RISKING GOD'S MERCY
Father Ron Rolheiser,
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic Priest and member of the Missionary
Oblates of Mary Immaculate,
is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He
is a community builder,
lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English
speaking world and his
weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.
article reprinted with permission by the author.
Shortly after ordination,
doing replacement work in a parish, I found myself in a rectory with a
saintly old priest. He was over eighty, nearly blind, but widely sought
out and respected, especially as a confessor. One night, alone with
him, I asked him this question: "If you had your priesthood to live
over again, would you do anything differently?
From a man so full of
integrity, I had fully expected that there would be no regrets. So his
answer surprised me. Yes, he did have a regret, a major one, he said.
"If I had my priesthood to do over again, I would be easier on people
the next time. I wouldn't be so stingy with God's mercy, with
sacraments, with forgiveness. You see what was drilled into me was the
phrase: "The truth will set you free,' and I believed that it was my
responsibility to challenge people so as to protect something inside of
them. That's good. But I fear that I've been too hard on people. They
have pain enough without me and the church laying further burdens on
them. I should have risked God's mercy more!"
was struck by this because, less than a year before, as I took my final
exams in the seminary, one of the priests who examined me, gave me this
warning: "Be careful," he said, "never let your feelings get in the
way. Don't be soft, that's wrong. Remember, hard as it is, only the
truth sets people free!" Sound advice, it would seem, for a young
However, as the years of my
ministry move towards middle-age, I feel more inclined to the old
priest's advice: We need to risk God's mercy more. The place of
justice and truth should never be ignored, but we must risk letting the
infinite, unbounded, unconditional, undeserved mercy of God flow free.
The mercy of God is is as accessible as the nearest water tap, and so
we, like Isaiah, must proclaim a mercy that has no price tag: "Come,
come without money and without virtue, come everyone, drink freely of
holds us back? Why are we so hesitant in proclaiming God's
inexhaustible, prodigal, indiscriminate mercy?
Partly our motives are
good, noble even. Concern for truth, justice, orthodoxy, morality,
proper public form, proper sacramental preparation, fear of scandal, and
concern for the ecclesial community that needs to absorb and carry the
effect of sin, these are not unimportant things. Love needs always to
be tempered by truth, even as truth must ever be moderated by love. But
sometimes our motives are less noble and the hesitancy arises out of
timidity, fear, jealousy, and legalism - the self-righteousness of the
Pharisees or the bitter jealousy of the older brother of the prodigal
son. No cheap grace is to be dispensed on our watch.
In doing this we are
misguided, less than good shepherds, out of tune with the God that Jesus
proclaimed. God's mercy, as Jesus revealed it, embraces
indiscriminately, the bad and the good, the undeserving with the
deserving, the uninitiated with the initiated. One of the truly
startling insights that Jesus gave us is that the mercy of God cannot
not go out to everyone. It is always free, undeserved, unconditional,
universal in embraced, reaching beyond all religion, custom, rubric,
political correctness, mandatory program, ideology, and even beyond sin
For our part then, especially
those of us who are parents, ministers, teachers, catechists, and
elders, we must risk proclaiming the prodigal character of God's mercy.
We must not spend God's mercy, as if it were ours to spend; dole out
God's forgiveness, as if it were a limited commodity; put conditions on
God's love, as if God were a petty tyrant or a political ideology; or
cut off access to God, as if we were the keeper of the heavenly gates.
We aren't. If we tie God's mercy to our own timidity and fear we limit
it to the size of our own minds. A bad game.
It is interesting to note
in the gospels how the apostles, well-meaning of course, often tried to
keep certain people away from Jesus as if they weren't worthy, as if
they were an affront to His holiness or could somehow stain His purity.
So they tried to shoo away children, prostitutes, tax collectors, known
sinners, and the uninitiated of all kinds. Always Jesus over-ruled
their attempts with words to this effect: "Let them come! I want them
Things have not changed.
Always in the Church, we, well-intentioned persons, for the same reasons
as the apostles, keep trying to keep certain individuals and groups away
from God's mercy as this is expressed in word, sacrament, and
community. Jesus handled things then; I suspect He can handle them
now. God doesn't want our protection. What God does want is for
everyone, regardless of morality, orthodoxy, lack of preparation, age,
or culture, to come to the unlimited waters of divine mercy.
Father Ron Holheiser at his
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