One of the things the Catholic Church teaches us about parenting is that no matter how bad the sin, no matter how terrible the action, mercy is always possible. It is possible not because we deserve it or because we are owed it but because love demands it. Love does not want the sinner to wallow in guilt and shame, but rather wants them to stand up from where they fell and move forward with a changed heart.
This is the message that God gave humanity when He sent Jesus Christ to walk amongst us so that we could see, by direct and perfect example, how we were to love one another. God does not want our guilt, He wants us to have a change of heart. He wants us to stop hurting one another and instead to make a firm commitment to improve how we treat one another. This is the role of mercy – to reward and encourage genuine changes of heart.
Mercy and JusticeThe Catholic Church recognizes four key purposes to justice. First, it ensures that the person whose dignity and property has been harmed by the actions of another has that dignity restored and, where possible, the property returned to them. Second, in making reparations for the damages that are done the one who has harmed another is given a means of being brought back into the life of the community should the person be willing to agree to stop harming others. Third, the discomfort experienced by the discipline imposed on the individual who has committed a harmful act can actually cause the person to see the damage and to repent of it so that they do not repeat that later. Last, if the person who committed the harmful act does not repent, proper justice prevents them from doing further damage to anyone else.
The purpose of mercy is to reward those who repent of sins and by doing so encourage justice to flourish. When those who have a change of heart see that their burdens are lightened, their sentence reduced, and their debts reduced, they are encouraged to continue changing their lives and not to slip backward into sin. When others see that repentance is rewarded by a reduction of the full sentence, they are more likely to repent as well. Mercy does not remove the consequences for bad choices, but it does lighten them.
Applying this to how we raise our children, it is important that we establish fair consequences for those times our children have hurt someone else. Breaking a window, for example, requires that the child not only admit to having done it and apologize but work to earn the money to replace the window. If we see that our child is fully repentant of what they did, however, we might step in and match the money they earn with our own. We don’t allow them to escape the consequences for their bad decision, but we might make the consequences less severe if they show that they are truly interested in changing.
Hope for better thingsThe Catholic Church provides many examples to her children of those who once sinned but who repented of those sins later and, because of God’s mercy, then rose up to do great things. Moses may have murdered a man, but he later led the entire people of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. Saint Peter may have proved himself a coward at the Cross, but he later became a great martyr and leader of the faithful. We call these examples Saints, those we know for sure have made it to heaven because of the signs and wonders that have been done in their name.
Showing our children mercy in the face of their sins reassures them of their basic goodness and lovability. It also reassures them that we believe that they can do better things than what they have done in the past, and that we continue to have hope for a better future for them. It is part of showing them unconditional love, reassuring them that although their actions may not have been loving and may in fact have resulted in terrible things – we still believe in them and believe that they are capable of great things.
Courage to OvercomeAs a child, the consequences for mistakes and failures were dished out without any mercy at all The result was that I got the message that my mistakes and failures made me unlovable. I ran from them, hid them, covered them up, and refused to deal with them on any level. During my conversion to the Catholic faith, I found in her a parent whose love never failed no matter how bad my sin, and whose arms remained open to me. I found mercy and forgiveness, and that gave me the courage to begin to confront and overcome my sins. I still struggle with the fear of being unlovable, and when I give in to that fear I lose my courage and run. However, those instances are fewer and further between the closer I get to the Church and to the source of mercy - Jesus.
As part of showing her children mercy, the Catholic Church teaches her children to take their past sins and forge them into tools that will help them build a better future. It takes courage to admit to sins, and to accept the consequences for those sins, and the Church understands this. When her children are finally ready to come home and admit to their failures, she shows them that those failures can be used as sign posts of what things and situations to avoid so that they do not need to repeat the mistake but can even help other people avoid it, too. So we can and should do with our own children. Helping them to understand why they got into trouble in the first place is a part of mercy because it helps to prevent them from making the same mistake twice.
Mercy ExtendedExtending mercy to our children in the face of their mistakes and failures isn’t always easy. Sometimes those mistakes hurt us, quite a lot. Sometimes those mistakes cost us more than we were prepared to pay. However, in extending mercy to our children in the face of even their worst mistakes, we are teaching them how to handle the failures and mistakes that we make. We are also teaching them how to handle the failures and mistakes that other people in their lives will make along the way.
The reality of human relationships is that no human relationship will ever be perfect. Every human relationship will eventually hurt or disappoint us. If we cannot extend mercy to the one who has hurt us with their failure or mistake, if we shut those people out of our lives, we will eventually wind up living a very lonely life. This is not something any good parent wants for their child.
Your TurnI hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the rest of the chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join me tomorrow for chapter 12: Remembering Your Heritage.
If you liked this, loved this, hated this, thought it was just okay, wanted to add something, or just wanted to comment about your own experiences in showing mercy please leave a comment below. I welcome all comments, and am just grateful to those who take the time out of their busy lives to read and respond.