Some years ago in my first parish, I took a call from a hospice chaplain about a woman in the hospital whose doctors said she did not have much longer to live. Her son wanted me to give her the last rites. We don’t call it that anymore, but I knew what he meant. So I went to the hospital and met the woman’s son and grandson. She was dying of cancer, and was unresponsive under the pain medication. I did not recognize them. So, trying to be diplomatic, I asked how long they had been in the area. I learned the woman was recently widowed, moved from Florida, and had been living with her son and his family for a few months. They had been in the area for about 20 years. “Oh,” I said. “I’ve been at the Catholic church in town for about four years. I don’t think we’ve met.” I wasn’t sure who was Catholic and if they understood what they were asking me to do. “My mother is definitely Catholic. I used to be Catholic, too … a long time ago.” I was wearing my collar and wasn’t sure about having a lengthy discussion. Not the right time nor place. So all I said was, “Oh.” And that was all it took. “I used to be Catholic. I was an altar boy even. Got caught drinking the wine. You know the wine belongs to the priest. He don’t want no one drinking his wine. Got kicked out. Never went back.” I thought that was funny, but sad. So to defuse the tension, I admitted, “I was an altar boy, too, a long time ago. Drank the wine like you, but never got caught. And you think your punishment’s worse than mine?” He smiled, thanked me for taking the time, said his mother would have enjoyed meeting me, said he felt comforted knowing he was doing something she would have asked for. I gave him my number, and asked him to call if he wanted to talk. I used to worry about people and what I think are missed opportunities. Could I have done more? Maybe I did all I was supposed to do. The rest is in God’s hands. And God always knows where to find me.
Sometimes I get questions from people about the church’s teachings on behalf of their children or their friends. “My son, daughter, my friend was Catholic, but no longer goes to church …” That’s usually how it starts. I get asked what was needed to get married in the church, or to get a child baptized, or to return to the practice of the faith. Usually, there’s a catch, a previous marriage, an unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, a bitter divorce, a civil marriage. Maybe one of the child’s parents is not Catholic, is indifferent, or even hostile to the church, and the grandparent is concerned. Sometimes they suspect trouble, that they might not get what they are looking for, that they would run smack into red tape, or they simply want to confirm an opinion they already had before even asking the question—that the Catholic church does not want them, has no use for them, will not help them, and has nothing to offer. And to be fair, they probably had not had any use for the church for a significant portion of their lives. So at the very least, it’s a stalemate. No one wants to take the first step for fear of rejection. And the question was meant to test the waters. If a door opens and a hand is offered in welcome, there just might be hope. If the door stays shut, it’s no big deal … at least we tried.
When I was growing up and learning about God, I remember most vividly the dos and don’ts. It’s what sets us apart from everyone else, and from other Christian faiths. What got my attention in recent years is a tendency on our part to vigorously teach God’s laws, and the consequences of obedience and disobedience. But when we consider God’s compassion, we are not as eager to dig deep. We sometimes limit God’s mercy and forgiveness to the sacrament of penance. Everything else we handle with an iron fist. We direct people to the bible, the official documents called Papal Encyclicals, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law which clearly spell out what is and what is not acceptable, how to ensure everything we do is above board, how to deal with irregularities, straighten out people’s messy lives, and set them on the right road so they don’t mess up again. It all feels so impersonal, so cut and dried. But I have seen many people fall through the cracks. We know how bad it can get because they are our children, other family members, our friends, or ourselves. It’s much easier to impose judgment than to offer healing. And when they get defensive, we turn our backs and we walk away. They know where to find us when they’re ready for change.
From II Chronicles, we read that the kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the Chaldeans, its people led away in defeat, its priests and nobles deposed, its glory devastated. The sacred author attributes this misfortune to their infidelity to God’s law. Many times God sent messengers and prophets to call them to mend their ways. And just as many times they ignored him. So it was only right that God punished them. But God would not walk away from them. Rather, through Cyrus, the pagan king of their conquerors, the last person they ever expected to fulfill God’s will, God would bring about a new beginning for them and for their children, because God does not abandon those he has chosen.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul attempts to say it even more pointedly, that we can do nothing, only God can, to bring about our salvation. It is through God’s gift of grace alone that God saves us, not through any merit of our own. It is all about God’s initiative, God’s tremendous compassion for us, nothing less. Any and all good works we do result from that fundamental reality. Good works are nothing but the logical consequence of a grateful heart. God loved us first. We love because God loved us.
From the gospel of John, we see the verse that pops up on many a television sporting event coverage—John 3: 16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It is a clear reminder of what God has done and continues to do, to save all people, especially the undeserving and the ungrateful. It is because God loves the human family so much that Jesus Christ came to be with us, to teach us, to heal our hurts, to promise us eternal happiness, to give up his life. Will people be insincere or dishonest when responding to God? Perhaps. But will anyone be able to fool God, who knows our hearts, and every one of our motives and future plans? How can we resent those who struggle, or who do not know any better? If God wants so badly to save them, how can we who have experienced his mercy not be eager for others to share it? God extends compassion without limit to all his children. How can we not do the same? How can we stand in the way? And it’s not just a job for priests, deacons, sisters, and catechists. We who have come to know God’s mercy need to be willing to extend God’s mercy to those who need it most. So this week, find that person in your life, and be an apostle of God’s mercy.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018