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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Mystery of Mercy and Penance

Pope John Paul II, soon to be recognized as among the Blessed, understood the importance of mercy and penance in the Christian life. He understood mercy to be love which suffers the misery of the beloved in order to affirm the beloved's dignity. Penance he explained in terms of a loving response for mercy received. In his thought, mercy and penance as moments of intimacy between God and humanity coincide on the cross. The Pilgrim Pope explores these ideas in his teachings by reflecting on Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, the sons (who are more concerned about things than persons) are contrasted with the father (who is more concerned for his sons than things). The truth about justice is revealed in the implications this parable has regarding our response to mercy. Justice is not enough for the human spirit. Instead, in the order of mercy, justice serves our love for one another. The handmade of mercy, it protects the conditions that true friendship, true family demands. The Beginning of Contrition The son came to his senses. A key moment in this parable is when the prodigal son realizes not only his impoverished plight but also sees that he has broken his relationship with his father. His life project had become a failure and he had squandered his possessions and his dignity. Mysteriously, because he has not completely forgotten his father's love, he has confidence, enough confidence to begin his journey home. It is not that he presumes he is owed anything at all. Instead, his heart has an insight into the heart of his father - he sees that truth a child always sees in a good father, a goodness that inspires confidence. Knowing this, he does not doubt that there would still be a place for him in his father's home, if only as a servant. In a certain way, this kind of confidence is like the beginning of contrition or true sorrow for our sin. This kind of sorrow springs out of our humble confidence in the goodness of God. Mercy The father sees his son coming from a long way off and his heart is pierced by the plight of his son - and he runs to embrace him. The story is told as if the father had been anxiously awaiting his son's return, as if he was even impatient that it had taken so long. But this is exactly the character of merciful love - it yearns, aches, sorrows over the beloved - especially because it cannot bear the thought that even for a moment the beloved would be deprived of dignity. It is impatient to suffer anything that the dignity of the beloved might be restored. In the case of the father, he would suffer being misunderstood, rejected and humiliated - but for love of both sons, he could not have it any other way. Through Christ crucified, God the Father communicates this kind of suffering love to humanity - so that only by passing through the wounds of Christ may one cross the threshold of union with God. Penance The parable of Christ reveals a reality to which we must respond. When we see the heart of God pierced by our plight, our hearts must not remain unmoved. His sorrow must pierce us, too. The only adequate value response to the suffering love of God is to embrace it in loving gratitude. And we can only love at our own expense. Sacrifice, intercession, renunciation, restitution, trials, perseverance, bearing with one another, suffering abandonment, betrayal, denial, persecution, rejection - all these are but a small return for the love the Father has given us through his Son - love crucified for our sakes.

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