I heard few complaints when it was decided to have a ‘Year of Mercy’. How could anyone complain about a year dedicated to asking God’s mercy on us and on others. After all we are all sinners and Jesus himself was the first to be merciful to sinners – remember the story of the woman taken in adultery. However, I was not so happy with the idea when the editor of the international magazine for which I had been writing for the last fifteen years decided to begin this year of mercy by sacking me! He told me that the idea came to him whilst discussing doing something special to celebrate the  inspirational idea of a ‘Year of Mercy’ with his peers in the USA! Although I had been their chief spirituality columnist for fifteen years it was felt I might not be the best person  for the job. After all some of the things that I had said and written in the past fifteen years might disqualify me from such an important job. I was told from the start that Rome was watching them and one ‘politically incorrect’ word could be their downfall. The current flavour of the month in Rome had to be at all times respected, and at that particular time it was –  ‘The Year of Mercy’.

Someone must have picked up that in the preceding years I had suggested that something very important should precede mercy. That something else was truth and transparency. The president of the United States or Ireland or the Queen of England can be merciful to a criminal, and  their mercy usually takes the form of a free pardon. This pardon is only given after due juridical process in which the accused would not only admit what they did was wrong, but that they were sincerely sorry.

Truth must precede Mercy

When we go to confession the priest does not immediately  dispense God’s mercy; something else has to come first. We have to admit the truth – the truth that we have done wrong, that we have sinned. Then the priest might have to ask us a few discreet questions to assist the transparency that signifies the genuine sorrow for what has been done, and if it is required, to make reparation to those who have suffered from our sinful behaviour. A firm purpose of amendment has to be made and that of course includes a resolution to  do all that is possible to avoid the sin or the  sins that we may commit in the future. In short we have to be accountable and accept accountability before we receive mercy. Only then can God’s forgiveness be given by the priest, always on the understanding that the truth has been told and sorrow is genuine and a firm purpose of amendment has been made. If all this has not been done then the absolution is worthless. The priest might be deceived, but God is not deceived, and God cannot give his mercy to those who do not want it, because they do not believe they have done anything wrong, or if they do, they are not prepared to admit it, or do anything to change how they live to avoid continually falling into their sins again.

A Lesson from the Early Church

In the early Church those seeking God’s forgiveness would come into the main body of the community on Ash Wednesday. The priest who was presiding did not just say, “Your desire for God’s mercy are commendable and so I forgive you all your sins – in the name of the Father etc.”  Oh, no, they had to confess their sins in public. Nor were they immediately forgiven; they had to show the quality of their sorrow by doing penance throughout Lent and accepting a further more exacting penance to be performed later. They were then temporarily excommunicated, not from the Church entirely but from coming to celebrate Mass within the precincts of the building then used for the weekly celebration of the liturgy. They would still come to weekly Mass, but they would remain  outside, looking in through a little window provided for that purpose. Even today in Lent the priest offers a  special prayer called, the ‘prayer over the people’ that nonplusses most of our  modern congregations. It was the prayer originally said at this point over the penitents outside the church for which purpose the priest would leave the congregation to pray over them. On Holy Thursday all the penitents would come inside to the front of the church some of whom would have their feet washed as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Then they could receive God’s merciful forgiveness through the priest. Their ‘excommunication’ would be lifted and they would be lovingly received back into the community by the congregation with whom they would again receive Holy Communion.

Fog is worse than anything else

The problem I had about the year of mercy was not just that I was sacked for fear I may speak my mind, when my replacement was a  safe pair of hands, but something further. I am an amateur sailor and I have experienced up to storm force winds and although I am not afraid of rough seas I would never choose to go out in them, nor would I be afraid to go out at night as long as my navigation equipment was up to date and in order. However, what I, like any sensible sailor would dread more than anything else is fog. I would never go out in fog. You cannot see a thing and you do not know where you are, or where you are going, and disaster is only a matter of time. That is what I felt about ‘The Year of Mercy’. Now although I believe absolutely  in Papal Infallibility I do not believe that every Pope in the past has been a good man, as history clearly shows, although we have been blessed in modern times. Nor do I believe that the Pope has a monopoly of all the best inspirations that we need to renew the Church today. Nor does Pope Francis believe this and this is why he commissioned theologians to write a document on the Sensus  Fidei showing how the Holy Spirit not only can, but can only work through and inspire with his wisdom, men and women of  solid faith. That faith must be rooted in the deep prayer in which he  gives to us to the measure in which we give to him. He acts in and inspires men and women of faith, no matter who they are. Ecclesiastical rank has nothing to do with it. It is for this reason that  Pope Francis is trying to set up synods of Bishops who must be open to hear the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, not just from each other but from those whom they have committed themselves to serve – the laity – most especially those whose prayerful lives make it clear that they are open to God’s love that always simultaneously brings with it the truth. This is not just any truth, but the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Any good spiritual theologian would be able to write a book showing how the Holy Spirit has historically worked though the humble of heart to bring renewal to the Church in the past through the great saints and mystics who have sadly only been noticeable by their absence before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. Read about the great reforming Councils of the past. The Fourth Lateran Council and the Council of Trent were not only inspired by great saints and mystics who are still household names, but by new religious orders who carried out their reforms.

A soupy fog of Pseudo Spirituality

Jesus did indeed forgive the woman taken in adultery, but only after the Jewish law had  taken its course and the truth was established before sentence was given. We cannot go forward until the heinous sexual crimes  that have been destroying our Church are dealt with properly. It is not just the faith of the faithful that has been shattered, but the faith of outsiders too who may or may not believe, but who always saw the Church as giving humanity a moral compass when nobody else could. I do not know who suggested the ‘Year of Mercy’, but Pope Francis certainly thought it a good idea and implemented it. He certainly did this  with the best of intentions. He wanted to clean the slate and move on without delay to implement collegiality. He has had the humility to say that he has made many mistakes in the past and I think this was one of them. That good came out of the ‘Year of Mercy’ is undeniable, but it did nothing to  stop the terrible  sexual scandals and sinfulness that still enthrals it. Only a ‘Year of Transparency and Truth’ can begin to do that when there is genuine and public accountability.  It has been  alleged that the ‘Year of Mercy’, has benefitted paedophiles and pederasts in high places in the Church and those who are equally guilty by covering up their criminal atrocities. At any rate they certainly hoped to benefit. They wanted their behaviour hidden beneath a soupy fog of pseudo spirituality. They also want a blanket of  mercy and forgiveness to conceal their malpractices from their peers and from the faithful so that they  can carry on as before, if far more warily. One aspect of mercy, the most important in the ‘Year of Mercy’ has never been mentioned. It is mercy for the thousands upon thousands of the victims of paedophiles and pederasts. Whole lives and the lives of   their families have been devastated. Many have taken their own lives, others have never slept properly after being demonised by Priests, Bishops, and Cardinals. Sadly, many  visit the traumas they underwent on others, without wanting to. That is not to mention the financial suffering that reduces many of them to living in little more than penury for the rest of their lives, left to muddle through as psychological cripples, without help, without mercy. Who can blame the victims for believing that the ‘Year of Mercy’  was primarily for those who molested and abused them without any truth and transparency and without any accountability. The impression that many of them received was that it was now time to forgive and forget without any further fuss and move on, for  the Church has more important things to do,  whilst allowing their abusers to continue pursuing their own evil agendas with impunity.

Architectural splendours and magnificence – purples, scarlet and gold will no longer dazzle those who have seen the light that comes from the Truth-giving Spirit, who comes to all and who speaks to all who are humble enough to receive him. It is time to begin again. It is time for a year of ‘Transparency and Truth’ in which there is true juridical accountability . Synods are even now being set up for Bishops to hear and transmit what the laity want to say – it is time to let them know loud and clear. I may have been sacked before, but I consider myself blessed because it has given me the opportunity  to write for Catholic Publications that do not hesitate to speak the truth while simultaneously inspiring its readers with – The Faith of our Fathers.

David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Christian Mystics and Wisdom from the Western Isles.

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