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.” Continue reading

Good for the soul

My mother used to tell this story, dating from the days when Catholics went to Confession just about every Saturday afternoon. Her parish on the west side of Chicago had what she called “a sweet old priest” who invariably had long lines outside his confessional. He must have been understanding, compassionate—the kind of fellow to whom you didn’t mind so much spilling your sins.

One Saturday another priest of the parish, also sitting in his box available for Confessions but getting few takers, opened his door and stuck his head out. “You know,” he called out testily, “there’s a Catholic priest hearing Confessions over here, too!” He closed his door.

No one in the other line budged.

Can you blame them? They had found a person overflowing with God’s mercy—and who wouldn’t stand in line for that?

People don’t often view the sacrament of Reconciliation this way—as an encounter with the boundless mercy of God, but of course it is. Talk about the good news: Yes of course you’re a sinner, we all are, but we are also forgiven. Free for the asking.

Someone sent me an e-mail the other day which mentioned her “Catholic guilt.” I used to worry that guilt was a bad thing, but I don’t so much anymore. Appropriate guilt over “what I have done, and what I have failed to do,” as we say at the start of Mass, is a blessing—consider where we would be without it. Lent is not “about” guilt, but it offers an opportunity to take stock, to prepare ourselves to come face to face with the wonderful miracle of God’s mercy. The older we get and the more we recognize our tiresome, repeated failings and our dark side the more we know we need the mercy of God. The sacrament can be a good place to drop those stubborn resentments, those omissions that keep us awake at night asking ourselves, “And why on earth didn’t I…”

I got an e-mail from a friend who is now a Cistercian nun living in Norway: “I always dread Lent,” she writes. “At the beginning of Lent, 40 days seems like such a long haul.” (Just in case you think nuns are immune from such thoughts.)

She went on to say that she thought, however, that humans needed 40 days to get into it, “to allow the Spirit to work in us and bring us to new life. It just goes to show that the church knows what she’s doing. To require Catholics to make a Confession at least during Lent is only a support—or maybe a kick start—to the process that God is working in us even in spite of our resistance to change.”

My daughter goes to the sacrament of Reconcilation each Advent and Lent with her class at her Catholic grade school. She told me about a friend who was fretting over the approaching sacrament and a sin he was about to confess. “Well,” she told him, “What I think is that you’re going to be a saint.” The friend brushed this off as ridiculous, but interestingly enough mentioned it again later in the day, apparently unable to get it out of his mind. When my daughter told me this story, I said, “Well, of course you had it right—after all, we’re all called to be saints. That’s the whole point.”

“Official or unofficial?” asked my daughter.

“Either way,” I said. “Same difference.”

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