Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Mercy is not a purely juridical concept. At least, that is not its Biblical sense. It is our response to the love of God. A love that is called merciful precisely because it is unconditional, unlimited, perfect, life giving.
We know that true love is not a feeling, but an inner disposition to do good always and everywhere even when it entails personal sacrifice. That is the reason why, the love of God, His mercy, is displayed in all its radicality on the cross. On the cross Jesus empties Himself to do the greatest possible good to us, obtain our salvation. The cross of Christ is an endless source of divine mercy. Contemplating this passionate love can only move us to be merciful like the Father.
Mercy is then a fruit of love, that is why to be authentic, it must be concrete. It must become incarnate in our lives. Love incarnate does good to a brother or a sister, both in their material as well as their spiritual needs. The love we experience and we share moves us to do good to our neighbors and to cooperate, to the extent that we can, to the satisfaction of their material and spiritual needs. Thus, we Christians maintain that there are both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
The former are inspired in the explicit list given by the Lord in the Gospel according to Matthew chapter 25. They include the duty to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the incarcerated and bury the dead.
The latter include the duty to teach the ignorant, forgive offenses, provide good counsel to those who need it, console the sorrowful, endure patiently other people’s defects, pray for the living and the dead and admonish those who err.
The readings for this Sunday, especially the first one taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel and the fragment from the Gospel according to Matthew precisely highlight fraternal correction and its relation to love of God. The first reading not only exhorts us to correct those who err, but it also reminds us that leaving the other under the influence of evil also affects our personal relationship with God.
To correct those who err, to admonish the wicked to change their behavior, to call people to conversion are acts of love. To live in error can never be a path to true happiness. Doing evil will sooner or later end up hurting us and our neighbors. Walking in darkness can never lead to the fullness of life those who were created for light. To act in a manner contrary to goodness and truth is to act against God. Therefore, those who help others to acknowledge their errors, also help them to deepen their relationship with God. In doing so, they are showing their love. To help somebody to break free from error is to facilitate their encounter with the Supreme Good.
Now, any fraternal correction, admonition and invitation to conversion must be loving in their form and opportunity. Christians are not nosy. We do not correct people left and right or pontificate about holiness to the rest of the world. We do not harass people either. We invite. We propose. We exhort. As St. John Paul II used to say, truth is always proposed, never imposed. Force and coercion are not adequate instruments to help our brothers and sisters to turn away from error.
It is true that throughout the history of the Church there have been many instances when Christians in their desire to do good, ended up doing harm because they had recourse to force and temporal power. However, we must learn from our mistakes. The Church categorically rejects proselytism, abuse of conscience and forced conversions that far from drawing people to goodness and truth end up leading them astray.
Fraternal correction is necessary, and it is a virtuous act. To help somebody who is on the path to perdition break free from error is undoubtedly an act of love. However, as it happens with every other human action, in order for an act to be good, it is not enough that the object desired be good, intentions must be good and the means chosen to reach the goal have to be good too. Otherwise, the act itself is tainted and it could end up being contrary to goodness. That is why the Lord exhorts us to discretion and the prophet reminds us that our efforts may be unsuccessful. Human freedom always plays a role. It is possible to abuse it. It is possible to do evil because we have free will. Paradoxically, our evil actions end up destroying our freedom, turning us into slaves, prisoners of our miseries and disordered passions.
If our efforts to help our brothers and sisters are going to be fecund and in keeping with the Gospel, we must begin by walking ourselves a path of conversion so as to grow in love. Indeed, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading this Sunday, charity, love, never does anything wrong to the neighbor. To love is to fulfill the law in its entirety precisely because the law of God is not arbitrary, a simple positive juridical order. It is a concrete expresión of love incarnate. It is love that creates everything that exists and orders it towards Goodness, Truth and Beauty.
Fr. Roberto M. Cid