An Encouraging Word — Too lenient or too strict?

Father J. Ronald Knott

Father J. Ronald Knott

Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you? Matthew 18:33

One of the things every good Catholic family struggles with, at least members around my age, is how to deal with family members who do things that go against “everything they were taught.” This is a question I have struggled with, in my ministry and in my family. I never seem to have a good answer. I do not want to be that one who cowardly approves of obviously bad behavior, but I also don’t want to be that rigid judge who can only see from appearances.

When I was younger, it was easier to rush to judgment and condemn. As I have gotten older, I am more inclined to leave the door open and show compassion.

Here Pope St. Gregory the Great has been my guide: “It is better to err with an excess of mercy, than an excess of severity.”

I have always been comforted by the words the critics of Jesus spoke about him: “This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them.”

The great parable of the “Loving Father” tells about a father who is capable of loving the prodigal son as well as the rigid, uptight, self-righteous, rule-following older son. Rembrandt, in his masterpiece “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” makes this point when he paints the father with both a soft mother’s hand and a strict father’s hand.

I have also been comforted by Pope Francis who is able to uphold the teachings of the church on one hand and embrace people from the margins on the other. He is an embodiment of the saints he canonized recently — Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

It was St. John XXIII who said at the opening of Vatican Council II, “Frequently the church condemned errors with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, she prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity.”

Probably in an effort to correct too much laxity, St. John XXIII was later followed by St. John Paul II who was more than willing to show toughness when it came to those who stray. Who can forget that 1983 photo of him shaking his finger at the liberation theology priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua?

By canonizing these two giants, Pope Francis seems to be teaching us that pastoral care is a matter of both/and, not either/or.

I have been comforted also in my policy of “more mercy and less severity” because I have been wrong more than once in my judgment, something some of our new, brash young priests will have to admit someday when they get some age and experience.

I still remember one young couple whom I married against my better judgment. Guess what? They are still together 35 years later. And where are some of those “perfect” couples who jumped through all the hoops so easily? Divorced, sometimes more than once.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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