by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
At the Sala Stampa Briefing on Monday, October 12, a few presenters, speaking in Italian, English, French and Spanish, related in summary fashion some essential points mentioned in the small group discussions held at the Synod this past Saturday and Monday morning.
The focus of those small groups was the third part of the working document of the Synod known as the "Instrumentum Laboris," a document that has been keenly scrutinized and greatly criticized by numerous Synod Fathers. Their principal complaint is that the "Instrumentum Laboris" contains several problematic paragraphs that lay side by side contrasting points of view concerning the Church's teachings, for example, on artificial contraception, divorce and remarriage,and other irregular moral situations.
Allow this column to serve as a reflection on the points mentioned in the Briefing presentations that I think deserves particular attention from a theological standpoint.
"The truth today means to express mercy" (In Italian: "La verità oggi vuol dire esprimere la misericordia"). This statement, taken out of context (as it was in the Briefing presentation) suggests that the truth is not something objective, but rather something so subjective as to mutate according to different situations in different historical periods. But if this were truly the case, could we speak anymore of "objective truth"? And, if by chance, we could no longer speak, let alone act, according to standards of "objective truth," would we not all fall into the common error know as "moral relativism"? More to the point, has the Truth ever really been diametrically opposed to the attribute of Mercy?
Certainly, in God, there can be no contradiction of the sort whatsoever due to His ontological perfection. Indeed, men are subject to change, but God "per se" is not. St. Thomas Aquinas is clear that "immutability" is one of the many abiding attributes of God. Men, on account of their feebleness and sinfulness, however, can and often do find conflict and even contradiction where there need not be any. as in the interdependent and reciprocal relationship between truth and mercy.
All would agree, for example, that to speak the truth to an erring person (and to do so in charity) is a great spiritual work of mercy, arguably one of the greatest acts we can perform for the good, that is to say, for the salvation of our fellow man and brothers and sisters in Christ. Not to offer "fraternal correction," as urged by St. Paul time and again in his Epistles, is to miss the mark as regards both truth and mercy. These attributes of God are not in competition with one another, so why should they be in competition in our daily lives or in the Church's pastoral practice?
The presupposition that somehow truth and mercy are contradictory terms or irreconcilable is erroneous. Of course, all members of the Church, and not only bishops and priests, are called to be merciful in imitation of Christ the Good Shepherd. However, the Gospels also reveal the Lord Jesus Christ as one who was destined from childhood to be "a sign of contradiction" and whose ministry among us would "make manifest the thoughts of many hearts."
Later on, during His public ministry, the Lord Jesus announced that He had come "to bring not peace but a sword" and that Christian discipleship would involve taking a stand for or against Him with consequences such as fierce persecution and even family unrest for those who choose the former in preference of the latter.
Many more examples of Jesus' mercy and justice dot the landscape of the Gospels. During this Synod and also in the Extraordinary Synod, reference was made to Jesus' reconciling the woman caught in adultery, as well as to the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son, whose story immortalized in the painting of Rembrandt was chosen as the official image of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. In both instances, Jesus' mercy toward the sinner is well-balanced because it is never separated from a call to interior conversion manifested in concrete repentance.
Reconciliation of sinners can only take place if, first and foremost, we have a "sense of sin" and an understanding of how much our sin offends God and His perfect justice. Without a sense of sin, talk of mercy makes absolutely no sense. God demonstrates mercy toward us, precisely because we are sinners who -- without His mercy -- would be eternally condemned. Thus, God's eternal judgments need to be a primary concern for the sinner as well. In the traditional Act of Contrition, the right tension between justice and mercy, reverential fear of God and love of God, the divine initiative of grace and human cooperation are all kept in perfect balance as we pray:
"O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life."
Once the sense of sin is firmly in place in the heart of the sinner, that person (like the Prodigal Son) must come to his or her senses, meaning that a thorough examination of conscience leads to what the sacred authors of the New Testament termed in Greek "metanoia," which literally refers to a "changing of one's mind." It is this "metanoia" that is the beginning -- not the end -- of the conversion process, for the Prodigal Son still had to engage his free will to begin the long and winding road back home to his "Father's house."
God's mercy is revealed when, "catching sight of his son from afar," the Father Rich-In-Mercy ("Dives in Misericordia" -- see the encyclical by the same name of St. John Paul II) runs out to embrace and kiss his Prodigal Son. We must link the first reality to the last without suggesting there is any dichotomy between the truth of the Prodigal Son's sinfulness and the mercy of the Father, who then lavishes upon his repentant son the gifts of superabundant love symbolized by the robe, ring , sandals, and fattened calf.
Robe. This has often been seen as a symbol of our Baptismal garment for, through the saving waters of Baptism, we were restored to the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall. As a matter of fact, the Fathers of the Church often referred to the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation) as the Sacrament of our "Second Baptism," which is effected not by means of water but through the "tears of repentance."
Sandals. In the ancient world, only slaves walked around barefoot and often in chains. Here, in the Parable, the sandals symbolize the freedom pertaining to the children of God -- freed from the slavery to sin and eternal death by Christ Jesus' Paschal Dying and Rising.
Ring. In the ancient world, rings bore the seal of a person's particular family or office. To wear a ring meant that you belonged, that you were somebody rather than nobody. The Prodigal Son receives a new ring from his father to symbolize his restored sonship.
Fattened Calf. Certain Fathers of the Church, in commenting on this Lucan passage, likened the banquet featuring the killing and eating of the fattened calf to the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet. Access to the fruits of this Banquet is not automatic. On the contrary, this access is provided only once reconciliation has taken place.