Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Understanding Mercy—with pointers from the Apostolic Penitentiary

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2017

It’s one of those little things that make all the difference. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, addressed students in a course on the internal forum following the Jubilee of Mercy. Here is the last sentence of our brief news story:

Cardinal Piacenza offered three post-jubilee pastoral perspectives: the importance of “missionary conversion,” a fidelity that embraces the works of charity, and “formation”, since “mercy without reason risks being reduced to sentimental experience.”

For those unfamiliar with this Vatican office, the Apostolic Penitentiary is one of three tribunals of the Curia, a tribunal of mercy responsible for key issues relating to the forgiveness of sins. These include absolution of automatic excommunications (latae sententiae) that are reserved to the Holy See, dispensation of sacramental impediments reserved to the Holy See, and the issuance and governance of indulgences. The head of the Penitentiary, currently Cardinal Piacenza, is called the Major Penitentiary. By virtue of his position (so that he can continue to do his job), he is one of just three cardinal electors who are allowed to communicate with those outside the conclave during a papal election. This is a powerful symbol of the reality that the Church’s exercise of mercy is not suspended even when there is no pope.

In his comments yesterday, Cardinal Piacenza stressed three objectives for growth in mercy which we can immediately recognize as essential for both the renewal of the Church and the growth of each and every soul in holiness:

  • Missionary Conversion: This refers to our willingness to show genuine mercy through what is indispensable, namely public witness to Christ. It is out of fashion in the modern secular world, being regarded either as “bad form” or a punishable offense. There are two sides to this coin of missionary conversion: We who already possess the faith must have the conviction and courage to announce and witness to it; and we must also attempt to stimulate a genuinely missionary faith in others, including new converts. Without this, true mercy cannot grow and spread.
  • Charitable Fidelity: This subtitle will fail to capture the meaning if it is construed as hinting that the faithful are typically uncharitable. But there is always that danger; moreover, this common slur keeps the faithful off balance when used against them by the unfaithful—those who regard themselves as virtuous in their “openness”. The slur is certainly categorically unjust, yet we know that it is possible to identify goodness or righteousness with orthodoxy in the narrowest sense. That is a grave mistake. Genuine orthodoxy, as Chesterton once observed, is authentic fidelity. It involves not just believing the right things, but living them.
  • Formation: Without casting any particular stones, good Christians would have to be blind and deaf not to realize that the characteristic shortcoming of contemporary spiritual culture is its emphasis on God’s love and mercy without explaining what it is for. Our era is particularly weak at linking mercy with personal transformation in Christ, just as it avoids linking spiritual freedom with the refusal to sin. On all sides we find charlatans offering cheap grace, discounted through dilution, forgetting that the whole point of forgiving sins is to draw us so close to God that we live in Him, relying on His strength to recognize and avoid sin, and learning to love with His love.

So much to internalize

It is as if Cardinal Piacenza is urging us, in the wake of Pope Francis’ marvelous emphasis on the mercy of God, not to kid ourselves. Questions: (1) Do we hide behind conventions to avoid the adverse consequences—or perhaps merely the embarrassment—of announcing and witnessing to Christ and His Church? (2) Do we consider our job done when we profess to believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches, forgetting our frequent failures to put these things into practice through love? (3) Do we fail to help others to understand the personal commitment required for the mercy of God to achieve the ends for which He has bestowed it—with our lives, not just our words?

Let us once again suppose—but merely for simplicity—that there are two kinds of people in the world. If so, then both kinds repeatedly fail in mercy in their own ways. The stock conservative believes what the world hates, and so fails to bear witness, while the stock liberal bears witness not to Christ but to what the world loves. The stereotypical conservative stresses the profession of faith but lets the poor suffer where they lie, while the stereotypical liberal emphasizes concern for the downtrodden, but always through programs which cannot touch the heart and soul. Finally, the caricatured conservative tells people they must change without embracing them in love, while the caricatured liberal speaks always of love while refusing to understand that the meaning of love is determined by God, not by any culture, let alone the sick culture of secular modernity.

Cardinal Piacenza has, in a few simple sentences, given us the challenge of a lifetime. It is almost as if he has found God’s mercy being constantly kicked around on the floor of a dirty house, and has put it back on the lampstand—“that those who enter,” as Our Lord said, “may see the light” (Lk 11:33).

In Luke’s gospel we discover another relevant passage as well:

[Y]ou will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.... [Lk 1:76-9]

These inspired words were spoken by Zechariah over his infant son, the greatest man ever born of woman. The meaning of Cardinal Piacenza’s lesson can only be that both ends of this prophetic sentence have a wider application. They apply also to you and me.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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