How does the world react to true mercy? Sometimes it laughs.
I recently saw the film Silence, (spoiler alert) about two Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a time of terrible persecution, and it features one particularly striking character named Kichijiro. He was a Japanese Christian who, when the persecutions came, abandoned his faith and watched his wife and daughters be martyred. Years later, under the guidance of the missionaries, he begs forgiveness in an emotional scene. He seeks the sacrament of confession, he is absolved and forgiven, and he promises to reform his life.
Yet Kichijiro’s story isn’t over. When the persecution returns he apostatizes again, abandoning God and his fellow Christians. What’s worse, he turns around and betrays the missionaries for 300 silver pieces, 10 times what Judas received. With time he is consumed with sorrow for his sin, and again seeks confession from the now imprisoned priest, Fr. Rodrigues. Being a priest, Fr. Rodrigues shows him the mercy of Christ which holds no grudges. Yet at the first threat Kichijiro apostatizes again. And again he repents, again he seeks mercy, again he apostatizes.
Four times he abandons God, four times he sorrows for his sin, and four times he receives mercy in confession. Four times! This drama only ends when the Jesuit missionary himself apostasizes. The priest, in a further act of betrayal to God and to Kichijiro, refuses to hear his confession and denies Kichijiro’s plea for mercy.
Kichijiro is a pitiful character. He is cowardly, unreliable, and unfaithful; a failure as a man, and a failure as a Christian. Above all else, he is one who needs mercy.
Mercy is a response to misery and that misery is very real and very wretched. Mercy is not for the righteous, but for sinners (Lk 5:32). It is given not only once, or only four times, but “seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22). Mercy has no conditions, and it never changes; it is recklessly generous. It is not an exchange for reformed behavior, and it is not withdrawn when the promise of reform is broken. Mercy is messy; after all we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, not in spring water! We see all of this each time Kichijiro is absolved, and it is beautiful.
As I sat in the movie theater and watched Kichijiro fall and be raised and fall again, do you know what I heard? I heard the audience around me laugh. Each time Kichijiro came with contrition to receive mercy they laughed louder. Did they find it funny, or absurd? Were they unable to see the difference between weakness and hypocrisy? Or was it nervous laughter to relieve the intensity of a film they didn’t understand? I’m not sure exactly what motivated their amusement, but what is certain is that when faced with a depiction of mercy given freely again and again, there was mockery.
Worldly men and women do not understand mercy. They do not recognize what they thirst for, and so they laugh, because to them it seems senseless and incoherent. Pope Benedict XVI once gave a homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in which he compared the Catholic Church to the building’s stained glass windows. You can only see their radiant beauty and the rich colors from the inside with the light shining upon you. From the outside they appear to be cold and dreary, lifeless. Mercy is the same way. Its beauty and appeal are only apparent to those open to it. You can only understand the mercy of God if you’ve experienced it, either from him directly or in the actions of faithful Christians. (This is why the works of mercy are so important for evangelization).
Without a knowledge of Christ, without at least an indirect knowledge seen reflected in the lives of Christians, worldly men and women will be mistaken about mercy. They will call profoundly un-merciful acts merciful: acts such as ending a suffering life, refusing the life of a child with a disability, encouraging men and women in their harmful fantasies, and even hating Love Himself in apostasy. And at the same time they will call merciful acts irrational: such as forgiving with reckless generosity, loving the worst of enemies, and bearing great wrongs silently and patiently. Worse, they will even call merciful acts harsh and rigorous: such as refusing to aid in sin, admonishing the sinner, cherishing and protecting the marriage bond, and preaching the hard but beautifully necessary truths.
Our role within this drama and this conflict between the world’s false idea of mercy and God’s true mercy is simple: cling to God. It is easy to accept the world’s ideas. It is easy to listen to the lies shouted at us day in and day out. Cling to God. Withdraw from the world and stay with Jesus. Stand alone with mercy incarnate, and mercy will reveal himself to you, for he has said, “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9).
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