I recall stopping to think, coffee cup mid-air, when I first heard these words from Pope Francis:
I would think that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet Jesus.p. 155.
This was a few years ago at a silent retreat. Though silent, at meals we listened to an audio book version of Pope Francis’s first book as pope, The Name of God is Mercy.
What struck me about this statement was that, in effect, the Pope was saying that it was good for some people to slip up and sin sometimes. That sounded off coming from the Pope.
However, Pope Francis went on to explain, with an interesting quote within a quote of Pope John Paul I quoting St. Francis de Sales:
God hates faults because they are faults. On the other hand, however, in a certain sense he loves faults, since they give him an opportunity to show his mercy and us an opportunity to remain humble and to understand and to sympathize with our neighbors’ faults.St. Francis de Sales, quoted on p. 156.
As a self-identified “scholar of the law” lawyer with a strong interest in religion, this struck me. While there is no doubt that our faults and sins are bad and that we need to struggle to be better, it is undeniable that our faults allow us to have the humility to forgive others and draw closer to God. In the words of Pope John Paul I, God permits sin so that, “[o]ne does not feel inclined to think of oneself as half saint, half angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults.” (p. 155).
Pope Francis emphasizes that we need to take advantage of the gift of confession to make ourselves clean again when sin. But he warns that we cannot think of sin as a stain that needs to be dry cleaned as much as a wound that needs healing. (p. 84). In other words, even after absolution we are not entirely the same. Though free of sin, there is still healing to be done and scars remain. In a sense our faults and the damage that they have caused are part of who we are and the acceptance of this is essential to being at peace with ourselves and with others.
The greatest sins in the estimation of Pope Francis are those of corruption. While the sinner knows that he has faults and keeps asking for forgiveness, the corrupt have tired of asking for forgiveness and just let the sin become “a mental habit, a way of living.” (p. 173). A corrupt man becomes, “one who sins but does not repent, who sins and pretends to be Christian.” (p. 174).
Pope Francis provides graphic examples of corruption such as an outwardly holy man who prays the rosary and seduces his housekeeper, or who goes to Mass every Sunday but misuses his position to get kickbacks. Corruption allows us to create a religion in our own image disassociated with the truth of what is right and what is wrong.
In corruption, the person becomes blind to a major injustice for which he is responsible. As Pope Francis graphically explains:
The corrupt man often doesn’t realize his own condition, much as a person with bad breath does not know they have it.p. 180.
Mercy in not popular. Mercy is not a trait associated with popular action heroes, celebrities, or politicians. According to John Paul II, “[t]he word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man . . . .” (Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy quoting Dives in Misericordia). Pope Francis and his message sometimes cause unease, but I suspect that that this unease comes from the same difficulty humans have with mercy itself. Despite the uncomfortableness of mercy, it is essential to heal our wounded selves, relate to our fellow sinners, and grow closer to God.