Recently I watched sections of the Royal Commission’s questioning of Cardinal Pell from Rome. It was a painful event no matter whose point of view you tried to take. But I thought those four days made a couple of powerful points about Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy.
Normally when we, in the church talk of mercy, the presumption is that it is we who will be showing mercy not needing or receiving it. I didn’t know what to think when the victims asked to be allowed to go to Rome to witness Cardinal Pell’s evidence. I doubted that it would be possible to do it in a constructive way but I now think their dignified presence was essential and redeeming. It totally reversed my understanding of power. It highlighted that we in the church need their forgiveness, their mercy and we cannot demand or force it. It can only be freely given in their time. We can ask for forgiveness and do our best to make amends but other than that we will have to wait patiently.
Because of our sins of deed and omission we are becoming a more vulnerable and much less respected church. Yet there may be a special meaning and opportunity in this.
The sexual abuse crisis may force us to be humble, respectful and collaborative in ways we would never have imagined or chosen. Confronted by the suffering and profound hurt of our victims we need to discover the power of silence because there are no easy solutions, just attentive listening, compassion and prayer. We have been taken down from the pedestal and freed from perfection and power, to know shame, to feel powerlessness and share the struggles and “sins” of our brothers and sisters. Above all we need mercy and forgiveness. There is something good in that.
Pope Francis when asked by Antonio Spadaro SJ, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” he replied “I am a sinner … on whom the Lord has turned his gaze”. In the interview he specifically mentioned the call of Matthew but he could also have been thinking of Peter. In Luke 22:31-34 Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Peter protests that he will suffer and even die with Jesus, but Jesus predicts that instead, Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. Then at the end of the chapter the cock crows just as Peter is denying Jesus a third time and “The Lord turned and gazed at Peter…. And Peter went out and wept bitterly.” Such was his shame.
John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint develops this even further. Commenting on the scene in John’s Gospel when after His Resurrection Jesus askes Peter, “Do you love me?” Presumably He was once again gazing into Peter’s eyes and we can only imagine Peter’s shame. Peter, in a nervous voice probably louder than necessary, answers “Yes”. Jesus asks him three times, because Peter had denied him three times, and when Peter confirms that he does love Jesus a third time, Jesus appoints him the leader. Jesus chooses Peter because having needed mercy and having received mercy, he might be able to show mercy to his brothers.
Only people who have needed and experienced mercy are likely to show it to others. Certainly those who have never needed mercy will not easily feel for others. That, I believe, is one positive possibility in our present shame.
There is something dangerous in thinking of ourselves as the unique and special dispensers of mercy and something freeing and enabling knowing our own need for mercy.
Fr Noel Connolly ssc is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He has worked in many Australian Dioceses in programmes to welcome, enable and help integrate overseas priests and religious.