An Encouraging Word — On mercy and severity

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it. Luke 17:33

Fr. Ron Knott.2012-wDuring my ministry over the last 44 years, I have tried to live the words of St. John Chrysostom, “It is better to err by excess of mercy than by excess of severity.” The other day, I was wondering to myself which is more effective in keeping people in the church — an excess of mercy or an excess of severity.

Recently, it seems that some Catholics have taken advantage of that excess of mercy that trumped the excess of severity that many of us grew up with.

They do about anything they damn well please, regardless of the teachings of the church.

Even old people are doing things more appropriate to juveniles that they would never have dreamed of doing when they were younger. On the other hand, the more the church tries to recover its excess of severity by tightening up, the more people we lose!

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? What has driven people out of the church more — the excess of mercy of the promoters of the Second Vatican Council or the excess of severity that has become popular among those who appear to do their best to undo that Council?

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to have been champions of severity, while Pope Francis seems to share Pope John XXIII’s championship of mercy.

Which approach has driven more out of the church? Which approach has brought more into the church?

The church stood more divided at the start of the conclave that elected Pope Francis than at any other point in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis has shown early signs that his approach to healing the divisions is non-ideological. He has said that unity does not mean uniformity, but actually thrives with diversity.

No action that he has taken so far has better demonstrated that than his recently announced plans for the joint canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. In doing so, he has affirmed the heroes of the church’s two camps and affirmed that both mercy and severity, reform and stability, have a place in the church.

His canonization of John XXIII will be seen as an unequivocal legitimization of the Second Vatican Council at a time when small vocal groups have been given increasing support for seriously calling it into question. His canonization of John Paul II will help the admirers of John Paul II understand that the first
Pope of the Americas shares their deep admiration for the way he guided the church for some 27 years.

Like the great maxim, “The truth stands in the middle,” maybe both camps honor some truth. Instead of mercy or severity, maybe it’s a matter of both/and, rather than either/or.

It may be best to reject extremists at both ends of the spectrum and choose to stand in the middle with Pope Francis.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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