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The Quality of Mercy

Confession is the best thing about being Catholic. I had no difficulty seeing the need for it when I came home to the Church, although my Protestant friends certainly did. On page 26, Robert Schroeder addresses the typical Protestant objections to the sacrament. But their protestations notwithstanding, it seems that the need to confess is deep in the human psyche—so much so that, in the absence of the sacramental form, a secular form of confession is cropping up on web sites and phone lines. It allows people to come clean about their dirty deeds. Not surprisingly, users say that being able to reveal sins anonymously is cathartic. It’s a shame more Catholics don’t see that. 

Yet the sacrament of confession is so much more than cathartic. Jesus not only lets us “get it off our chests,” but he lets us throw it all into his sea of forgetfulness—a brand new start any time you want it. Amazing.

Which is not to say that I’m always eager to get in that line on Saturday afternoon. It’s easy to take the amazing part for granted and focus on the humbling part: “Same sins, different Saturday, Father.” Yet, confession after confession, he forgives them:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Msgr. Richard Antall points out in Witness to Calvary (Our Sunday Visitor, 1999) that the verb—translated here as “said”—is actually in the imperfect tense in Greek, meaning “he was saying.” This implies that Jesus repeated these words. His first message from the cross was repeated forgiveness. Mercy is truly “the attribute of God himself,” as Portia says in The Merchant of Venice

My mind has been on that speech lately. [JC1]When reader Francis DeStefano[JC2] left me a message saying that in my last column I attributed the “Quality of Mercy” speech to Shylock, I was incredulous: I know the play well, and that’s not a mistake I would make. But when I opened up the magazine, there it was in print, mocking its maker. Unfortunately, there is no sea of forgetfulness for editorial sins. The speech I was thinking of was, of course, Shylock’s “I Am a Jew” speech, in which he argues that his humanity is reason enough to require that he be treated with dignity.

Shylock fights for justice, having been treated unjustly. It’s reasonable that he would. But, as happens so often with us mere mortals, he crosses over from justice to revenge pretty quickly. So, in response to Shylock’s plea for justice, Portia responds:

Though justice be thy plea, 
consider this:
That, in the course of justice, 
none of us
Should see salvation. We do 
pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth 
teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

In heaven, justice and mercy are not at odds. Here on earth, perhaps the closest we get to that happy state is in the confessional, where we are given penance and forgiveness.

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