When I was in elementary school, the playground at recess usually had a few boys who would wrestle innocently to expend some of the energy penned up from doing multiplication tables.
When one boy managed to contort his opponent into a lock from which he could not escape, the bested youngster would cry “Mercy!” to indicate that the situation in which he found himself could not be resolved without total surrender. The winner could continue to squeeze the locked position and cause pain, or he could release the tension in his muscles and let go. The boys would often shake hands and join each other at the water fountain until the “rematch”.
Daily spiritual battle can very much be likened to wrestling. The opponent of each human person is sin. The devil, the world, and our own flesh wrestles for the soul. Sin is always the enemy, and temptation usually initiates the match. When there is grace sufficient to fight, a virtuous soul can best sinful desires in one or two movements (prayer or an act of charity, for example). When a person has not availed themselves of the treasuries of grace and responded to it, one’s ability to fight “so as to win” is severely diminished.
When we fall to sin we do not cry to the Devil for mercy, but to God. Satan cares nothing for mercy; his aim is to destroy the soul. But God, like a teacher-on-duty at the playground, hears the cry for mercy both when the sin is attempting to lock and asphyxiate soul or after it has contorted and left the soul to writhe.
God enters in and could quite justly leave the soul to damnation, for it is the person’s free choice to enter a sinful situation (sometimes with the intent to lose the battle!). But, like a caring teacher who is also a father, God will break up a fight in progress should the soul cry out or if the damage has already been done by sin, He will bind the wounds, speak tenderly to the soul, and restore it to grace.
This is the act of mercy: God steps in and withholds a judgement of condemnation and instead dispenses complete forgiveness and an overabundance of restorative power with sanctifying grace. The aim of this is action on The Lord’s part is a greater union of God with the soul and the hope of a victory whenever sin comes “prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
The world in which we find ourselves today also cries for justice and mercy, but often in a distorted fashion. The cry for “mercy” in our modern culture often translates into “Leave us alone! Let us to our own devices!” The soul that truly cries for mercy recognizes that the situation in which it finds itself is inescapable and ultimately destructive. It does not wish to be left alone, but rather embraced in love and lifted toward a new direction. The cry in our world that masquerades as one for mercy is often a cry for license.
Licentiousness is usually associated with the capital sin of lust. The Catholic Dictionary from Fr. John Hardon, SJ, offers a good summary of this danger to the soul:
“[Lust is] an inordinate desire for or enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The desires or acts are inordinate when they do not conform to the divinely ordained purpose of sexual pleasure, which is to foster the mutual love of husband and wife and, according to the dispositions of providence, to procreate and educate their children.”
The soul would rather be left to its own inordinate desires, rather than to surrender to God. The licentious soul cries “Leave me alone! I know what is best!”. While this often manifests itself according to the designs of sexual pleasure in our modern culture, licentiousness can really be extended to any selfish desire that the soul has to seek the will of the self over the Will of God. Really, all of the seven deadly sins are licentious in that they increase a selfishness in the soul — Pride, the first culprit and principal deadly sin.
When a licentious attitude toward human action is combined with what Pope Emeritus Benedict rightly termed the “dictatorship of relativism”, a truly dangerous deception begins to take root. What is true (namely Jesus who reveals Himself as “The Way, The Truth, and The Life”) becomes one voice in a chorus. The principal soloist is the self without Christ. It chants “I determine what is true! It may be Christ, it may be Hell, but I determine what is true!”
A soul in this state determines that an act that is intrinsically sinful —an outright violation of one of the Ten Commandments— is only a matter of opinion. When an opposing doctrine interlocks with this soul in battle, rather than surrendering to absolute truth, say the truth of The Bible or of the Ten Commandments which Christians believe to be non-negotiable, absolute truth, it can cry “Mercy!”. But the licentious soul, once released from the fight, cries “Victory! My truth won!” It has no desire for mercy and restoration, but rather to wishes to ennoble and condone its own selfish desires and call it “mercy” served.
Remember, God is always willing to supply mercy. He does it directly through the mysterious actions of grace, freely given when the contrite soul reaches out. He does this by the actions of The Catholic Church, which is the ordinary means by which souls can receive grace through The Sacraments.
The Church exists solely as a dispensary for God’s Grace. Pope Francis Souls in need of forgiveness, of spiritual nourishment, of grace, and even temporal needs like food, shelter, and water, can come to Her confessionals, rectories, sanctuaries, tabernacles, and homeless shelters, to receive mercy, healing, and grace. If not for this mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and continuing His act of healing, restoring, and resurrecting lost souls, The Church would have no reason to exist and would surely have disappeared long ago.
Pope Francis echoed this in an 2013 interview with a Jesuit magazine:
“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”
What The Church cannot do is bow to the souls who have wrongly determined that one’s individual “truth” is primary if it contradicts what God has revealed as true. To do this would be to act as the on-duty teacher who watches as the wrestling boy on the playground ignores the cry for “mercy” and instead breaks the arm of his opponent in an arm lock. The Catholic Church is guardian of souls, it aids the souls in battle against sin. It calls evil by its name and casts it out.
To the world it seems as if the Church is intolerant. And she is. The Catholic Church is intolerant to sin. She does not negotiate with it. She does not let sin have its way with the soul. She does not invite sin into dialogue; but she does invite the sinful soul into dialogue with Christ. When the sinful soul does not wish to hear Christ speak, The Church cannot alter the message. The Church, like Her Bridegroom Jesus, simply stands at the door of the heart and knocks.
This gentle rapping on the door of our culture is agony for a soul convinced of its own truth. It is agony for a soul convinced by Satan that there is no way out of sin. It is agony for a culture constantly persuaded that God does not really care (if He exists at all) and that the body exists only for the sake of pleasure.
The Church continues to stand in hope as a “sentinel waits for the dawn”. She longs like Jesus to gather the scattered people as a “mother hen gathers her brood”. She is always there, as Pope Francis suggests, to “heal the wounds” and to aim the newly healed soul towards heaven.
The true definition of mercy is not found in letting the soul persist and wrestle in sin. It is found in taking in a battle-worn soul, binding up its wounds, and caring for it as the life of grace reorients it towards The Way, The Truth and The Life.
Mercy reveals the true face of God.
 1 Peter 5:8
 John 14:6
 cf. Psalm 130:6
 Luke 13:34