The Justice in Mercy

Not long ago I ran into a hang-up with divine mercy. I was still mid-pendulum swing away from a life of lush selfishness (i.e. sinfulness). That time of my life could be characterized as “spiritual but not religious.” I was a cafeteria Catholic at best with my nice mini-me Jesus stashed deep in my imagination to justify whatever action I thought would bring me happiness. I’m not going to play the victimhood card here, but my lightly Catholic education that emphasized Elmer’s glue, felt banners, and various anthems of hand-holding love didn’t benefit me.

Eventually the Gospel message of repentance broke through my thick sinful crust and soft Catholicism, bringing about serious conversion and a rather dramatic recoil against anything remotely attached to felt banners.

I came upon this never-classy "Wall-O-Felt-Banners" at a parish during vacation last year - the Youth Room graffitied with peace symbols.

I came upon this never-classy “Wall-O-Felt-Banners” at a parish during vacation last year – the Youth Room graffitied with peace symbols.

For this reason, when I initially learned of devotion to Divine Mercy, I was immediately incredulous. Why? Because all of my life I heard nothing about sin, and everything about fluffy love, nothing about justice and everything about mercy. Could the situation be remedied?  To the one extreme there was nothing but mercy, and on the other (the direction I was tending towards), nothing but justice. Presumption and despair. Josef Pieper has a few great lines on the need to strike a balance here:

In theological hope the ‘antithesis’ between divine justice and divine mercy is, as it were, ‘removed’ –

not so much ‘theoretically,’ as existentially: supernatural hope is man’s appropriate, existential answer to the fact that these qualities in God, which to the creature appear to be contradictory, are actually identical. One who looks only at the justice of God is as little able to hope as is the one who sees only the mercy of God. Both fall prey to hopelessness – one to the hopelessness of despair, the other to the hopelessness of presumption. (On Hope 70-71)

The answer, then, is hope. And this is perhaps the theological virtue stressed in the devotion of Divine Mercy.

What is mercy?  A few words will suffice.

Mercy is compassion or forgiveness granted to one who deserves punishment. One who has authority/power to punish freely decides not to punish.  In other words, God’s mercy rests upon some key premises that cannot be overlooked or pushed aside, namely the reality of sin and the need for humility.

The wage of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Mercy makes no sense if sin is not real. And, I would say, sin is taboo too often nowadays. Admitting that evil really exists as a power, that Satan exists as a force, is unheard of. Since the Enlightenment, sin has been seen as a problem of the over-extension of the will that will be solved by an ever more enlightened intellect. In other words, man himself will save himself from the “problem of the rash will.” After all, it’s just a matter with my matter.

But sin is a real metaphysical reality.

If ever there was a doctrine of the Church that was perfectly self-evident, it would be Original Sin. Simply look around – both at your own life or the headlines on any news site. “For I do that which I hate…”  St. Paul’s words still ring true (see Romans 7); man hasn’t fixed himself in all these years. Perhaps sin darkened the intellect too (see CCC 405). Perhaps Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas” are not so easily attained… We’re so saturated in sin, we don’t even realize it most of the time.  “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (CCC 1849).

It’s like we’re all driving around with flat tires – every single person – and thus that becomes normal.

But the devotion to Divine Mercy through St. Faustina, as it has always existed throughout salvation history and most recently emphasized again in a time and to a people who have access to sin at speeds faster that dial-up, demands this starting point – God’s just punishment for real sinfulness.  There has to be a fault in order for there to be forgiveness, and a rightful authority in order to carry mercy out.  Far from a banner-waving devotion, Divine Mercy presupposes the cold reality of sin and calls us to stare it in the face.

Here’s what Jesus said to St. Faustina on a few occasions:

Out of love for you all, I will avert any punishments which are rightly meted out by My Father’s justice. (Diary 570)


I will reveal to you a secret of My Heart: what I suffer from chosen souls. Ingratitude in return for so many graces is My Heart’s constant food, on the part of [such] a chosen soul. Their love is lukewarm, and My Heart cannot bear it; these souls force Me to reject them…They do not wish to hear my call, but proceed into the abyss of hell. The loss of these souls plunges me into deadly sorrow. God though I am, I cannot help such a soul because it scorns Me; having a free will, it can spurn Me or love Me. (580)

Well that’s consoling…These words are really spoken to any baptized Christian. Yikes.  Sin is real and cannot be denied or watered-down. But what about the second premise?

Humility.  The humble recognize their sinfulness. “Humility is the knowledge and acceptance of the inexpressible distance between Creator and creature” (Pieper 29). This means owning up, seeing the full weight (or as much as our hearts can bear) of the horror of our sin, and turning to God. The devotion of Divine Mercy calls for this humility: “Know that a pure soul is humble. When you lower and empty yourself before My majesty, I then pursue you with My graces and make use of My omnipotence to exalt you” (Diary 576).  “For when I am weak,” and admit to it, “then I am strong,” because I allow Him to work (2 Cor. 12:10).

Far from the felty-soft devotion I thought it was, it holds both mercy and justice in tension with one another. It demands humility. Divine Mercy makes no sense apart from the reality of sin, and the call for humble repentance by which the sinner opens his heart to this ocean of mercy.  As such, it is right for us, Christians, to hope and pray, for “Prayer is the expression of hope…hope itself speaks through it” (Pieper 36). Divine Mercy is both our prayer and our hope.

“Only [the theological virtue of] hope is able to comprehend the reality of God that surpasses all antitheses, to know that his mercy is identical with his justice and his justice with his mercy” (Pieper 71).

Thus it is fitting that the words that appear at Christ’s feet – Christ who is both Lamb and Lion, victim and judge, who unites mercy and justice in his person – are “Jesus, I trust in You.” JezuUfamTobie1

Seven (somewhat lame) excuses for not engaging in your parish’s Youth Ministry program + 1 Response

Author’s Note:  I used most all of these excuses when I was in high school, and now face them “on the other side.”  It is rather ironic.  At any rate, here are some observations on teen excuses based upon personal experience and interactions with high schoolers (and parents) over the last four years.

I’m not interested in “recruiting” teens for Youth Ministry, and I’m only concerned with numbers insofar as I hope and pray that every teen in our parish encounters Christ and experiences conversion.  That said, my Core Team and I extend numerous invitations to a myriad of teens over the course of a year.  Here are some of the most common reasons we get as to why a teen doesn’t check out our program (this ranges from 7-12th grade, and the list moves from lamest excuse/reason to gravest excuse/reason):

  1. Homework.  This fluffy excuse fails most of the time (barring exam season or time-consuming projects) for the simple reason that from the time school gets out on Friday afternoon until the Youth Night on Sunday – over 50 hours have passed!
  2. “I Won’t Know Anyone There”.  Now, this is a good reason.  Who wants to walk into any social setting without a friend close by?  I don’t.  This position is something of a catch-22, however.  I don’t know anyone, so I don’t go.  But, by never going, I never have a chance to know anyone there.  Given how often I hear these words from teens, I realize two things:  1.) The importance of one-to-one evangelization through friendship (the personal invite), and 2.) the need for us to constantly welcome new teens into our group, while helping them to know that they belong here.
  3. ExcusesNot Cool Enough.  This excuse is downright dirty…really, it’s purely pompous.  It goes something like this, “The people who go to Youth Group have no other friends;” or “Those kids are weird;” or “Have you seen them?  They lack all coolness.”  Okay, perhaps the last excuse is not verbatim, but it does capture the essence.  Here’s the rebuttal:  a) Since when did you become the measuring stick for “coolness?”  b) How can you place a judgment upon a rather large group of people, when you’ve never attended an event (or at least 3)?  c) What a prideful statement!
  4. Lack of Parental Push. I understand that parents need to let their high schoolers have the freedom to make choices.  (In fact, I absolutely believe that no teen should be forced to attend Youth Ministry against his/her will.)  However, Youth Group is the primary ministry the parish has to offer your teen, and no fourteen-year-old freshman should have the freedom to completely shirk that ministry without giving it a fair shot.  My hope is always that parents take the initiative (if need be) to get their teens to at least 3 Youth Ministry events (preferably 3 events in a row).  If the teen doesn’t like it after those 3 attempts, the parents should lay off.  Let’s always bear in mind that the parents are the chief educators of the faith and it is their duty to help their children on the path to holiness – and parents have a tremendous ally in a parish’s Youth Ministry program.  Don’t let it go to waste.
  5. Too Much Time at the High School.  The demands placed upon teens nowadays may be one thing (though I’m really not convinced that teens are busier now than they were 10 or 20 years ago), but the straight-up insulation of the teens within the high schools is another.  This is especially true of the Catholic high schools.  And, because the kids attend religion class, the need for Catholic formation is seemingly satisfied.  The problem is really simple – for most of us, high school doesn’t last forever.  Part of the catechetical task of any Catholic school is the fostering of community.  Nonparochial schools (i.e. schools not attached to a parish – like most Catholic high schools) “have a special challenge in this area,” says Monsignor Francis Kelly, who was on the editorial committeefor the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  “There can be good success in building community in the school setting, but there is little carry-over into the student’s parish life.  It may even be a subtle means of alienating the student from the parish” (Kelly 76).  Getting back to the problem of high school not lasting forever, Kelly says, “The young people we teach will be living out their Catholic life as adults in a parish setting and in a parish community” (76).  We nee increased cooperation and understanding between ministers on high school campuses, and ministers at the local parishes.  The present situation is rather black-hole-ish.
  6. The Catholic Faith is Low on the Priority List.  The Catholic Church today faces many challenges:  the secularization of the culture (which has crept into many areas of the Church over the last 40 years), nearly two generations of poorly catechized adults, and a society that values production and power over most everything else.  As a result, the Catholic faith, for many families falls low on the list of daily priorities.  Maybe a prayer here or there (like before meals, if the family is eating together), maybe Mass on Sunday (a bigger and bigger maybe for many), etc.  Teens are no different – they follow right in the footsteps.  If the faith is low on the priority list for the family, it is low on the list for the teen.  I’m well aware that for many teens in our program, Youth Ministry may fall as low as 7, 8, or 9 on the list of priorities in a given week…probably landing right after that thing called “Sunday obligation.”  In response to this position, we can simply say, “One cannot love both God and mammon.”
  7. “I Graduated from Catholicism when I got Confirmed”.  Not sure this has ever been spoken to me, but I can read right through some people.  This is actually the most devastating of all the excuses for a number of reasons.  First, it is absolutely messed up.  When the fire of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost they did not begin living complacent lives of complete disregard for the faith – they preached the Gospel in every circumstance until they died for the faith!Next, I would point out that many of the teens who use this type of apathetic excuse are just that – hard-hearted and weighed down by sin.  For them, turning to the Light of Christ as He is experienced by those in Youth Ministry is not at all appealing.  Finally, the saddest reason (which is really the reason for the first two points here – plus most of the other ones on this list):  These teens have never been evangelized, and that is not entirely their fault.  (It’s only their fault if they were hard-hearted for all those years of religious education).  What do I mean by “never been evangelized?”  I mean they never heard the Gospel – “God’s initiative, not human effort, has broken through the vicious cycle of human sin and misery and has brought redemption…The Good News is the inbreaking of God’s love and power (the Kingdom) by means of which ‘salvation’ has finally come with its benefits of forgiveness, healing, and transformation” (Kelly 69).

I realize this list contains a few sweeping generalizations, and risks being too facile, but the points remain true.  While the list is not comprehensive, and does not attempt to answer all of the predicaments,

it does provide a handle on some of these issues – again, I have been on both sides of these arguments.  And, now, as a Youth Minister in the Catholic Church, I will provide this simple response:

As a disciple of Christ, I must always return to my call, which is found in seminal form in the Gospel of Mark:  “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (Mk. 3:14).  As a follower of Christ, and a member of the Church founded upon the faith and testimony of the Apostles, participating (to whatever meager degree) in their call as my own is not a bad deal.  So, in response to the 7 predicaments listed above, I must remain close to Christ (in prayer and the sacraments).  This is the absolutely necessary fundamental position – each and every day.  It is only by remaining close to Christ and being transformed by Him, that one has the strength to go on.  It is only by entrusting those in his care to Christ that one has the courage to go forth and evangelize (and today’s mission territory for the New Evangelization is very much the parish – including the youth – itself).

In the final analysis, only hope in Christ and His grace and victory is truly strong enough to conquer excuses (however lame) – not the sheer willpower of His followers. Duccio_Calling