A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave an interview to EWTN during which he displayed great patience in the face of persistently being misunderstood (or willfully misrepresented?) by his interviewer. Why do I bring this up? Because, in the course of that interview, in a moment of exasperation, Cardinal Kasper presented the following, beautiful synthesis of how the Church needs to be a sacrament - i.e., sign and instrument - of mercy, which he derived from Jesus’ self-sacrifice having been in response to a rejection by his people:
“[M]arriage is an icon, an image of the alliance of God with his people. And notice that in Holy Scripture, how often the people of God abandoned him … And also Jesus was rejected by his people. He substituted himself [for them], went to the cross, g[a]ve them a chance. And before he went on Easter Eve he [...] gave the Church, his apostles, the authority to forgive or not to forgive, to bind and to loose [cf. Matthew 18:18]. And all this, this is also a sign of mercy. It is not only the category of human justice you can apply here. You must, the Church must, act according to the action of God and God’s mercy, and the Church is sacrament of mercy. It means sign and instrument of the mercy of God. That’s our Catholic understanding of the Church. And if God gives, acts in this way, the Church can do it also.”That Jesus gave his disciples the authority both to impose and abolish what the Church is to do and not do, to believe and not believe, to denounce and to value, is not just a turn of phrase to illustrate the completeness of passing “power of attorney” to His followers, members of His mystical body, but an imperative to keep her teaching be a means to union with Him in every present moment. Kasper prefixing the above reminder of Matthew 18:18 with a spelling out of the fact that even at the pinnacle of His love for us, at the moment of his loving self-sacrifice, Jesus was rejected by his people, is no accident either and, to my mind, serves as a stark reminder that the goods that the Church gives access to in the name of her head are not rewards, addressed to those who fully comply with her teaching, but expressions of His gratuitous, wholly undeserved and merciful self-giving.
As I kept returning to delighting in and thinking about Cardinal Kasper’s words, Pope Francis (five days later) chose the question of Christian identity (which is implicit in Kasper’s reasoning) during a morning homily at Santa Marta. Note also that identity is a key prerequisite to dialogue for Francis.
The angle chosen by Francis that day was that “sin is part of our identity,” that we are “sinners, but sinners with faith in Jesus Christ,” and that “it is God who gives us this identity as a gift.” Saying that sin is integral to our identity - an identity given to us by God as a gift - struck me as a rather stark claim (though one that immediately made me think of the “felix culpa” of the Easter Vigil liturgy). Placing it alongside Cardinal Kasper’s thoughts, it seemed to me that it is the key to understanding not only the idea of a Christianity that needs to go out and be prepared to get hurt in the process, which Pope Francis spoke about also in Evangelii Gaudium (§49), but also to the centrality that mercy has in Francis’ teaching.
Before going any further, let’s look at Pope Francis’ words in more detail in terms of what constitutes Christian identity:1
“We too must traverse a long journey during our lives, so that this Christian identity may be strong, so that we may give witness. It is a journey which we can defined as being from ambiguity to true identity.Pope Francis describing himself as a sinner since the very beginning of this pontificate is not some humble-bragging, but a reminder that sin, weakness, failure are intrinsic to what it is to be human. It is also central to what it means to be Christian. We are not perfect, flawless, wholly-compliant, but addled with sin, with failure, with imperfection. What Pope Francis points out though in the above homily is that these flaws are not a source of resignation or pessimism, something that ought to trouble us, or something to be denied, but instead a basis for being open to God’s merciful love. I am a sinner, someone who gives in to temptation, who fails to love, who makes mistakes, but I know that I am loved by God and I entrust myself to Him and give space to him so that he may lead me - with all my flaws - ever closer to Himself.
It’s true, there is sin, and sin makes us fall, but we have the Lord’s strength to get up and proceed with our identity. But I would also say that sin is part of our identity: we are sinners, but sinners with faith in Jesus Christ. It is not only a faith of understanding, no. It’s a faith that is a gift from God and that entered us from God. It is God himself who confirms us in Christ. And he has anointed us, he has impressed his seal in us, he has given us the down payment, the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts. It is God who gives us this gift of identity.
It is essential to be faithful to this Christian identity and to let the Holy Spirit, who is precisely the guarantee, the pledge in our hearts, to bring us forward in life. We are not people who follow a philosophy; we are anointed and have the guarantee of the Spirit.
Ours is a beautiful identity that shows itself in witness. It is because of this that Jesus speaks of witness as the language of our Christian identity. And this is so even though Christian identity, since we are sinners, is being tempted, will be tempted; temptations always come and our identity can weaken and can be lost.”
This is in stark contrast to a position that seems to, at least implicitly, underlie the thought processes of many who oppose openness to all, regardless of their closeness to the Church’s teaching, and who seem to be operating on the assumption that participation in the life of the Church has perfection as a prerequisite. Failure here is a personal weakness that disqualifies one from participating in the mystical body of Christ and that needs to be overcome before re-integration can take place. Here the Church is an association of the flawless and of the self-sufficient.
This is not a Church I recognize, and neither is this the Church that presents herself in the Catechism. Already the Gospel is characterized there as “the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners” (§1846), which is followed by declaring that ““You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The same is true of the Eucharist, the sacrament of redemption”. Next, sin is presented as undeniably part of us, and its recognition in oneself as a precursor to mercy:
“To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”” (§1847)And St. Paul goes even further, by correlating grace with sin:
“As St. Paul affirms, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” But to do its work grace must uncover sin so as to convert our hearts and bestow on us “righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God, by his Word and by his Spirit, casts a living light on sin: Conversion requires convincing of sin; it includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and love: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus in this “convincing concerning sin” we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler.” (§1848)Truth, recognizing our sinfulness, is followed by God’s merciful action and His gift of redemption, which as Cardinal Kasper stated so clearly, the Catechism too links to the pinnacle of Jesus’ loving self-sacrifice:
“It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal—so bitter to Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world,the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.” (§1851)A recognition of my sinfulness is no guilt-ridden pessimism, but instead a source of joy, since God’s love exceeds whatever flaws I have and envelops me, all of my brothers and sisters and the whole of creation. My flaws are an invitation to be merciful to all, regardless of their beliefs or way of life, since they are loved by God just as much as I am.
O felix culpa!
1 Since the quotes from Pope Francis homily were much more extensive in the Italian account that day, the following is my, crude translation of that text, rather than the official English text by Vatican Radio.