I’ve asked a lot of cradle Catholics about their image of God as they were growing up, and I get different answers. But there is one answer I get a lot, which resonates with my own experience: God was a judgmental father.
My father died when I was four, so I had no living image of a father with which to compare. I went to Catholic grade school, and I was taught to call the priests “Father.” The only time I remember talking to a priest when I was a child was in confession. Which, of course, confirmed my image of “Fathers” sitting in judgment.
As I grew older, my image of God and my knowledge of priests also matured. Now, of course, I know that my image of God and of priests was flawed. But what we learn in childhood sticks with us, no matter how much work we do to unlearn it. For a long time, I had an ever-present feeling of what some people call “Catholic guilt.” I never felt like I was worthy.
And then, when I was in high school, I read Psalm 8:
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
God’s promise to all of us
And it hit me all of a sudden that God loves me in my lowliness. God knows I’m imperfect, flawed, screwed up, and yet makes me “little less than a god.” I cried when I read that.
I cried because I knew I didn’t deserve it. I knew I wasn’t “good enough” to be crowned with glory and honor. And yet, God makes that promise to all of us, just because we are human. It isn’t about earning a privilege. It is about being loved.
Another psalm, which Pope Francis quotes in his letter announcing a Year of Mercy, reads, “He forgives all your iniquity, he heals all your diseases, he redeems your life from the pit, he crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Ps 103:3-4).
What it means to wear the crown
All these crowns! I’m going to need a bigger closet. Pope Francis quotes more psalms. which break open the metaphor of the crown. To wear the crown of glory and honor, to wear the crown of love and mercy, means that we are people of concrete action. Just a few of the actions Pope Francis pulls from Scripture include:
- executing justice for the oppressed
- giving food to the hungry
- setting prisoners free
- opening the eyes of the blind
- lifting up those who are bowed down
- upholding the widows and orphans
- binding the wounds of the injured
- healing the brokenhearted
Gushing with mercy
“In short,” Pope Francis says, “the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a ‘visceral’ love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy” (Announcement of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 6).
So, far from being stern judge, God gushes with “tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.” You know that, of course. But lots of people, even Catholics, don’t. Lots of people feel unworthy, as I used to. The pope says we have to fix that.
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy.” (10)
Are some people getting away with something?
Sometimes I am tempted to think there is a problem with this idealistic image. It isn’t fair. There are people out there who do bad things. Sometimes people do bad things to me. And they should get what’s coming to them.
However, what Pope Francis says should be coming to them, at least from us, is mercy. Justice and mercy are not opposites. But only God, the Source of Mercy, is empowered to judge. God’s judgment (which any one of us is incapable of) is both just and merciful. And because God gushes mercy all over each of us when we didn’t deserve it, we are obligated to go out and do the same for those whom we are tempted to judge. The pope says:
The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy. (12)
The courage to hope
Oasis of mercy. I like that. If we can be that oasis of mercy, we will change people’s false images of God. And we will, Pope Francis says, “reawaken [the world] to new life and instill in [it] the courage to look to the future with hope” (10).
What was your image of God when you were a child? What is the image of God your catechumens came with? How have you grown in your understanding of God as a Gusher of Mercy?
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