Here is the first in a series of three reflections on the upcoming Year of Mercy provided by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Psychologial Sciences. This first reflection, titled “Receiving God’s Mercy Leads to a Flourishing Life,” is written by Fr. Charles Sikorsky, L.C., president of the Institute.
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“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36)”. Christ’s words are the key to the Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has called for us to celebrate as a Church beginning this December. Why, you might ask, should we spend an entire year focused on mercy? What effect can we expect it to have on our lives?
The theme of mercy has been central to the Pope’s pontificate for a good reason. In his ministry as Pope, but also previously as a priest and bishop, Francis has placed a lot of emphasis on the value of mercy as a moment of conversion and the foundation for a renewal of the Church. Indeed, in his homily announcing the year of mercy, he characterized the Church’s witness to mercy as a “journey that begins with a spiritual conversion.” Whether in the confessional or in the slums, he has seen that God’s mercy liberates us and gives that peace that cannot be found in this world. It compels us to be better Christians.
In this article, and two to follow from colleagues at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, we would like to emphasize that mercy is not just a theological term meant for homilies on Sundays, but a reality that transforms lives both spiritually and humanly. The social sciences are increasingly backing up any number of the Church’s teachings by showing that a sound moral and spiritual life is the key to a happy and flourishing life.
The effect of God’s mercy can be seen not only a supernatural level, but also on a human and psychological one. In his book, Whatever Became of Sin, Karl Menninger, a Jewish psychiatrist, delves into this topic. He had once observed to a priest friend that he was seeing more and more Catholics in his practice. His friend replied “Well, that’s funny, because I’ve been seeing less of them in the confessional.” Menninger perceived a connection between reception of the Sacrament of Confession and psychological health and so he began to recommend it for the Catholic patients he was seeing. He saw that these patients who received God’s Mercy were freed from guilt and better able to become the people that God was calling them to be. Even though he was not Catholic, Menninger regularly recommended this practice to clients and decided to write a book on the subject of the human need to deal with guilt.
Menningers’s observations have been echoed by a number of mental health professionals. They recognize that patients often are bound by anxiety about not being forgiven and become slaves of guilt. Once they acknowledge their sins and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness, they are often freed in a very healthy psychological way.
It is easy to just think about the Sacrament of Penance as a sort of scoreboard. If we go to Confession, we can just “wipe the slate clean”. This, however, is a damaging reduction of the immense gift that is God’s mercy. His abundant love for us is not about keeping score, but about restoring and strengthening a relationship. Mercy liberates our souls from the guilt and self-loathing that keep us from loving and serving God and others. This mercy not only purifies the soul, but fills our hearts and minds with peace, giving us the strength to persevere and to grow in virtue.
Have you ever heard a priest say the words “May God grant you pardon and peace” at the end of your Confession and suddenly felt a flood of relief? Regardless of whether you have an emotional reaction or not, when you receive absolution you undergo a substantive change. When you are absolved from your sins through God’s mercy, you are once again able to move forward. The graces received unite us with Christ, and allow us to experience His consolation.
The value of Christ’s Mercy should never be underestimated. He died so that we could be free from all of the times that we have failed, when we have rejected Him, when we have chosen other things above a loving relationship with Him. When we seek out and embrace His Mercy, we are better able to become the men and women He is calling us to be. During this upcoming Year of Mercy, we can each (in the words of our Holy Father) find the “joy needed to make fruitful the mercy of God.”
Fr. Charles Sikorsky, L.C., is the President of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate school that combines the best of modern psychology and a Catholic understanding of the human person. To find out more about IPS’s clinical onsite programs as well as their online degree, visit here.