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Mercy True and False

In anticipation of the Synod on the Family—with prayers for mercy from heaven
The Prodigal Son
I’ve been thinking a lot in the past year about “mercy.” One could legitimately call it the very heart and soul of Christianity: Our Lord came down to save us out of His unspeakable mercy. Notably, St. Thomas Aquinas holds that mercy is the greatest of the divine attributes. The traditional Latin Mass gives consummate expression to this consoling truth:

O God, who dost manifest Thine almighty power most of all in sparing and showing mercy: multiply Thy mercy upon us, that as we hasten towards Thy promises, Thou mayest make us partakers of heavenly treasures. Through our Lord… (Collect, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)

It has often struck me just how saturated the traditional liturgy is with mercy, misericordia—far more so than the modern Roman rite. Leaving aside the few texts shared in common between the two forms of the rite, here are some of the many invocations of God’s greatest attribute that are prayed each time the old Mass is celebrated—and only at the old Mass. I will also cite the Roman Canon, because, although it is permissible at the new Mass, it is rarely used in most communities.

Indulgéntiam, absolutiónem, et remissiónem peccatórum nostrórum, tríbuat nobis omnípotens et miséricors Dóminus. (May the Almighty and merciful God grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.)

Osténde nobis Dómine, misericórdiam tuam. (Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy.)

Orámus te, Dómine, per mérita Sanctórum tuórum, quorum relíquiæ hic sunt, et ómnium Sanctórum: ut indúlgere dignéris ómnia peccáta mea. (We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints, whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wilt deign to pardon me all my sins.)

Munda cor meum ac lábia mea, omnípotens Deus, qui lábia Isaíæ Prophétæ cálculo mundásti igníto: ita me tua grata miseratióne dignáre mundáre, ut sanctum Evangélium tuum digne váleam nuntiáre. (Cleanse my heart and my lips, Almighty God, Who didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaias with a burning coal: deign so to cleanse me by Thy gracious mercy that I may worthily proclaim Thy holy Gospel.)

Per evangélica dicta deleántur nostra delícta. (By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out.)

Offérimus tibi, Dómine, cálicem salutáris, tuam deprecántes cleméntiam: ut in conspéctu divínæ maiestátis tuæ, pro nostra et totíus mundi salúte, cum odóre suavitátis ascéndat. (We offer unto Thee, O Lord, the chalice of salvation, entreating Thy mercy that our offering may ascend with a sweet fragrance in the sight of Thy divine Majesty, for our own salvation, and for that of the whole world.)

Ego autem in innocéntia mea ingréssus sum: rédime me, et miserére mei. (But as for me, I have walked in my innocence; redeem me, and have mercy on me.)

Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater, per Iesum Christum Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus… (Thee, therefore, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ Thy Son, Our Lord, we humbly pray and beseech…)

Nobis quoque peccatóribus fámulis tuis, de multitúdine miseratiónum tuárum sperántibus, partem áliquam et societátem donáre dignéris, cum tuis sanctis Apóstolis et Martýribus … intra quorum nos consórtium, non æstimátor mériti, sed véniæ, quǽsumus, largítor admítte. (To us also, Thy sinful servants, who put our trust in the multitude of Thy mercies, vouch¬safe to grant some part and fellowship with Thy holy Apostles and Martyrs … Into their company we beseech Thee admit us, not considering our merits, but freely pardoning our offenses.)

Pláceat tibi, sancta Trinitas, obséquium servitútis meæ: et præsta, ut sacrifícium, quod óculis tuæ maiestátis indígnus óbtuli, tibi sit acceptábile, mihíque et ómnibus, pro quibus illud óbtuli, sit, te miseránte, propitiábile. (May the tribute of my homage be pleasing to Thee, O holy Trinity, and grant that the Sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy Majesty, may be acceptable to Thee, and, through Thy mercy, bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it.)

One could also mention how the penitential litany of Kyrie eleison is repeated nine times, and the Gloria, with its beseeching “miserére nobis,” is said far more often, usually several times a week. There are many other texts, too, that speak of salvation, remedy, favor, and forgiveness in such a way that the note of mercy is strongly sounded.

Perhaps the reason so few are aware of this magnificent liturgy of mercy is that so few are intimately familiar with the spiritual riches of the traditional Mass—even, one regrets to say, Catholics who may attend it but who take little care to become acquainted with its prayers. It only gets worse when we step outside the traditional enclave. To a large number of Catholics, this outmoded and superseded “Latin Mass” is supposed to be the refuge of intolerant social misfits, judgmental cranks, misogynists, and who knows what other kinds of worn-out relics—a world in which there can be no mercy, because it still clings to absolute dogma, to strict morals against which it is easy to sin, and to a time-honored way of doing things that draws a line in the sand. That the traditional liturgy is, in fact, a veritable school and reservoir of divine mercy is the very last thought that would occur to them.

Having been reminded of the authentic Gospel by the liturgy that is its flawless mirror, it is difficult not to be reminded, with a sense of betrayal, of members of the Church’s hierarchy who today are preaching a false Gospel of pseudo-mercy. Today, the contrast between true mercy and false mercy confronts us everywhere. What the world is really clamoring for is not mercy, but indulgence in sin. The sinner wants to be told that he is good, he is fine, he’s doing well, he cares about the poor, he tolerates everyone, and therefore it doesn’t matter what he believes or how he acts. Moreover, he wants to think that the way to show mercy to others is to tolerate or applaud anything and everything they think and do, because “who am I to judge?”

Although many Catholics have refuted this postmodern feebleness—especially in their vigorous defenses of the indissolubility of marriage, contra Cardinal Kasper and his minions—I find Steve Skojec’s account the clearest and most concise:

“Mercy” is the word of the day that covers a multitude of anti-Catholic thoughts popular within the hierarchy of the present-day Church: it is not merciful to forbid divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist; it is not merciful to forbid Catholic politicians who support abortion from receiving the Eucharist; it is not merciful to leave heterodox theologians outside of visible communion with the Church (even when they do not publicly retract their heresy); it is not merciful to treat homosexual relationships as qualitatively different than heterosexual ones when approaching from a pastoral standpoint, etc.
          I can’t help but view the facts through my Modernist-doublethink-secret-decoder-ring. Mercy, when contrasted with dogma, is set up as an alternate orthodoxy. It is the orthodoxy of the heart, of kindness, of the anti-Pharisaical ethos. But those who would set up this dichotomy never acknowledge that true mercy is always inextricably intertwined with justice, and justice is predicated upon law.
          These people wish to change dogma to create an inclusive Church. A Church without boundaries, unfocused on rules and sacraments, unwilling to exclude salvation to those who choose not to embrace it, a Church that can lock hands with people of every other faith in a seamless garment of interwoven theology, all respecting each other’s “faith walk” progressing on a path to the same “god.” And dogma gets in their way, because the real Church looks nothing like that.

As we know from Scripture, Tradition, liturgy, and the lives of the saints, God’s mercy is quite different. He demands conversion, repentance, abandoning the sin, embarking on the hard road of virtue, embracing the Cross—and doing this as many times as it takes, stumbling, falling, and yet getting up again, until God is truly the One loved above all things and in all things. His is a mercy that heals by cauterizing the wound, removing debris, resetting broken bones, taking away self-indulgences that are fatal to us: it is, in the famous phrase, a severe mercy. God’s mercy is bound up in His penetrating judgment of our souls, which, says T. S. Eliot, “questions the distempered part” (Four Quartets, East Coker).

St. Augustine never tires of reminding us in his Confessions that he himself did not want to be healed, he was running away from God, and yet the divine Lover of souls chased after him and intervened decisively in his life. And he had to change, completely. As he says: “You are ever close upon the heels of those who flee from You, for You are at once God of Vengeance and Fount of Mercy, and You turn us to Yourself by ways most wonderful” (Confessions IV, 4, 7).

We will never be vessels and ambassadors of mercy to the world unless we act from a right understanding and acceptance of God’s strong and demanding mercy towards us. The traditional liturgy is constantly invoking that awesome mercy, which is our salvation, our consolation, our hope against hope. True mercy heals because it is radiant with the light of truth and so restores us to our Christian dignity. As St. Leo the Great preached:

O Christian, recognize your dignity, and now that you have been made a partaker of the divine nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning.

Let us fittingly give the sacred liturgy the final word:

We have received Thy mercy, O God, in the midst of Thy temple; according to Thy Name, O God, so also is Thy praise unto the ends of the earth: Thy right hand is full of justice. (Introit, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)