Summary: Mercy is the greatest of the virtues in the external manifestation.
Thursday of the 32nd Week in Course
Joy of the Gospel
St. Paul had a dilemma. One of his converts in Asia, Philemon, lived in Colossae. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had escaped and probably stolen property in the process. Escaped slaves were dealt with according to their owner’s whim whenever they were caught. Bounty hunters were often employed to get them back. They could be executed for their crime, as a warning to other slaves not to attempt escape. But Onesimus had a conversion of heart and now, baptized by Paul, was a committed Christian. Paul knew that, in justice, he had to return to Colossae and face the consequences of his actions. The conflict of justice and love was obvious. St. Paul crafted an epistle to Philemon of twenty-five precious verses that was circulated throughout the churches of Asia, and used in liturgy for now two thousand years.
The word “onesimus” means “useful” in Latin. So, writing in Greek, Paul implores Philemon to restore Onesimus to his former position, not kill him. As an escaped slave, Onesimus was useless to Philemon. Now he could be useful once again, but not just as a slave, but as a brother Christian. He turns the escape into a liberation for all of them–Onesimus was gone for a while, but now, in Christ, he can be Paul’s and Philemon’s brother forever. Paul even asks Philemon to embrace Onesimus–to welcome him as he would welcome Paul himself. And Paul promises to repay whatever financial loss Philemon may have suffered, but in a somewhat humorous way reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his very life in Christ. So conflict became harmony. All it takes is to look at problems with the eyes of Christ, with the eyes of fraternal charity.
Paul accomplished all this in a hostile environment. He suffered hostility from the Jewish synagogues and the Roman procurators. Pope Francis recognizes that we are in a similar situation in today’s society, as we take up our mission to the world: ‘In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing.
All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.”’
The Holy Father quotes St. Thomas Aquinas on this: what counts above all is faith working through love. In our external work, mercy trumps everything else. That’s the way of Jesus. Remember when the Samaritan towns turned Jesus away, James and John wanted Him to call down fire on the towns, but Jesus refused. Aquinas explains: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree.” In my ministry, I do condemn sin, while encouraging the sinner. If I point out sin, I endeavor always to stress the remedy–repentance, confession and restitution. God doesn’t wield a hammer, ready to strike whenever we do wrong. His arms are best used to welcome home the prodigal son and daughter.