Q: Archbishop J, how essential is forgiveness and mercy for the domestic Church?
Mercy is what love does when the beloved messes up. Mercy is not an attribute of God; it is the response of God to broken humanity when we mess up badly. At the core of Christianity is forgiveness and mercy.
Judgement, hell, retribution, or punishment are not at the core of the Christian message: they are part of it, essential maybe, but not the core. It is vital to understand this.
Christianity, at its core and essence, is communication from a loving God who paid a very high price to demonstrate the depth of his love, forgiveness, and mercy.
Think of the many parables of mercy that we find in the gospel: the lost sheep and the lost coin (Lk 15); the good Samaritan (Lk 10: 25–37); the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:21–35), to name a few.
Each one spells out what mercy requires, not as an objective demand, but because of the extreme mercy we have received from God through Christ Jesus our Lord.
The centrepiece of mercy in the gospels is found in Jesus’ direct and bold injunction: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). If you want to belong to this family and be like God, then mercy must flow.
To connect mercy and the family, we need only look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11–32). It shows clearly what a father does when a child messes up badly.
In the domestic Church
At the core of the domestic Church is the Pauline understanding of marriage as a profound mystery (Eph 5:32), which is another word for sacrament. We see in the married couple the visible reality of the invisible grace of the love between Christ and his Church.
As we contemplate the mystery of the married couple, so too we understand the mystery of the relationship between Christ and His Church. As we contemplate the mystery of the love of Christ for His Church, we understand more clearly the demand of marriage and the love of the spouses.
The Church miniature and the Church grand are directly interconnected. This is the sacramental nature of marriage. And so, as the Church grand goes, so also goes the Church miniature. Forgiveness and mercy are essential for the Church grand, so too must it be for the domestic Church.
Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the power to forgive. First, to Peter (Mt 16:19), then to all the disciples (Mt 18:18). After His resurrection, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the apostles and also the power to forgive sins (Jn 20:23). For the big Church, mercy and forgiveness are at the core and centre of its identity; so too must it be for the domestic Church.
A school of love
What is the family, if not a school of love? It is there that the spouses learn the true meaning of love. A love that moves from eros, to laying down one’s life regardless of feelings or desires.
In the family, the spouses learn to forgive and show mercy to each other regularly. This opportunity for grace is not always recognised—taken and lived. When spouses demonstrate forgiveness and mercy in the family, it allows that family to reflect more perfectly the big Church and the love that God demonstrated in giving His Son for our salvation. We were forgiven when we did not deserve it. So too, in the family forgiveness is given when it is not deserved.
Where did you first learn forgiveness and mercy? If not in your family, the lesson would have been difficult to learn. When children see their parents forgive each other and witness the radical and costly nature of love, they experience forgiveness and learn to forgive. It is in this sense that the family is the primary school of love. This is how children learn from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and siblings the radical nature of love and how costly it can be.
In a bit of practical wisdom, St Paul speaking to the community at Ephesus says: “… don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26). This is a great bit of advice for families. Do not take into tomorrow the unforgiveness of today. How do we teach our children to forgive? By witnessing to mercy on every possible occasion. Then, the family will be a school of love, a domestic Church and ultimately that formative cell of society.
When forgiveness is difficult for you, consider the price that God paid for our reconciliation: meditate on the cross of Christ. Remember the debt we owed to God was so big that we could not pay it if we lived 1,000 lives. The debt to our neighbour is very small by comparison.
There is a four-fold process of forgiveness: (1) tell the story to someone you trust; (2) name the hurt you received; (3) choose to forgive; (4) renew or rework the relationship.
Forgiveness does not mean you do not feel the pain of the hurt. Forgiveness means that you wish the person well and not bad. You want their blessing and not their curse.
Sometimes because of the nature of the hurt (e.g., abuse) you cannot renew the relationship. It needs to change, may need disengagement, to be reworked for your safety and good. This, too, is a process of forgiveness where every step is vital.
Mercy and forgiveness are essential for the domestic Church—for the spouses and for the children.
Do an audit of your relationships. Review those where hurt or unforgiveness is still lurking. Pick one person and also pick up a small stone and walk with it till you can let go the person in forgiveness. Then release the stone with a prayer.