13 April 2015

Pope Francis in context: Mercy, judgment, confession, and the Jubilee of Mercy

The Holy Father Pope Francis has repeatedly said there is no sin God cannot and will not forgive. Such statements have made their rounds in the media and on Twitter and Facebook, but too often without their full context (surprise, surprise).

On 23 January 2015, Pope Francis said in his morning homily, “There is no sin which He won’t pardon. He forgives everything.” On 12 March 2015, His Holiness said to a group of priests, “Let us never forget, be it as penitents or as confessors: there is no sin that God cannot forgive! None!”

Indeed, the Holy Father made another such statement in his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, when he said, “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (3).

At first glance, such all-encompassing statements seem to contradict the very words of Christ Jesus himself, who rather clearly said:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:31-32).
The Evangelists record similar sayings of the Lord Jesus in Mark 3:28-30 and in Luke 12:10. Consequently, there can be no doubt that Jesus meant what he said ((as if he ever said anything needlessly). How is it possible, then, to reconcile these statements of Pope Francis with those of the Most High Priest?

The answer is really quite simple: Read the statements within their proper context.

When Pope Francis said on 23 January 2015 that God “forgives everything,” he continued, saying:
‘But father, I don’t go to confession because I have committed so many really bad sins, so many that I can’t be pardoned.’  No, this is not true.  He forgives everything. If you go (to confession) repentant, He will forgive everything.  When… so many times He doesn’t even let you speak! You start to ask for forgiveness and He lets you feel that joy of forgiveness before you have even finished confessing everything.
Likewise, when he said on 12 March 2015, that “there is no sin that God cannot forgive,” he went on to say: “Only that which is withheld from divine mercy cannot be forgiven, just as one who withdraws from the sun can be neither illuminated nor warmed.” We see, then, that Pope Francis made these two statements within the context of a discussion of the Sacrament of Penance. Therefore, if we are to be forgiven everything, we must first repent and confess our sins.

But what is the unforgivable sin of which Jesus speaks? What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit?

The Church understands this sin to be the deliberate refusal to repent and accept God’s mercy. Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit “rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1864). The statements of Pope Francis that God will forgive everything is true, when read within the context of repentance, as the Catechism makes clear in the same paragraph. The refusal to repent and accept the forgiveness of sins, however, “can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”

This context is made all the clearer in Misericordiae Vultus. He went on to say, several paragraphs later:
God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests. All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church (19, emphasis mine).
The justify of God, he goes on to say, “becomes the liberating force for those oppressed by slavery to sin and its consequences.” What is more, “God’s justice is his mercy [cf. Psalm 51:11-16]” (20). Rather than being opposed to justice, mercy “expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe” (21).

The coming Jubilee of Mercy, then, is a summons – an invitation, if you prefer – “to change our lives” and “allow our hearts to be touched” (19).

Within the Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis says that it is his “burning desire” that the Christian faithful use the Holy Year “to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty” (15). Why does he feel such an urgency that we reawaken our consciences and begin carrying out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy? Because “everyone, sooner or later, will be subject to God’s judgment, from which no one can escape” (19).

If we cannot escape God’s judgment, then by what criteria will God judge us? Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus will judge us according to the criteria of his own words:
whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45). Moreover, we will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty; if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted; if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer (15).
Through the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats, Pope Francis says, “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are” (9).

Notice that he speaks of God’s judgment, “from which no one can escape,” in the same document in which he urges us to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (3). The Father’s action in our lives is to conform us ever more closely to the image of his Son, so much so that when people look upon us they see not us, but Christ Jesus. But how is it possible for us to gaze now upon Jesus Christ, upon him who “is the face of the Father’s mercy” (1)? We can do so by gazing upon “the napkin which had been on his head” and that the Apostles Peter and John found in the tomb of Christ “not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a separate place by itself” (John 20:7).

This napkin, the holy sudarium, is now housed at the Shrine of the Holy Face in Manoppello, Italy – some two hours east of Rome - where it is known as il Volto Santo (the Holy Face):

PHOTO: Stefano Spaziani
This mysterious piece of byssus (sea silk) was called the Veronica when he it was kept in Rome and venerated during the first year Jubilee of 1300 called by Pope Boniface VIII. I will have more to say about this in the coming days.

Having spent a combined total of several hours before il Volto Santo during my several pilgrimages to the Shrine of the Holy Face, I can testify that what Pope Francis says is true, that “with our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity” (8).

Whoever looks upon the Holy Face cannot but consider his own sins and how closely his life resembles that of Jesus. I have often thought that looking upon the veil which covered his face in the tomb is something like a foretaste of how Benedict XVI described the experience of purgatory:

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (Spe salvi, 47).

To know that my life is not yet fully conformed to that of Jesus - to know that I am not yet as merciful as he is and that his face does not yet always reflect off of mine (cf. Exodus 34:29) - is indeed painful, but it is truly a blessed pain. It is a blessed pain because it spurs those who look upon his Holy Face, upon the Face of Mercy, to strive all the more earnestly to be able to say with Saint Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

This is why Pope Francis has encouraged us not to be afraid of going to confession:
Do not be afraid of Confession! When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes Confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of Confession! I would like to ask you — but don’t say it aloud, everyone respond in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession? Everyone think about it ... Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years? Everyone count, everyone say ‘when was the last time I went to confession?’. And if much time has passed, do not lose another day. Go, the priest will be good. Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests, Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love. Be courageous and go to Confession (General Audience Address, 19 February 2014)!
This is what the coming Jubilee of Mercy is all about.

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