to the world the unfathomable love and mercy of Jesus Christ. His Sacred Heart burns with love for us each and every day!
The 12 promises of Christ to those who have devotion to His Most Sacred Heart, as revealed to St Margaret Mary:
(1) I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
(2) I will establish peace in their homes.
(3) I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
(4) I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.
(5) I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings.
(6) Sinners will find in My Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
(7) Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
(8) Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
(9) I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
10) I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
(11) Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in My Heart.
(12) I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.
After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
A few weeks earlier, Peter had stood outside the courtyard of the high priest, weeping bitterly. He had disowned Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. Peter was filled with grief when he realized what he had done: despite the fact that he had vowed to stand by Jesus in every possible trial, despite his complete devotion, he had buckled at the first bit of pressure and cast aside the One who meant everything to him.
We might imagine that we would defend our faith in any circumstance, but when those situations actually arise, often our discomfort leads us to hide our true colors and pretend that we are just another face in the crowd, not a follower of Christ. There’s a fine line between trying not to force our faith upon others and hiding it altogether, and it can be all too easy amid a secular environment to act as though we are ashamed of our relationship with Jesus.
Yes, there will be consequences for defending Christ. But there are worse consequences for denying Him. We can’t allow the possible reactions of others to distance us from the Source of all joy and love, as though their approval were the real key to our happiness. And in fact, we might be surprised at others’ openness to our faith—it might end up being a point of connection between us.
Chances are, at one point or another we’re going to mess this up. We’re going to drop the ball when presented with opportunities to witness to our faith, and we’re going to hide our light under a bushel basket out of fear. But Peter shows us that this, too, can be a path to grace. When we realize our shortcomings and failures, we can follow the way of Peter, the way of humility. We can begin to understand that we will never be able to carry out our grandiose plans on our own, that we are truly dependent upon Jesus for everything.
Our God is a God of second chances. How tender Jesus was to Peter, to grant him this moment: He set the scene over again, with a charcoal fire burning just as there was in the courtyard of the high priest, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter was able to reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He was given a second chance, a do-over of the worst mistake he’d ever made. Jesus saw Peter’s sorrow and contrition, and in His mercy He stepped in to restore the relationship. Not only that, but He entrusted the Church to Peter as the first pope. He cast Peter’s sins as far as the east is from the west, giving him a fresh start. He does this for us, too. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, he will give us another chance if we’re willing to try again—and, this time, to call upon His help to guide us.
1. James Tissot, The Sorrow of Saint Peter / PD-US
2. James Tissot, Saint Peter Walks on the Sea / PD-US
3. James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles / PD-US
Suits is a popular TV show about slick lawyers who are rude, nasty and deceitful while bending, skirting, or straight-up breaking the law and playing interminable office politics, and it may be the last place one would expect lessons in mercy, justice and grace, but as St. Augustine says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
Mike Ross is a bike messenger and drug dealer who was expelled from high school for giving his best friend Trevor the answers to a math test, which his friend sold to a girl who happened to be the dean’s daughter, leading to the dean’s dismissal. While evading the police, Mike stumbles in upon a job interview for law graduates, and is hired by Harvey Spector despite his lack of a law degree, after demonstrating his exceptional eidetic memory and knowledge of the law – Mike had also been making a living sitting the LSATS for other people. This incredible opportunity enables Mike to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer, which was derailed by the incident with Trevor as he had had to give up his acceptance to Harvard law.
To the associates and partners of the firm Pearson Hardman, their jobs are not just jobs, but become their entire purpose for living, their telos and identity. Jessica Pearson tells Harvey that when he joins the firm, he’s joining a family. The lawyers are married to their work, and this theme is played out over and over in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, as the language and norms of courtship are applied to their work relationships. Mike desists from destroying a dodgy opposing lawyer’s career, because that man pleads with him that being a lawyer is who he is, and all he has left after losing his family following the financially calamitous loss of a massive suit.
In more somber tones, Suits also shows how damaging it is to familial bonds when one becomes completely given over to one’s chosen career. Jessica’s husband divorces her, and Harvey’s mother repeatedly cheats on his father, who is often away as a traveling musician.
The show also explores how one’s childhood and family experiences can continue to play out throughout one’s life, especially when one is deeply wounded. Harvey seems to have everything go his way, and appears to be invincible and suave, fixing everything that goes wrong. But he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship, and although he and his secretary Donna have fancied each other for twelve years, he does not allow himself to truly love her and give himself to her. His inability to be vulnerable and trust others is traced back to his mother’s infidelity. We see how the sins of a parent can mar the child for life, damaging his future relationships.
As for Mike, he lost his parents in a car crash when he was twelve, and he is unable to forgive the lawyer who convinced his grandmother to accept a settlement. His anger bubbling from this ingrained sense of injustice is a key motivation in his practice of the law; he jumps at chances to defend the underdog. Yet, his anger and ambition also blinds him, and he handles 88 cases despite his lack of qualifications. That is something like an invalidly-ordained priest celebrating the sacraments – everything he touches is invalid. Despite good intentions, when the means are flawed, the consequences can be dire.
In Season 5, this lie blows up in Mike’s face when he is turned in for conspiracy to commit fraud, just after resigning following a soul-searching talk with his old school chaplain, Father Walker. We are on tenterhooks while he navigates the court case – will another incredible stroke of luck save him?
Mike ends up in prison after a self-sacrificial act to save his superiors’ skins, but though things look dire, his presence enables him to work for the freedom of his unjustly-jailed cellmate. It is terrifying to watch Mike deal with the resident murderous big bully, but Harvey continues to have his back, pulling all sorts of strings to get Mike out of jail.
Meanwhile, as Jessica faces the loss of her firm and all she has worked for, her romantic interest Jeff Malone reflects that sometimes God allows unpleasant things to happen, for a greater good. Indeed, this decimation of her firm allows Jessica to reevaluate her priorities in life, opening her mind to the possibility that there may be more to life than work.
Suits provides a nail-biting examination of moral issues and the motivations which drive people to cheat, lie and blackmail while trying to secure that nebulous thing called justice. It is a riveting show which deals honestly with questions of truth and the factors surrounding human relationships, bound by die-hard loyalty but also fractured by pain and fear. When viewed through the prism of divine providence working through the messy lives of humans, it demonstrates how good can eventually be drawn from the consequences of bad choices, although each character pays a price for their misdeeds.
One of the most insidious and harmful ideas that mothers labor under is the idea that we can raise flawless children. Rationally we know this isn’t true, but emotionally we throw ourselves into this impossible task. It is honorable and understandable to try to always do best by and for your children. But this can become an idol unto itself, an untenable goal, the impossibility of which serves to demoralize us as we pursue our vocation.
In some ways our mothers had it easier. No blogs, no parenting websites, no constant stream of opinion and advice, citing research and various studies. Everyone has an opinion and no qualms about sharing with maximum certitude the absolute correctness of their ideas. With constant, often contradictory messages, frustration and angst build. Did I birth correctly? Should I have breastfed longer? Co-slept? Worn my baby more? Tandem nurse? Did I fail my children; did I harm them by not doing this? By doing that?
Worry and stress are not tools of the Lord. Self-doubt and angst are not part of His call for us. Nothing changes the reality that we are flawed human beings raising flawed human beings. All of our efforts, all of our study, all of our desire to find the perfect method, the path that gives us children with no heartbreak, none of these can eliminate baggage and hurt from our children’s lives.
I used to be much more certain about how I was raising my children. I never thought I had all the answers, but I certainly knew which ways were better. I unabashedly announced my opinion on a certain parenting style, only to discover that a mother I respected actually practiced this particular parenting method. Despite my strongly-held opinions, her children were happy and delightful and loved her fiercely. Maybe, just maybe, this mother knew better how to raise the children God gave her than I did. Maybe what I felt so strongly about simply wasn’t right for my children. Didn’t fit with my personality.
We can try to do everything right. We can try to be the most educated, the most empowered parents out there. We can everything we can to avoid the mistakes our parents made, but it won’t change the fact that we are making our own. The failure in parenting doesn’t come from mistakes made, but the refusal to learn from them. If we learn, improve and grow from our struggles in parenting, then we are doing right by our children. There is no perfect parent, but there is the parent who is perfecting. And this side of Heaven, that’s as good as we can do.
And just as we cannot avoid mistakes along the way, neither can our children. As they grow and mature into the people God has called them to be, they will have struggles. They won’t always make the right choices, despite our best efforts to teach and guide them. We can give them all the “right” tools, all the answers we know, but they won’t always listen. This isn’t necessarily an indication of a failure in parenting. How do I know? Look at the Original Parent. Look at Our Father.
God actually gave His children the world. He gave them everything they could ever want. And He still had to send them to the world’s worst time out. They still ignored Him, still disobeyed, still brought pain and suffering upon themselves. God is both firm and just. He dispenses justice and consequences for sins. But He merciful and quick to forgive. He wants nothing more than His children to be happy, but truly happy not momentarily indulged. So He does deny, when it is appropriate, He does say no, but He always acts in complete love. What better role model can there be? God certainly doesn’t have a universal; one size fits all, approach to care for His children. Rather, He meets them where they are, challenges them individually and wills the best for them always.
Motherhood is one long learning curve. From the different personalities that burst into your life to the different stages that each child grows through, children keep you on your toes. Yesterday’s game plan doesn’t always meet today’s needs. And yet there is one immutable reality, love. Passionate, motivating love. The one consistent factor in our lives is love, whether it is God’s love for us or our love for our children.
That’s what our vocation is. That’s what the calling of motherhood is. To be a mirror of God’s love. To show our children how much He loves us, for them to begin to experience and recognize that love in their daily lives. It’s not about forming them into the people we think they should be. It’s about forming them into the persons God created them to be. It’s not about raising people who won’t make mistakes, who won’t make choices that we don’t understand. It’s about making sure that through the fog of error they know they are never alone. Never without that love. And that love will always be calling them home.
“Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.” —Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” —1 John 4:18
Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.
In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.
Patterns of Sin
“Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”
Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.
Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.
St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.
Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.” —Jim Rohn
True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.
Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.
“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.” –Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.” –Pope John Paul II
“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.” –Dietrich von Hildebrand
“You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Sin Leads to Non-being
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.
Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:
“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.
Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4
When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”
Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.
Professor Eric Johnston writes:
“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.
To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5
Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6
God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.
How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.
“In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7
The Good News: We are Not Our Sin
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.
“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”
God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. —John 10:10
Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei: The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.
“Ever since the days of Adam, man has been hiding from God and saying God is hard to find.” –Archbishop Fulton Sheen
“We do what the heart tells us, and then we go to confession.” –Cara, Brideshead Revisited (2008)
The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it? –Jeremiah 17:9
God is all-merciful and has both the power and the will to forgive the most heinous sins, provided that we truly repent. God’s mercy reorientates us to the rule of Divine Love, restoring our friendship with God and others.
However, there are six sins against the Holy Spirit, which are known as the eternal or unforgivable sins constituting blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). These are Final Impenitence, Presumption, Despair, Resisting the Known Truth, Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, and Obstinacy in Sin.1
How do we reconcile these two doctrinal teachings?
The sins against the Holy Spirit are unforgivable in that they prevent God’s grace from reaching us. They are hardened attitudes which render us unable to receive the forgiveness He is continually offering us. “The unforgivable sin is not a single isolated act. It is an ongoing deliberate and habitual rejection of grace.”2 In accordance with Aquinas, Pope St John Paul II wrote that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit “consists… in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross.” (Dominum et Vivificantem, #46).3
Just as it is necessary for someone to admit that he is physically sick before he allows a doctor to treat him, it is necessary for us to admit that we are spiritually sick before we allow the Divine Physician to heal us. Also, it is necessary for us to trust the doctor!
In the cases of Obstinacy in Sin, Resisting the Known Truth, Final Impenitence, and Despair, the sick soul refuses to recognise his ailment, to seek treatment, or to believe that he can even receive treatment and healing. A classic case of despair is Judas. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Christ, but Peter was reconciled to the Risen Christ, while Judas scuppered any chance of that by committing suicide. Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote:
“Our Lord warned both of them that they would fall; He even told them that each would be a devil. Both did deny the Master and both repented or were sorry. But the Greek word used in the Scripture is not the same in both instances. Judas repented unto himself—he had self-pity. Peter repented unto the Lord—he had penitence, sorrow and a desire for amendment. Peter cleaned the weeds out of the garden, but Judas killed the nocturnal brood of remorseful serpents in his breast by hanging himself.”4
In Presumption, the sick soul thinks that just because God wants to forgive all sins, he can keep wallowing in sin. It’s like someone who has just survived lung cancer returning to smoking because he thinks he’ll be sure to beat it again. Without true repentance, there cannot be true reconciliation.
With the Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, one becomes like Cain, harbouring murderous resentment in his heart against his own brother. One becomes unable to enjoy one’s own gifts from God, being discontented and questioning God’s goodness and wisdom in giving someone else different gifts. Like an obstreperous patient demanding different treatment to what the doctor has prescribed, this ailing soul is unable to accept God’s grace for himself, believing he deserves the grace given to someone else.
“It was through Satan’s envy that death entered the world (cf. Catechism, no. 2538; Wis. 2:24). When one is envious of the spiritual good of another, he places himself on the level of Satan who wanted God’s glory for Himself rather than humbly accepting the gifts God had given him (Ezek. 28:11-19).”5
Invincible ignorance works in a similar fashion, just in the opposite direction. “Inculpable ignorance is not a means of salvation. But if by no fault of the individual ignorance cannot be overcome (if, that is, it is inculpable and invincible), it does not prevent the grace that comes from Christ, a grace that has a relationship with the Church, saving that person.”6
“…the fact that someone is invincibly ignorant of the true faith is not a ticket to heaven. A person who is not culpable for sins against faith may still be culpable for other mortal sins — the same ones people of faith can commit — and may be damned on that account.”7
“…those who are truly unaware of what God requires of them are not held responsible; rather they are judged by what they did with the truth they had.”8
Unforgivable sins are an impermeable membrane preventing the flow of the Holy Spirit into our hearts; invincible ignorance is a semipermeable membrane allowing God to enter the hearts of the uncatechised, preparing them for union with Him. For “God has bound salvation to His sacraments, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.”9 “Those who are innocently outside the Church but are also seeking to follow the will of God are thus the proper object of the Church’s missionary activity.”10
Let us maintain a pliable, permeable membrane over our hearts, that the Holy Spirit may move in and out freely, bringing divine grace and new life to us so that we may give it to others.
Harden not your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did at Massah in the desert. —Psalm 95:8
If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.
Sr. Febronie served as subprioress during Therese’s early years in Carmel. She reproached Therese for teaching the novices that they could go straight to heaven after death, calling this presumption. “My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice,” Therese answered her. “The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God”…
This conversation took place in 1891. The following January, Febronie was among those who died during the flu epidemic. She appeared to Therese in a dream a short time later. Therese saw Febronie was suffering. She looked as though she was confirming that Therese had been right. She was in purgatory, because she had expected to receive God’s justice rather than his mercy.
Here once more we see the importance of our participation in our sanctification. God even allows us to choose the method by which he will judge us! If we believe he will send us to purgatory because we have not been good enough, then he will. If we trust him to make up for our lack of perfection, he will do that instead.
—Connie Rossini, Trusting God with St. Therese
God longs to extend His mercy to us. He doesn’t want to have to deal with us in terms of justice instead of mercy. He would rather forgive us than punish us, but sometimes justice is what we choose for ourselves. When we judge others harshly instead of forgiving readily, we adopt an economy of justice. When our motivation to perform good deeds stems from a desire to “earn” our holiness instead of out of love for our neighbor, we are are measuring in terms of justice instead of mercy. When we despair over our weaknesses and feel we can never be good enough, we reject the wideness of God’s mercy and cling to justice instead. When we compare ourselves to others, wonder why we have more or less or different gifts than anyone else, and wish we could even out the scales, we are choosing to operate under a prevailing sense of justice.
But fixating on justice alone will not get us to heaven. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross because it was just; He did it out of pure, boundless love for us, love that defied justice. Unless we cultivate a sense of mercy, then we are asking for harsh treatment. Jesus wants better for us. He wants us to trust Him so greatly and to be so sure of His great mercy that we don’t despair in our sinfulness but rather call on Him right away to cover our faults. There is no sin too great for His mercy. He wants to swoop in and rescue us, but sometimes we push Him away out of pride. Once we acknowledge that we can’t do it ourselves, that we would be crushed by an economy of justice, then we can begin to embrace His economy of mercy. And when we understand the incredible gift of God’s mercy, we will be able to demonstrate it to others, joyfully forgiving again and again and again.
This year is the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. I am sure that many of us still recall the Jubilee song of 2000:
It’s a time of joy, a time of peace/A time when hearts are then set free…/It’s the time to give thanks to the Father, Son and Spirit/And with Mary, our Mother, we sing this song/Open your hearts to the Lord and begin to see the mystery/That we are all together as one family/No more walls, no more chains, no more selfishness and closed doors/For we are in the fullness of God’s time/It’s the time of the Great Jubilee.
But what is the Jubilee? What does it mean?
The tradition of the Jubilee year goes back to Ancient Israel. God decreed that every 50 years would be a Jubilee year. On the 50th year all debts would be cancelled and all conflicts reconciled. People returned to their homelands, and they bought back any land they may have sold. Life would begin anew. This economy of mercy emphasized the need for repentance, conversion, mercy and renewal.
Normally, the Jubilee occurs every half century. Yet in November 2015, Pope Francis declared an extra-ordinary Jubilee of Mercy. A mere 15 years later! Why so soon?
Perhaps our age is the age of which Jesus spoke to Saint Faustina, the apostle of mercy. We are living in the era of Divine Mercy! According to Father Michael Gaitley MIC, the graces raining on us now are the fruit of the countless martyrs of the 20th century. World wars, dehumanizing ideologies, and violent revolts in the 20th century resulted in more martyrs in the past century than all the martyrs of the Church of previous years combined.
These martyrs united their suffering with Christ, their blood shed as His blood was shed. When we beg for mercy, the graces we receive are the fruit of Christ, the Vine and His holy branches. We harvest the fruits of these martyrs — in their self-giving love they sowed the seeds of toil and tears.
What does this mean for us? As recipients of abundant mercy, we are called to be merciful to others as the Father has been merciful towards us. Love is a gift, an act of self-giving. Hence, love only exists in the measure that we give it away. When we hoard love, love disappears. Love is replaced with selfishness and pride. When we share ourselves with others, love grows and multiplies.
But this still doesn’t answer our question — What is so special about this year?
It has been said that the day Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb to the
day He died was a perfect cycle. We celebrate Christmas on December 25. On March 25, we celebrate the Annuciation, exactly 9 months before Christmas. This year, Good Friday fell on March 25, exactly 9 months before Christmas. A perfect cycle!
Affirming this perfect cycle, a relic of the blood of Jesus in Italy liquefies on Good Friday, whenever Good Friday coincides with the Annunciation. The last time this happened was in 2005.
Do you remember anything remarkable about 2005? 2005 was the year that the Divine Mercy Pope, St. John Paul II, passed away on the Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. In 2005 and in 2016, Good Friday coincided with the date of the Annunciation. In 2005 and in 2016, Divine Mercy Sunday fell on April 3. Proclaiming the Jubilee of Divine Mercy in this year affirms the Divine Mercy devotion propagated by St. Pope John Paul II.
Truly, this Jubilee of Divine Mercy is extraordinary! It is replete with proof that God has prepared this period of grace and mercy to bring His people back to their homeland; to give them a chance to renew their baptismal promises and live a life of deeper intimacy with Him!
Leia Go is a Filipina law student. She graduated in 2011 with an AB in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on Literature and Philosophy from Ateneo de Manila University (Loyola Schools). Her patron saints are Mama Mary, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Faustina. She has been a lector and altar server in her schools’ campus ministry offices since high school. She also loves volunteering at the Good Shepherd Sisters baby orphanage and is discerning a vocation to religious/consecrated life.
The Year of Mercy will come to a close with the end of the liturgical year on November 20. How can we make the most of the final month of this Jubilee Year? Here are some ways to finish out with a bang:
1) If you haven’t yet made a Holy Door Pilgrimage, now is the time!
Volunteer at a homeless shelter, donate food and clothing, help out at a soup kitchen—do something to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need. By caring for their physical needs, you will show them the love of God and help them find hope amid their suffering. If you’re looking for practical ways to carry out the Corporal Works of Mercy, Kerry Weber’s book Mercy in the City is a quick read that will give you plenty of inspiration. Anyone who performs a Corporal Work of Mercy during the Year of Mercy can receive a plenary indulgence.*
Lend a listening ear to someone who is going through a tough time, be patient with someone who is wearing on your nerves, or say an extra prayer for someone in your life. There is also a plenary indulgence* available for anyone who performs a Spiritual Work of Mercy during the Jubilee Year.
Fr. Michael Gaitley’s latest book, 33 Days to Merciful Love, guides you through a consecration to Divine Mercy through the teachings of St. Therésè of Lisieux. This is a beautiful yet little-known devotion that will help you to grow in love and mercy, and it brings powerful graces! The book makes the devotion easy to follow, with short daily readings over the course of 33 days.
6) Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy
Even better, try praying it at 3:00pm – the Hour of Mercy – when Jesus died on the Cross. You can find instructions for praying the Chaplet, which began with St. Faustina, on the Divine Mercy website.
7) Share moments of mercy with others
Keep your eyes open to the goodness of others around you. When you see an example of mercy being lived out, don’t keep it to yourself—share the story! It can encourage other people, ignite hope, and inspire more acts of mercy. If you use social media, you can share with the hashtag #mercyinmotion.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Maria Goretti, the Little Saint of Great Mercy. Her story reminds us that we are never beyond hope, that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. By forgiving her murderer and praying for his conversion, she not only kept herself from falling into sin; she reached out and helped a man who had been deeply corrupted, showing mercy to the person who, it would seem, deserved it the least. No one would have blamed her if she had been unable to forgive this man, whose evil actions led to her excruciating death and ultimately tore apart her family. But she not only forgave him; she desired his conversion, saying that she wanted him with her in Heaven. She appeared to him after her death, expressing her mercy toward him. And her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, who had been utterly unrepentant and vicious even in his imprisonment, was converted overnight—a miracle whose impact would play out over the course of his lifetime.
Maria held fast to virtue even at the cost of her life, knowing that the joys and sufferings of this world are fleeting, that what truly mattered was preparing her eternal soul for Heaven—as well as Alessandro’s soul. She desired Heaven not just for herself, but for everyone, even sinners, even the very man who brutally murdered her. Even when he was at his very worst, she still understood that he was a human being, a child of God, meant for a life much greater than the one he was living. Not only that, she still believed there was hope for him, because she trusted in the boundless mercy of God.
Great miracles and graces have come as the fruits of Maria’s sacrifice. Let us call upon her for help in our own lives: to be fortified in virtue and purity, to be merciful and forgiving toward those who have wronged us, and to humbly appeal to God’s great mercy, which covers all our sins.
Heroic and angelic St. Maria Goretti, we kneel before you to honor your persevering fortitude and to beg your gracious aid. Teach us a deep love for the precepts of our Holy Church; help us to see in them the very voice of our Father in Heaven.
May we preserve without stain our white baptismal robe of innocence. May we who have lost this innocence kneel humbly in Holy Penance, and with the absolution of the priest, may the torrent of Christ’s precious Blood flow into our souls and give us new courage to carry the burning light of God’s love through the dangerous highways of this life until Christ our King shall call us to the courts of Heaven. Amen.
Image: Giuseppe Brovelli-Soffredini, painting of Maria Goretti / PD-US
Not because she has the fullness of grace and I don’t. Not because she has the immense privilege of knowing Jesus in His human form, living while He lived. Not because she is closer to God than anyone ever. Not because she has the perfection of virtue.
I was jealous of Mary because she only had to be separated from her loved one, Jesus, for three days.
My mother died extremely unexpectedly when I was 22, and even if I only live to be as old as my mother was when she died (58), that’s still 36 years I will live without her. Mary only had to wait three days for the Resurrection! For the complete fulfillment of promises and the assurance of salvation and unity! I have to wait years.
My mother never was able to meet my husband, as he and I didn’t meet until she had been gone for three years. She will never know her grandchildren. I’m sure there’s a host of other things about me and my life that my mother will never know or experience. And that wounds me. Yet there was not one thing that Mary did or experienced that Jesus was not present for. It’s just not fair.
Ironically, I had always had a great devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows; I always felt close to her sorrowing heart, understood by her, and held closely to her heart. So after my mother died, I did the only thing I really knew how to do—I ran into the arms of Our Lady. At first, though, my relationship with her was strained as I began to question, “What do you know of sorrows? You who only had to sorrow for a little while until her tears were turned into joy? I do not have the fullness of grace and yet I am being asked to carry a load longer than you had to! I am being asked to sorrow in a way that you have no experience in!”
While I felt betrayed in this, I didn’t at the time realize that I had already unlocked the mystery through my questions. I had all the answers I needed if only I would look more closely.
Mary has the fullness of grace. Far from making any sorrows or burdens easier to bear, it makes them more weighty because she has the gifts to understand these trials more deeply and feel them more heavily upon her heart and soul. Where I only catch glimpses, she sees fully. In this way, the three days she was separated from Jesus may have felt like 30! Or even longer. And so, my relationship with Mary began to mend as she asked to once again hold me close to her Sorrowful Heart and I allowed her to.
As it is the Year of Mercy, I have started to read more about God’s mercy, try to understand it better, try to live in it more deeply. I realize now that perhaps being asked to be separated from my mother for a longer period of (earthly) time is a mercy, too. Perhaps it is a mercy to be given the time to grow in virtue and understanding, since I am not imbued with the fullness of grace from birth, instead of having to shoulder the burden of total understanding from the get-go. Mercy is a funny thing; it is both love and justice—justice in what we are due and justice in what we owe. Mercy, in my case, means the Lord gives me glimpses and deepens those glimpses as I go until I am prepared to receive the fullness of understanding and grace (in heaven), rather than letting loose the shock of the fullness upon me when I will not be able to receive or bear it. But it will take me longer. Though the path may look dark, crooked, and sometimes as though it travels in the completely wrong direction, God knows the way that will bring me to the fullness of grace and understanding (and He knows the way that will bring you there, too).
I’m not jealous of Mary anymore. I’m not relieved either, though. Sorrowing and suffering are an intimate part of the Catholic Christian life, and we are only exempt if we do not wish to be united with Christ (which would, in itself, bring eternal suffering—how poetically ironic). But I once again take solace in the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, as I finally understand that she does know exactly what I bear, what I go through, what I long for—and she knows it even better than I do. The years of absence may be long, but eternity is infinite.
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