There is a story about a new school and the way the children of the school played during recess. The school yard was enclosed by a high fence and furnished with state-of-the-art playground equipment.
Every day during recess many of the children would race to the edges of the school yard and clamor up the fence as high as they could. The teachers worried that the fence climbing posed more danger to the students than an unfenced yard. So the school officials had the fence removed.
Once they did that, however, the children stayed very close to the school doors during recess, most refusing to venture even as far as the playground equipment a few feet away.
The teachers, having learned from their mistake, asked that the fence be restored, and the children returned to exploring and playing throughout the entire yard.
Is the pope pulling down the fence?
Pope Francis’s call for a more merciful church strikes some of us as removing the fence. If the rule of law is not the high boundary that keeps us all in place, who knows what could happen? Sometimes we think of mercy as excessive leniency or even abandonment of the rules.
Divine mercy, however, is not about letting offenders off the hook. It is about restoring right relationships. Or to use our school yard image, the fence is not a wall of judgement. It is a safeguard of love.
There are rules, of course. There have to be rules. But no mother has ever applied the rules equally. One child needs a seemingly ridged and clearly enforced set of rules. Another child needs a more flexible and fluid application of the rules. When my little brother “gets away” with violating his curfew or skipping his chores, it’s impossible for me to know what circumstances in his life have caused my mother to be more “merciful” with him and more strict with me.
The older son didn’t get treated fairly
In the Prodigal Son story, I’ve always sided with the oldest son. It’s not fair, is it? Why does the younger brother get to do whatever he wants without consequence? But the merciful father is not seeking to dole out consequences like an impartial judge. He desperately wants to restore his family to wholeness. To do that, he forgives and welcomes his child home with rejoicing and feasting.
Did the younger child get away with something? Did the father let him off the hook? Well, the kid almost starved to death. He was abused and humiliated. And even worse, he thought he was alone. He felt so guilty for having abandoned his family, he was sure his family had abandoned him. He returned home not as a son but as a hired hand.
Restoring the family
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt alone like that. I never have. I never want to. I can’t imagine. It must have been a dark, scary, hopeless time for the boy. In his mind, the encirclement of love his father had provided all his life was now gone, and there was nothing to keep him safe. In the father’s mind, the just thing to do was to surround his son with a wall of love as quickly and passionately as possible.
Mercy is never the abandonment of justice. Mercy is justice. And justice is mercy. For God and for godly people, mercy and justice cannot be opposites, and one cannot exist independent of the other.
For some of the catechumens, this will be a very hard truth to learn. Some of them come to us because they are attracted by the rules. Some of them find the certainty of church doctrine comforting and a refuge from the chaos of their lives. I do too. I get great comfort from the systematic way in which the church teaches about faith.
The number-one (and two) rule
But we can never confuse the teaching of the faith with faith itself. The older brother in the Prodigal Son story confused the rules that kept the family strong with the family itself. He was willing to abandon his brother for the sake of keeping the rules firmly and unbendingly in place.
I plan to keep teaching the rules of the faith to the catechumens. But Jesus told us what the number-one rule is, and whatever other rules we teach always have to be based on the primary rule:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt 22-37-40)
If we can teach that and live that, we will be just and merciful.