There are few topics more likely to get Catholics hot under the collar than the topic of this piece. Pope Francis comes in for a lot of criticism for his emphasis on God’s mercy. Many, it sometimes seem, read the parable of the Prodigal Son and think the elder son had it right – why on earth should his wastrel of a younger brother be welcomed back unconditionally? But we are, perhaps, neglecting the message of rdemption and hope it offers. There is a natural desire in us for ‘justice’ to be done. If someone has offended us, many of us find it hard simply to accept an apology and let go of our grievance; some can remember sleights from many years ago with a preciseness which we cannot bring to acts of loving kindness; but perhaps we have not had enough of those and too many sleights?
God as the Israelites came to know him had many of the attributes of the tribal gods of the tribes around them: he would deliver his people victory in battle; he would scatter their enemies; he needed appeasing with animal sacrifices; he was a jaelous God, swift to anger; he could be bargained with and his wrath appeased by sacrifices and by sharp reasoning. The Israelites knew there was One God, and they knew His Law, but they saw Him as the Lord God Mighty in battle who resembled a wise but irascible tribal leader. But as the fuller revelation we got from Our Lord showed, this was an imperfect understanding. Some, now, as then, go to the other extreme and almost see no need for repentance, coming close to, or even embracing, universalism. BUt, alas, not all are saved. Not because they cannot be saved,. but because they elect not to be; God loves us so much that, like any good parent, he does not insist we love him back. A broken and a contrite heart he will not reject; but a proud and haughty spirit will reject him.
The key, surely, is in the revolutionary notion that ‘God is love’? Note, we are not told that love is one of his many attributes, or that it is a part of him, or that it is something he can do or not do; it is his very essence. The Trinity is love, it is sustained by a love so overwhelming that it spilled out intop the creation of all that there is. Can we conceive of that? Not really. But God is good, he knows his children, and so the Word Incarnate taught us that God is the Father – the Father we see in the prodigal, who dioscerns the secrets of our hearts, who desires only that we turn from sin and return his love. But so damaged and broken are we by sin and its effects that we complicate this. Which part of ‘Repent and believe’ do we not understand? Which of us would turn to a child who was sorry and shout at him or her and insist that they did a period of penance before we would believe them? Of course, if they showed their contrition with some act of goodness and kindness to us or to others, we should rejoice, but we would not turn our child from our door if they repented. So nor will God. None of this exempts us from obeying his precepts, or from needing to be reconciled when we fall away – but it gives s the hope that the Resurrection brings – that if we will but return his love then all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.