Pope Francis announced a “Holy Year of Mercy” which began on Dec. 8, 2015, and will end on Nov. 20, 2016. Many imagine that a year of mercy means that people can lift their arms up to the heavens, crying out for God’s mercy, and a “tenderhearted” God will dole out gifts to satisfy the needs of his suffering people. This image may well come true for a number of God’s people during this Holy Year of Mercy. However, the aim of this article is to call attention to aspects of this Holy Year of Mercy which represent the “tough” side of God’s mercy which is easily overlooked and often misunderstood.
Some important characteristics of God’s mercy.
Let’s face it: sometimes God’s mercy disappoints us. The mother who weeps, “Why did God allow my son to die after I had prayed for him to live?” or the father of a large family who cries out to God, “Why did you allow me to lose my job, the only income we have?” The answer is that, often, God’s mercy is counter-intuitive. He allows “bad” things to happen to us to correct us—often in ways we cannot see at the time—in order to bring us back to Him. Often we do not think we even need correcting, but that is because we cannot see the sliver in our own eye—but God can. He knows those slivers hurt us, and eventually make us blind. So He stops everything to correct us through times of suffering. These moments represent the “tough” side of God’s mercy.
And there is more to mercy than just receiving. There is also mercy which we are responsible for—giving mercy. Could it be that the primary purpose of the Holy Year of Mercy is to obtain God’s help to be merciful to others? To understand what God considers merciful, we must recall the “works of mercy” as taught by the tradition of the Church.
First, there are the corporal works of mercy. These are acts by which we help our neighbors when they are in need of some material or physical thing: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; bury the dead. These corporal works of mercy have their foundation in Mt. 25:31-46 which warns us that on Judgment Day God will confront each one of us with this standard: “ I was hungry and you gave me food (or did not give me food) to eat … I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.” Our compassion and mercy towards others will determine whether we go to eternal happiness, or eternal punishment.
Then there are the spiritual works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are compassionate acts which we should do when our neighbor is in need of some spiritual or emotional help. They are: counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; admonish sinners; comfort the afflicted; forgive offenses; bear wrongs patiently; pray for the living and the dead. These, too, of course, have their foundation in the Bible. “Admonishing the sinner,” for example, is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Mt 18:15-17).
Therefore, it’s clear that the official Holy Year of Mercy is more than receiving material gifts from God. It’s more than making us “feel good” about ourselves. Instead, there are many kinds of requests we can make from God in this official Holy Year of Mercy. But, we must keep some theological principles in mind if we want the Holy Year to be fruitful.
First of all, St. Peter Chrysologus says that there are three things through which we receive from God those things we request when we knock at the door of Jesus’ merciful heart. They are prayer, fasting, and mercy. He says that “Prayer knocks, fasting obtains, and mercy receives.” He says that “mercy” is crucial. If you do not show mercy to others, God will not show mercy to you. He says that: “If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery,” and, “You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others” (Office of Readings, Tuesday, 3rd week of Lent).
Secondly, there is a hierarchy of values in Christianity. This is exemplified by the gospel story in Lk 5:19-26 where Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man, but points out that the forgiveness of sins is more important than helping him walk. So, in this Holy Year of Mercy, God will be most interested in helping people return to a state of grace, and repent of moral evil. We must expect that spiritual miracles and cures will be more prevalent than physical miracles and cures.
Third, God does not give more grace to people who have not used the grace He has already given them. Jesus says in the parable of the talents: “For to everyone who has more, more will be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt 25: 28-29). For example, parents, who have not taught their children the Catholic Faith, must start using that grace of parental teaching before they ask God to work a miracle and save their children from eternal damnation. Pope Francis says that one of the most “compassionate” things a person can do is to make known the word of God to another person.1 There is no opposition between mercy and truth. Even if the truth supposedly “hurts” (for example, if someone needs to be told they have a serious disease), the person must be told.
Fourth, God offers his divine mercy with absolute seriousness. When St. Peter the Apostle asked forgiveness for betraying Our Savior, God granted the request. Peter trusted in the mercy of God, and he was forgiven. As we know, another apostle also betrayed the Lord—but his fate was completely different. In His Dialogue with St. Catherine of Siena, God the Father says about the betrayal of Judas:
This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning, of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more, and was a greater insult to my Son, than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgment of considering their sin to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons, and tortured eternally with them.2
Judas perished, not simply because of his part in Jesus’ trial, but because of a final act of “despair” or “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 3:29) at the “moment of death.”3 He refused God’s mercy. So when God offers his divine mercy, there are consequences to accepting and rejecting His divine mercy. If the person accepts God’s offer of divine mercy, the person is saved. But, if the person refuses His divine mercy, the person will be punished—perhaps even for all eternity (Mt. 12:31-32).4 That is why this Holy Year of Mercy shouldn’t be regarded as the year when “God looks the other way” at our sins and failings. Mercy is a serious matter which requires a moral response on our part.
God’s mercy is also offered to nations, and the whole world
God also offers His mercy to nations and peoples as a group. The best example of this are the people at the time of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Nineveh. God would have spared the people of Noah’s time, and those of Sodom and Gomorrah, from total destruction if they had accepted His divine mercy. In fact, God did spare the people of Nineveh who accepted His mercy after Jonah warned them that God would destroy the city in 40 days unless they repented (Genesis 19; Jonah 3).
The specific sins of the people at the time of Noah, and Sodom and Gomorrah, are important. The people of Noah’s time were surely guilty of various kinds of sins, but like their ancestor, Cain, they were also murderers (Gn 4:23). Following God’s punishment of these people, he said to Noah: “from man in regard to his fellow man, I will demand an accounting for human life” (Gn 9: 5-6). God destroyed these people by a flood for all of their sins; but murder, or the taking of innocent human life, seemed to symbolize their total depravity (Gn 6-9).
In a similar way, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah surely practiced all kinds of sin, especially various forms of lust, like fornication and adultery, but the Bible very pointedly singles out their sin of homosexual activity. In fact, the homosexual act is named “sodomy” after the biblical town, Sodom, which was famous for practicing it. In fact, the people of Sodom had gone so far in their sinfulness that they even wanted to have “intimacies” with the men (angels) that God sent to warn Lot (Gn 19:5). So, while God destroyed these people with fire from the sky for all of their sins, the Bible points to sodomy, or the homosexual act, as symbolizing the total wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 18-19).
It is crucial here to understand that according to the biblical account in Genesis, widespread murder and sodomy, or homosexual activity, each symbolizes that a nation or society has become so thoroughly wicked that there is nothing left to do with that nation or society except to destroy it as a matter of God’s justice.
But in the past, this pending doom as punishment for sin was forestalled because nations, like Nineveh, repented at the preaching of prophets, like Jonah. God spoke to these prophets and told them of the obligations as a prophet which included being the “watchmen” of Israel. Recall the words of Ezl 33:7-9 concerning the “watchman.” God speaks to the prophet:
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak, and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked person, you will surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But, if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways, and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved.
And when the watchman spoke, people were judged by God—including the “watchman” and “shepherds” of the people Israel. When the faithful watchman, like Jonah, spoke, he was performing a most important spiritual work of mercy which we call “admonishing the sinner.” And, if the watchman wanted God to show him mercy, he had to show the people of Israel mercy by warning them of the impending doom if they disobeyed God.
But what does this have to do with our Holy Year of Mercy?
While evils, like murder and sodomy, have always been committed by individuals, today our world has moved to a new moral low, because evil has become globalized. World governments—not just individuals—are approving and encouraging both the murder of children, and sodomy, through the legalization of abortion, and same-sex marriage. Consequently, our world is in great need of God’s mercy, lest God destroy it, as in the days of Noah, and Sodom and Gomorrah.
Today, many nations have already legalized abortion. They are saying through their wicked laws that something less than a human person is in the womb of a pregnant mother. But, God’s says to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). And after God speaks to the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah says: “For now the Lord has spoken, who formed me as his servant from the womb (Is 49:5). If God the Creator says, through His prophets, that the persons of Jeremiah and Isaiah were in the womb of their mothers, it is the height of arrogance, pride, and unbelief to argue otherwise. And if Jesus and John the Baptist could communicate with one another from the wombs of their mothers, who can deny that the fetus is a real person, and that abortion is the crime of murder (Lk 1:44)? It is the “handing over” for murder of an “innocent” human being by the person closest to his or her heart—his or her own mother.
This is, no doubt, why in God’s eyes abortion is one of the most heinous acts of all, so much so, that even God speaks of a mother’s abandonment of the child in her womb as nearly impossible. For God says: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15). Thus, the Second Vatican Council says that “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes,” and Pope Francis says that “abortion is a crime, an absolute evil” (Gaudium et Spes §51).5
Similarly, today, many nations are legalizing “sodomy” as same-sex marriage. But the people of the world are not aware that this endangers their immortal souls. For St. Paul says: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Col 3:5-6). So St. Paul makes it quite clear that the sins of the flesh, i.e., “sexual immorality, impurity, and lust,” mysteriously bring down God’s “wrath” upon the world. And, according to St. Paul, the chief and most wicked sin of the flesh that brings down God’s wrath on society is the sin of “unnatural lust” or sodomy. The Apostle says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” Continuing, he says: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women, and were inflamed with lust for one another” (Rom 1:18-28).
What is more, this action of “unnatural lust” will be punished in the future. St. Jude and St. Peter both indicate that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an “example” for what will happen to people in the future if the world reverts back to these evils. St. Jude says: “likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which, in the same manner as they indulged in sexual promiscuity and practiced unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). And St. Peter warns that God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example for the Godless of what is coming”(2 Pet 2:6). So, St. Jude and St. Peter, living in the 1st century A.D., warn that these sins, and their punishment, will happen again!
But, who are the “watchmen” for Israel today? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§897-913) they are the Christians who are baptized as “priests,” “prophets,” and “kings.” However, because the Church is officially the New Israel, the Pope, bishops, and pastors of the Church are the primary “watchmen” because they are the official “prophets” and “shepherds” of Jesus Christ and his Church before the modern world
But do the “watchmen” today have anything to warn us about?
The secular world has made much of the fact that Pope Francis has included environmental concerns among the many sins which mankind will answer for. Yes, mankind is being threatened by many things today, from environmental degradation to nuclear war. But the greatest threat to mankind today is mankind itself—which, of course, encompasses every human being who, by their own individual, immoral actions brings down the “wrath of God” upon themselves.
Pope Francis stated in Laudato si’ §48 that “The human environment, and the natural environment, deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” A fundamental point which must be grasped here is that, because “God holds all creation together in himself,” all creation is one with the Creator (Col 1:17). Consequently, when man rebels against God, nature rebels against man.
We have all heard about “global warming,” and the effects of man’s actions upon the environment. It is difficult to ignore today’s history-making floods6 and ravaging forest wildfires,7 etc. Other “climate-change warnings include rising seas, and wild weather shifts,” which are both global and ominous. James Hansen, the retired NASA scientist, sometimes hailed as the “father of global warming,” offered a theory that is “provocative—and, frankly, terrifying”—in which he warned of a return of a time when the climate caused changes which “were so catastrophic, they spawned massively powerful super storms, causing violent ocean waves.”8 There are theories that man’s physical actions, like the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are in some way a partial cause of “global warming.”
Clearly, the world is heating up and deteriorating, but not just physically. The moral and social temperature and deterioration are also rapidly increasing, too. But which came first: the increase in physical degradation, or the increase in moral and social degradation? I think we could argue that long before environmental concerns became a common theme in society, we could see other themes playing out—for example, the “sexual revolution” of the mid-1960’s produced almost instant, easily seen changes. There was a sudden worldwide explosion—and acceptance—of pornography, fornication, contraception, adultery, homosexual lifestyles, and abortion. These “movements” certainly preceded the present human, social, and environmental degradation of the world.
The immorality spawned by the “sexual revolution” is surely related to the social degradation we see today, which has deteriorated into a universal plague of drug and human sex trafficking, abortion-on-demand, euthanasia, and random, senseless violence, which has visited massacres in our homes, schools, and streets of America, and throughout the world. We can also see that individual and widespread immorality preceded the escalation of the stubbornly resistant, and still growing, deadly diseases, like AIDS,9 and the most deadly, and ever-reoccurring EBOLA10 disease, and the more recent ZIKA11 virus. Experts on medical diseases say that the spread of AIDS is still rising, and EBOLA will probably return with more virulence than the world previously experienced.
The point is, long before world governments and activists officially proclaimed in 2001 that “Global Warming” was a human catastrophe, there was a far worse, and potentially eternal, human catastrophe that had already begun—and that was the acceptance of immoral behavior on the part of individuals, which has grown to such proportions that we can say that it has infected the social order of America, and the world. So, all of this human, social, physical, and environmental deterioration followed the “sexual revolution,” and the abandonment of God’s teaching on human life, and human love (which is bonded to our ideas of sexuality). While the Pope did not directly say that immorality, or human degradation, caused today’s social, physical and environmental degradation, he certainly implied it. We all live in world affected by the “Fall” —we live in an order, less than the glory and beauty God intended for each of his creatures, and it is the sinner’s fault.
There is one more thing that “the watchmen of the Church” must warn the people of the world about today. They must warn of the possibility of a nuclear war as a punishment for all of our sins, especially those sins which strike at the heart of the natural law, and the fundamental integrity of human beings, which would include the legalization of abortion, and same sex marriage. Unlike a natural disaster, in which survivors could start anew, a nuclear war could contaminate the entire earth, and make it unlivable.
All around us we see that the world is getting ready to act on this terrible threat. When one considers: the political instability and maliciousness of nations, like North Korea and Iran, and huge powerful rogue groups like ISIS; their readiness to commit suicide for political purposes; the fact that they have publicly threatened to use their nuclear weapons on nations like Israel; and what even secular observers have recognized as the presence of true evil (whom we know as Satan) in their decision making—it is clear that this situation has gone beyond mere human correction.
No, it is clear that today, only God will be able to prevent a nuclear war.
When the Second Vatican Council considered “The problems of peace and of disarmament” in regard to nuclear weapons, they were quite frank about the future. They stated that “we should not let false hope deceive us.” Continuing, the Council said that “humanity” which is now in “grave crisis … will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death” (Gaudium et Spes §82).
This is why Mercy is a serious business. One hope is that, if nothing else, at least God, in his infinite mercy, may permit a worldwide natural disaster, or worldwide catastrophe like disease, an asteroid falling to earth, famine, flood, financial disaster, etc.—to prevent man from falling into a nuclear war. People of the world would have to come together to survive. They can then, once again, start over living according to the law of God. But, even this merciful solution may not happen if the world does not stop sins against life and love, especially abortion, and same sex marriage.
“Admonishing the sinner” is the solution
So, how do the “watchmen” warn the people of the world so they will stop, and reverse this flood of immorality, this human degradation? First of all, the “watchmen,” especially the Pope, bishops, and pastors, together and individually, must fulfill their role as Jonah and Ezekiel. They must set an example of the “prophet” for each Christian, who are also prophets. They must warn the people that the fabric of our society is unraveling, and the environment of the entire world is deteriorating, due to the world’s turning away from God’s divine law, especially through the legalization of abortion, and same sex marriage.
But haven’t the Pope, bishops, and pastors been telling the world that things like abortion and same sex activity are evil? Yes, they have been practicing the “spiritual works of mercy” called “counseling the doubtful” and “educating the ignorant.” However, I think we can all agree that their voices have not exactly been sounding from the rooftops! They have been acting ever so timidly, and in a way that does not offend “politically correct” ears.
How often do you hear pastors label abortion “the murder of an innocent human person” from the pulpit? Seldom, if ever. Why? It is claimed that these words are inflammatory. But this is looking at God’s laws from a polite human point of view—and in a state of denial! Truly, we have not been inflammatory enough. We must shout “murder of an innocent human being” from the pulpit until we inflame the hearts of the faithful, and others, to take action to stop the murdering of the most defenseless of God’s little ones.
Likewise, the Church has much to answer for in not giving guidance about the onslaught of homosexual behaviors throughout society, most clearly, same-sex marriage. Because the Church has spoken so timidly, many Catholics today simply have adopted the way of thinking which the world approves, “Live and let live.” The Church’s reluctance to confront the scourge of the worldwide progression toward the legalization of same sex marriage is proved by the fact that Rom 1:18-28, which so clearly points out the intrinsic evil of sodomy in the eyes of God, is not found anywhere—not even once—in the lectionaries used at Mass for the readings throughout the year, and on Sundays. This is inexcusable!
However, the real act of mercy, which has not been done successfully by the Pope, bishops, and pastors of the Church, is “to admonish the sinner” in regard to the legalization of abortion and same sex marriage. Why has “admonishing sinners” not been successful so far? The problem seems to lie in the way our bishops and pastors understand the spiritual works of mercy called “admonishing the sinner.” For example, read what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) says when telling Catholics how to “admonish the sinner.”12 They instruct:
Do not judge, but be supportive in helping others find their way, and correct their mistakes. Together, we can learn to walk more closely with Christ.
- In humility, we must strive to create a culture that does not accept sin, while realizing that we all fall at times;
- Don’t judge, but guide others towards the path of salvation (see Mt 7:1-2);
- When you correct someone, don’t be arrogant. We are all in need of God’s loving correction;
- We should journey together to a deeper understanding of our shared faith;
- “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye;” (Mt 7:5)
It seems that the U.S. bishops want to admonish or correct people in such a tender and disguised way that the people will not even know that they are being admonished or corrected. “Do not judge”? Then why correct them at all? If they haven’t done anything wrong, we have no reason to correct them.
Obviously, judgment is an essential ingredient to correcting and admonishing. However, we are not judging people—we are judging their acts. Once more, “admonishing” requires more than “counseling” and “instructing.” It requires informing the manifest sinners—whether they be a person, nation, or world—that doing these actions are certain to bring an increase in the sorrows and sufferings in our time, and they will end with the eternal punishment for those who knowingly do these things.
Telling the world this message is the tough side of God’s mercy.
The time for half measures, and exaggerated human respect, is over. The hinting, suggesting, and being politically correct has failed. Fifty eight million13 people have been murdered through abortion since 1973. This is far worse than the murder of the 6 million Jews, and 2 million Polish Catholics by the Nazi’s during World War II. Why? Because the persons in the womb are far more helpless than those adults during World War II. These facts must be shouted from the pulpits of Catholic Churches.
Society has betrayed the laws of God so severely, that today in America—supposedly the land of religious liberty—Christian bakers are being forced out of business for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual event. In other words, Christians are now being chastised and penalized for refusing to participate in the preparation for the celebration of sodomy.14 But here is the bottom line: God cannot help a society to do evil. He must abandon the society to Satan. He “hands them over” to the evil of Satan, as stated in Romans 1. This is often called the “Wrath of God,” but it is also His mercy, because He knows that eternal punishment is infinitely worse than enduring earthly punishment today.
What is the answer? It is straight forward: Authentic admonishment today requires the Church, as prophet and “watchman,” to explicitly tell the world the negative temporal and eternal consequences of engaging in abortion, and same sex marriage. The “watchmen”—especially the Pope, bishops, and pastors—must inform the people of the world that: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people” who practice murder and “unnatural lust”—especially those who promote the legalization of abortion, and same-sex marriage (Rom 1:18-28). According to Ezekiel, if the “watchmen” do not do this, then the abortionist and practicing homosexual person “will die for their sin” and God will hold the “watchmen” “accountable for their blood”—here, and in eternity.
The good news is that this Holy Year of Mercy announces that it is not too late. God has granted us, through the Pope, some more time—even if it is brief. The salvation of the entire world, in this life, and in the next, is at stake. At first, the world’s people and governments will be repulsed by the watchmen who are admonishing them, but there is much hope that, as with Nineveh, God’s grace will penetrate hearts and many—perhaps all—will be converted. Therefore, we must trust in God’s mercy, and not despair like Judas thinking that the people’s sins are greater than God’s mercy.
Today, the Church’s watchmen, like the early Jonah, have fallen asleep in the boat. But also like Jonah, they are capable of waking from their sleepiness and timidity, to preach forcefully and with courage to the inhabitants of the world (Jon 1:5; 3:3). If they do their job, then, by November 20, 2016 we will be able to say that the world’s transgressions, and the path to peace, have been made absolutely clear. Then, as with Nineveh, the fruits will surely follow, and we shall have true peace.
- Pope Francis, Angelus, Saint Peter’s Square Sunday, 19 July 2015. ↩
- God the Father as in Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, (The Classics of Western Spirituality), No. 37, trans. by Suzanne Noffke, O. P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) 79. My emphasis. ↩
- God the Father, Catherine of Siena, No. 37, p. 79. ↩
- John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia , No. 17. ↩
- Paloma Garcia Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain), “Full Text of Pope Francis in-flight interview from Mexico to Rome,” CNA , Feb. 18, 2016. ↩
- journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/climate-change/frequency-intensity-floods-central-united-states ↩
- nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-Wildlife/Global-Warming/Global-Warming-is-Causing-Extreme-Weather/Wildfires.aspx ↩
- Chris Mooney, “That’s heavy,” Washington Post, Nov. 28, 2015. ↩
- who.int/hiv/mediacentre/news62/en/ ↩
- who.int/hiv/mediacentre/news62/en/ ↩
- cdc.gov/zika/transmission/sexual-transmission.html ↩
- usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/the-spiritual-works-of-mercy.cfm ↩
- Debby Efurd, “When silence became lethal,” Lifesite News, Opinion, abortion, Feb. 29, 2016 ↩
- usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/the-spiritual-works-of-mercy.cfm ↩