Pope Francis' decision to call an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy looks more and more urgent with each passing day.
Several incidents in the past couple of weeks here in Rome alone suggest there is a great need for the entire church to reflect deeply on how the acceptance and imitation of God's mercy, forgiveness and unfailing love make up the central tenet of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, among those who seem least inclined to embrace this reality are some of the church's ordained leaders -- clergymen at every level of the hierarchy and those preparing to join them. A number of these individuals are quite prominent. And since the little group of which they are a part has become loud and well-organized, one might mistakenly think they represent the majority of all our deacons, priests and bishops.
Pray God that they don't.
But -- at least publicly -- they have been promoting petitions, giving interviews and spearheading events that seem to be aimed more at making sure people pay for their mistakes -- and, at times, pay dearly -- rather than finding a way to offer them God's mercy.
One of the most recent and high-profile incidents was Italy's fifth annual National March for Life, which took place on Sunday in Rome. Thousands of marchers (organizers claim there were more than 40,000) gathered near St. Peter's Square for the pope's noontime blessing and then made their way through the center of the city. Their final destination was a small square just beneath the ancient Circus Maximus near a church where tourists line up to snap photos in front of the famous Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth).
But like many groups that identity as pro-life in the United States, numerous organizations that joined the Italian march were clearly not pro-life at all, at least not in the broad sense. The slogans they displayed on banners or sang in protest-like chants added up to saying no to three things and three things alone: abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
One would have looked in vain for even a single sign calling for an end to the death penalty. And unless the sun was just too blinding to see them, there were no banners to ban the bomb or protest placards to put an end to war. As for outcries against the immorally lucrative international arms trade that continues to stoke the "piecemeal" Third World War, as Pope Francis calls it, none could be heard.
Italy's March for Life secured the official backing of six Vatican officials. They included Cardinals Angelo Amato (Congregation for the Causes of Saints), Marc Ouellet (Bishops) and Zenon Grocholewski (retired), as well as Archbishops Vincenzo Paglia (Pontifical Council for the Family) and Zygmunt Zimowski (health care). Cardinal Raymond Burke was actually present at the rally. He was one of 20 non-Italian bishops who outnumbered their Italian confreres in endorsing the initiative. Heads of only 15 of Italy's more than 220 dioceses formally sponsored the event.
But among them -- and perhaps also for strategic motives -- was Archbishop Bruno Forte. He, too, sent a written endorsement but did not attend the march. Of course, he is the same theologian-bishop traditionalists fiercely criticized last October after he put accommodating language about gay Catholics in the midterm report at the synod on the family.
The traditionalists were out in spades on Sunday, and many of them then attended a Tridentine Mass that Msgr. Marco Agostini offered for the marchers. The 53-year-old priest from Verona has been a papal master of ceremonies the last six years.
The evening before the march and the Mass, there was also eucharistic adoration for the "reparation for the crime of abortion." Reparation is a favorite theme in traditionalist circles, where, apparently, there are some questions about just how absolute is God's mercy and forgiveness. The traditionalists place a greater emphasis on divine judgment, sacrifice, penance and the fires of purgatory. It seems as if it all boils down to paying for one's sins and mistakes.
Not mercy, but sacrifice. Not forgiveness, but repayment of the debt.
Unfortunately, a similar attitude can be found in the alarmist pleas that are urging the pope not to allow this October's synod to change a single iota of the church's law and discipline regarding marriage and sexuality. There are at least three or four groups frantically trying to whip up support for petitions in this regard.
A right-wing university group for the "defense of tradition, family and property" claims to have garnered more then 200,000 signatures for an online petition to the pope to "save the family." They paint a dark picture of "dissident Catholic pressure groups" that are "bombarding" the synod to "water down the indissolubility of marriage; allow the reception of Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried couples; make the Church 'LGBT-friendly'; and approve same-sex civil unions."
Two other petitions voicing similar concerns are currently trying to solicit signatures from priests in Britain and in the United States.
In the midst of all this, several cardinals and a small group of the world's roughly 5,000 bishops are engaging a number of theologians to come up with arguments to help block any development of the church's teaching on marriage and family matters.
Two of them -- Cardinals George Pell of the Vatican and Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary -- predicted in separate interviews last week that "nothing will change" at the synod. What is most troublesome is the fact that the Hungarian cardinal has a key role in the synod as its "relator general," a sort of moderator in charge of helping to frame the discussions.
The synod "will massively endorse the tradition" of the church, according to Pell. "I don't anticipate any deviation from that at all," he told a few hundred people (including Burke) who attended a conference Saturday in Rome in anticipation of the Italian pro-life rally.
These uncompromising defenders of truth, tradition and life say the church has no authority to develop, alter or modify teachings that, they insist, come directly from Jesus. They are certainly sincere when they express the conviction that they are defending a law of God that cannot be changed.
Pope Francis has taken up the urgent challenge of trying to help them -- and all Christians -- to understand what is too difficult for most us humans to comprehend: Namely, that greater than any of God's laws is God's absolute and boundless mercy.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
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