A Church of Mercy

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I know your works — your toil and endurance. I know you cannot bear evil people and have put to the test those who call themselves apostles but are not, and you have found them to be false. Endurance you have; you have borne up for my name’s sake and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have lost the love you had at first.

Rev. 2: 2-4

In his commentary on today’s passage from Revelation, Wilfrid J. Harrington, OP, writes:

Although the loss of their first love is grievous, the Ephesians still have in their favor that they hate the deeds which Christ also hates. . . . Did this zeal for truth push them too far and prove the cause of their failure to love? Sadly, later Christian history has too many instances of unholy zeal in the pursuit of “truth.” Orthodoxy is no substitute for orthopraxis; it surely cannot replace the praxis of love. (Revelation, p. 57)

Evidently throughout Ephesus itinerant charismatic preachers had risen up and were acknowledged as leaders by some congregations (cf. Harrington, p. 54). The strength of the Church of Ephesus was, evidently, its disciplined ability to police and resist such “heretical” forces. According to the author of Revelation, the Ephesians are to be commended for their fortitude and endurance, but those dispositions have ceased to be informed, as they must be, by the love they ‘had at first.” One manifestation of the pride form or the false form in us, as opposed to the Christ form, is our unconscious demand to “be right.” This intellectual, and emotional, arrogance is one of our greatest obstacles to loving.

The Church is the gathering of the “beloved of God,” of those whom “God” chooses. It is not a select club of the righteous the pure, and the elite. It is with good reason that Pope Francis, early in  his pontificate, called the Church to celebrate a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The ecclesia is at its heart a gathering of those who recognize and realize that we are sinners who have been redeemed and loved.

The “warning” then of today’s reading from Revelation is that we must never forget the connection between love on the one hand and humility and repentance on the other. We must be vigilant for any sign of our human tendency to feel self-justified and superior, for such feelings always threaten our compassion and love for others. While the “old Adam” in us desires to “be as gods” and to know it all, the “new Adam” in us, the member of the “church” that we truly are, is always the slave and the servant of all.

The Fundamental Principles tell us that it is through our life in community with others that “God desires to manifest/God’s care and compassionate love/to those who are separated and estranged,/not only from their neighbors,/but also from their own uniqueness. . . .”  We are called and we are gathered as a church not to impose on others our sense of the truth and of their identity but rather to serve their “coming home” to their own uniqueness. In short, the “praxis of love” and the “praxis of orthodoxy” must always remain in creative tension within us, with “orthopraxis,” as animated and suffused by love, as always having the priority.

In daily life this tension can be a very difficult one to maintain. Our desire for certitude and self-righteousness makes living in tension very uncomfortable for us. So, we tend to dissolve the tension in one way or another. We can fall into a relativism that ceases to serve ourselves and the world as it fails to challenge our own false beliefs and understandings, and we can also willfully cling and violently enforce our own limited truths as if they were absolute. The difficulty in living with and navigating this tension is why the great traditions place such a value on humility and service of others. Jesus himself tells the Rich Young Man that he is not to be called good for “No one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18). Confucius said that “When a wise person points at the moon, the foolish one examines the finger.”

There is one teacher and we are all learners. The truth to which each of us points is beyond all of us. True seekers and learners become increasingly “orthodox” by keeping our eye on the moon, on the only One who is good. This is how we learn to correct each other and to love each other at the same time. It is also how we learn to forgive each other, for we are all stumbling along the Way.

Today is the anniversary of the death of Joseph Bernardin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. Near the very end of his life, he was falsely accused of sexual abuse by a former seminarian, an accusation that was later retracted. Throughout his life Bernardin had been a brother and a servant to all of his people. Despite his accuser’s initial reluctance, Bernardin, whose health was by now failing, steadfastly worked toward a meeting of reconciliation with him. In speaking and in praying together, in celebrating mass together, Bernardin and the young man who had accused him lived out the true reality of the “ecclesia,” of those who have been gathered by God into the church of the pained, the broken, and the sinful — yet of those who are called to be, to and for each other, messengers of the merciful love of God that each of them has known.

I felt deeply that this entire episode would not be complete until I followed my shepherd’s calling to seek him out. I only prayed that he would receive me. The experience of the false accusation would not be complete until I met and reconciled with Steven. Even though I had never heard from him, I sensed he also wanted to see me. . .

I explained to him that the only reason for requesting the meeting was to bring closure to the traumatic events of last winter by personally letting him know that I harbored no ill feelings toward him . . . The words I am using to tell you this story cannot begin to describe the power of God’s grace at work that afternoon. It was a manifestation of God’s love, forgiveness, and healing that I will never forget.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin on his meeting with Stephen Cook who had false accused him of sexual abuse

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