Mercy me: Betting on God’s mercy

When as a kid I had to do something I really hated, my dad would recommend that I “offer it up for the souls in purgatory.” Purgatory being the place, I learned, where our faithful departed worked off their sins in preparation for their reunion with the Almighty.

Dad kept these souls in mind, I’m sure, because he had a keen sense of his own sinfulness. He would call, “Say some prayers for me!” whenever one of his children went out the door to church. He refused to call the cops on kids who blew up cherry bombs in the underpass near our home, remembering his own childhood exploits all too vividly.

When I would spout off about someone’s misdeeds, he would say quietly, “Have a little compassion on the multitude.”

He once told us he wondered whether actors known to be rakes in real life (womanizers like Errol Flynn, perhaps) would get at least some credit in the hereafter for the heroic roles they played onscreen. After all, Robin Hood modeled for many young moviegoers what a good, brave man looks like.

Dad loved the Bible passage where Abraham bargained with God to try to halt the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Suppose there were 50 innocent people in the city,” Abraham says. The Lord reconsiders, agreeing to hold off if Abraham can produce that number. Not altogether confident in his figures, Abraham goes back at God five more times. The final request: “‘What if there are at least 10 there?’ ‘For the sake of those 10,’ he replied, ‘I will not destroy it.’ ” (Gen 18: 23-32)

As Dad knew, you can’t go wrong betting on God’s mercy. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was tougher on those who considered themselves righteous than on the many sinners he broke bread with (including the Bernie Madoffs of his day). “You are like whitewashed tombs, which . . . inside are full of dead men’s bones,” he fired at the Pharisees (Matt 23: 27). The self-righteous and hard of heart apparently troubled him more than flagrant sinners like the woman taken in adultery, to whom he said simply, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).

While it’s true our tradition embraces high ideals, the heart of the story of Jesus is the forgiveness God offers for free—the prodigal son and his father in Luke’s gospel are Exhibit A of the Good News. God’s mercy is a gift freely given, not something we earn. Consider that the prodigal son returned home more out of hunger than remorse; having blown through his inheritance on wine, women, and song, he was now fighting pigs for cornhusks: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” (Luke 15:17) Yet his father comes running out to meet him—how undignified can you get? That’s God.

As parents, we discover that while we have high standards for our kids, our love for them is actually not based on their behavior (however much our annoyance levels vary). That’s a glimpse of God’s love for us. Let’s make sure kids learn that although God cares greatly what we do, we can also bank on God’s compassion and mercy. They’ll experience that mainly from witnessing the compassion and forgiveness practiced by their parents, of course.

As we remember our departed loved ones this November with its feast of All Souls Day, let’s keep in mind the souls in purgatory. And never fear, Dad, I’ll say a prayer for you. And I’ll try to have a little compassion on the multitude. 

—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith

New! Check out our editors’ picks for great saint books for kids–and their parents

At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. is the winner of the 2010 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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