It is crucial that every priest rediscover for himself the meaning of mercy. The celebration of the Holy Year of Mercy is a perfect time for us priests to do just that. Having come to embrace the meaning of mercy, a priest can more fittingly preach and teach about it.
Abraham Lincoln offers us an important insight here. At the conclusion of the Civil War, when the Confederate army was finally defeated, Lincoln was asked how we would treat the rebellious Southerners. His answer, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
Mercy: to understand that our Savior welcomes every rebel — you and me — and treats us as if we have never been away.
There is a rebel in every one of us — no priest is an exception to the rule. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Scripture tells us. We are accountable for our rebellious spirits. God holds us responsible; He is no fool. But He also longs to offer us His pardon and mercy.
Near Death Experience
Some years ago, a priest from Wichita, Kansas, by the name of Father Steven Scheier experienced first hand the Mercy of God. In the mid-1980s, when Father Scheier had a horrible accident head-on with a truck, he had a near-death experience. While everything in this world had faded, he found himself overhearing a celestial conversation. It was judgment time for Father Scheier.
He said he heard the Lord speaking: “This priest has led a selfish life, he has served only himself. He has catered to popular opinion and was not faithful to his commitment to preach the truth. He used his priesthood for personal gain, and did not pray as he ought.”
And God passed judgment, condemning him to hell. Then suddenly he heard a woman’s gentle voice. She spoke to Jesus, and Father Scheier overheard her saying something like this, “Would you please spare his life?”
Jesus responded, “He has been a priest for 12 years for himself, not for me. Let him reap the punishment.”
Then Mary said, “Son, yes, this priest deserves punishment, but I ask you to pardon him, to give him a second chance. With your grace he will change, and he will be a good priest. Son Jesus, just give him your mercy and another try.”
And Jesus said, “Mother, he’s yours!”
Mother of Mercy
Father Scheier recovered and served the Lord faithfully for many years. From that day, he had a special place for Mary, the Mother of Mercy, in his heart.
It is no coincidence that the Holy Year of Mercy began on Mary’s feast day, the Immaculate Conception, because Mary is the Mother of Mercy, as Father Scheier’s story illustrates. She is especially known for appealing to the Lord for priests. Priests are critical in leading our people along the pathway to God’s Mercy — to experience the tenderness of God. This Holy Year is a time for priests to examine their lives, and invite our people to do the same.
In the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a man, George Bailey, reaches the end of his rope, loses hope and plans to take his own life. An angel appears, but despite the angel’s efforts, Bailey protests that he wishes he had never been born. His life, in his estimation, was a complete failure.
Suddenly the angel grants him a glimpse of his little world without him — as if he had never existed. He was shown the many small, but powerful, ways he had touched positively the lives of the people in his life. At the end of the movie, Bailey recognizes how wonderful life is — and how many lives he had influenced for the good.
The Holy Year of Mercy is a golden opportunity for us priests to accompany our parishioners in a thorough examination of conscience. I believe it would serve us and our people well if we began with a priest’s examine. Father Scheier’s near-death experience and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life provide a guiding light for serious Holy Year soul-searching.
A few questions:
• If I had never been born, what difference would that make?
• If I were to stand before God tonight, what would the Lord say about my life and my ministry? Have I been a priest for myself and not for Christ?
• Have I led a selfish life, serving only myself?
• Have I catered to popular opinion, not being faithful to my commitment to preach the truth?
• Have I used the priesthood for personal gain?
• Have I prayed as often as I ought?
• Is my life making a positive difference? If not, isn’t it time to get with God’s program for my life?
Is this holy year not the time to recognize the rebel within each of us, and return to the Lord? As Pope Francis urges us in his exhortation for the Holy Year, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a great way to do this — to be reassured that He will not condemn us or destroy us. The Savior will treat us as if we had never been away.
During these months of the Year of Mercy, a particular devotion of the Mother of Mercy is appropriate. Take time daily to ask our heavenly Mother to pray with us and for us that we may come to know the depths of God’s mercy in a new and more personal way — precisely as priests. Rediscovering the power of a daily Rosary could provide a fitting means to put Mary back in her special position of being our Mother of Mercy. Encourage your parishioners to do the same.
May we find the grace to begin again, to create — by God’s grace — a wonderful life and invite our people to do the same.
Mary, Our Mother of Mercy, pray for us priests, now and at the hour of our death. We are yours. Amen.
MSGR. CHIODO is pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Des Moines, Iowa.