Only those who have needed mercy can truly show mercy

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

The weeks since Cardinal Pell’s conviction have been difficult in our preparations for the Plenary Council. In that time, I have attended two planning sessions both of which included opportunities to pray and share our prayer.

Both were powerful sessions. There were tears of sympathy for the survivors for whom this news brings back terrible memories; for Cardinal Pell who must be suffering during these first days in prison; and for those of us for whom the church is our spiritual home. We now find ourselves confused, saddened and with our faith in the institution crushed and our hope and energy for the future tested.

Sexual abuse is truly evil, not just because of the irreparable harm it does to the survivors and their families and the sin of those who commit abuse and those who cover it up, but because it robs many of hope and is so complex and complicated it seems incapable of easy resolution.

I take some hope from Pope Francis and his teaching about mercy. He is clear that only those who have needed mercy can understand and show mercy. Witness the account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Just as the cock crew, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord… and he went out and wept bitterly.” [Lk. 22:61-62] He was bitterly ashamed. Later in John’s Gospel after the resurrection, beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus once again looks into Peter’s eyes and asks him if he loves him. We can only imagine how embarrassed Peter felt. Jesus asks him three times to match his three denials and only when Peter confirms that he loves him does Jesus appoint him leader. It is the strangest criterion on which to choose a leader, the one who betrayed him. However, St John Paul II in his Encyclical, Ut Unum Sint - On commitment to Ecumenism explains that the reason Peter was chosen as leader was that having needed and received mercy, Peter might be better able to show it to his brothers.

Something similar applies to us, the sexual abuse crisis may force us to be humble, compassionate and accountable in a way we would never have chosen. We have been taken down from the pedestal of virtue and power and freed to know shame and feel powerlessness. Instead of showing mercy, we need mercy. We cannot demand forgiveness and many survivors may never be able to forgive us. We are powerless and must accept that. However, having needed mercy we may be better able to show it.

Often we can only be silent, contrite and committed to listen. Cardinal Tagle of Manila put it well, "The church must discover the power of silence, confronted with the sorrows, doubts and uncertainties of people, she cannot pretend to give easy solutions. In Jesus, silence becomes the way of attentive listening, compassion and prayer. It is the way to truth.” 

Knowing our need for mercy may also free us to listen and discern during the Plenary Council processes. We come to dialogue less superior and with a commitment to listen attentively, to trust the intentions of others, and to let go of our assumptions or biases.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.

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