The Door of Mercy in the Church is Open to All
Pope Francis has often discussed how profoundly touched he is by Christ’s calling of Saint Matthew. In the Gospel we read how Jesus went to dine at the house of Matthew, who as a tax collector was reviled by the community. When the Pharisees asked why he ate with tax collectors and sinners, the Lord said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
Jesus knows that we are far from perfect. He knows that at times, more or less often, we do what we should not do and fail to do that which we should do. He knows that we are sinners. That is the whole reason he came among us and suffered for us on the Cross. If we were already perfect saints, we would not need Christ the Physician. We could simply go to heaven through our own efforts.
The Lord knows that we face difficulties in doing good amidst the challenges of the human condition which has been marred by sin that clouds our judgment to give into the temptations of the world. He knows also that we might strain to understand Church teaching, especially when we are led astray by contrary voices.
The fact that our own situations in life might be inconsistent with certain of the Church’s teachings does not mean that we are not welcome in the Church. Quite the contrary. Just as Jesus came to heal those who are spiritually sick, just as he calls sinners and associated with the outcast, so too the Church issues a special welcome to those who are weary and burdened and marginalized.
The recent provision by Pope Francis that priests can more readily reconcile those who have participated in an abortion is an example of the Church’s effort to present the face of God’s mercy. Such forgiveness does not, however, mean that abortion, the taking of the life of an unborn child, is acceptable. Abortion may be legal, it may be supported by significant and powerful cultural voices, but it is still wrong. Those engaged in Church ministerial roles may not at the same time be advocates for abortion.
A person who has procured an abortion, repented, asked for and received forgiveness may be fully engaged in the life and mission of the Church. However, one who had procured an abortion and continues to advocate for it or even encourage others to have an abortion cannot honestly carry out ministerial roles in the Church. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery but he did not announce that adultery was now an acceptable lifestyle. Rather, he said, “Go and from now on do not sin anymore” (John 8:11).
Because Jesus came to save all people, all are invited to be a part of God’s family – his Church. In the last decades some members of our faith family have drifted away from our spiritual home believing the Church has nothing to offer, some are disillusioned or disaffected because of a bad experience – perhaps a harsh word said to them by someone in the Church, or an indifference shown to them, or the evil of abuse inflicted upon them. Whatever their motive for leaving, repenting of our own failings and having experienced God’s mercy ourselves, our task now is to invite our sisters and brothers back home.
To those who might feel excluded or ostracized, to those who may not be sure they are wanted in the Church, we must say clearly that this welcome is extended to everyone – people whose marriages have broken down and suffered the trauma of divorce, men and women with same-sex attraction, couple who use contraception, unwed mothers and fathers, couples who struggle with infertility, individuals facing gender issues, people who struggle to understand or who dissent from the Church’s moral teaching, married couples with children, the unmarried, those people with special needs, immigrants, young people, seniors, and those in-between, the terminally ill – sinners and saints alike.
Back in the early days of the Church, the fourth century, there was a strong movement called Donatism that contended that since the Church was a unique source of holiness, no sinner could have a part in it. But if the Church were to welcome only those without struggles of some sort, those without sin, those who are already perfect saints, it would be empty. Saint Augustine was one of the great voices defending the role of forgiveness in the Church and the power of the mercy of God.
Rather than a hotel for the perfect, the Church has been rightly and strikingly described as a hospital for the spiritually wounded. Faithful to her Lord and Founder, the Church excludes no one who needs his healing love. The door of mercy is open to all.
With all humility, we must admit that we too are imperfect. Each of us is like Matthew, yet it is precisely in this lowly state that Jesus, fully of mercy, comes to us and says, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9).
As Christ’s followers then, in this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond, Pope Francis encourages us to be a Church and a people of mercy. “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help!” implores Pope Francis. “May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity!” (Misericordiae Vultus, 15).
The Year of Mercy begins with this recognition. Yes, there is abundant sin and failure. But where there is repentance, there is abundant mercy and forgiveness.