When a Catholic presents him or herself to the priest for the sacrament of reconciliation, the penitent usually requests, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Now, when the admitted sinner asks for a blessing is he or she expecting from the priest an endorsement of the person’s sinful ways or encouragement to amend one’s sinful ways? In requesting a blessing at the start of this sacramental encounter, the sinner is clearly begging God’s assistance in making a frank appraisal of the person’s spiritual condition and then hopefully bringing that spiritual condition into accord with God’s perennial and benevolent plan.
For a blessing to be honestly requested and to be fruitfully received, the petitioner must be frank about his or her own situation, for good or ill, and equally frank about his or her own willingness to bring oneself into accord with God’s Providence. To phrase it bluntly, the petitioner must be in good faith. Pope Francis, in responding to some confusion his recent encouragement of blessings generated, gently responded, “For, when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better. (ad dubium 2, e)
When questioned further on the nature of blessings, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated, “In order to help us understand the value of a more pastoral approach to blessings, Pope Francis urges us to contemplate, with an attitude of faith and fatherly mercy, the fact that “when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better.” (On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings, p. 21)
Both the Pope and the Holy Office acknowledge that any request for a blessing must be accompanied by an admission that the petitioner is in need of God’s help (“assistance”), that there is room for improvement (“live better”) and that’s God’s plan is the unique road to authenticity (“confidence in a Father”).
A less controversial but equally benevolent gesture on the part of our Holy Father Francis was his autumnal trip to Mongolia, his fatherly embrace of the 1,300 Roman Catholics who live there, and his nomination of their missionary bishop as a cardinal. Mongolia is certainly one of the most obscure regions on the planet and probably not an area that is likely to play a leading role in world history anytime soon. Yet, this literal handful of believers as well as their unbelieving fellow citizens fully deserved to have the Good News preached to them and to experience the wideness of God’s mercy.
Reaching out toward the geographically alienated is certainly vital to the mission of our Holy Father as well as the mission of all believers. Catholic practice has never written off a people because their region was remote or isolated. The Church has a proud history of evangelization.
But neither should the Church ignore those alienated by unfortunate or ill-chosen or even immoral living situations. While the Church cannot commend all lifestyles, the Church, after the manner of Christ, must paternally consider all who feel estranged in any fashion and are willing to re-assess their situation in the light of the Gospel. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, a hopeful leper reaches out toward Christ for healing and restoration to community life. The church today can sometimes by an excess of legal zeal sap the courage a person might need to approach Christ asking for guidance and healing.
Almost two centuries ago, convert and disciple of Cardinal Newman, Father Frederick Faber wrote, “But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own. For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” In more scholarly terms, Notre Dame Professor David Fagerberg proposes, in my words, that just as faith gives substance to humanity’s hopes, making hope real, so mercy gives substance to the virtue of love, making love a reality.
“The Lord blesses everyone,” Pope Francis said in a January interview, insisting again on the broadness of God’s mercy. “But then people have to enter into a dialogue with the blessing of the Lord and see the path that the Lord proposes. We (the Church) have to take them by the hand and lead them along that path and not condemn them from the start.” So, mercy and its practical expression, a simple blessing, are not the “hail, fellow well met” endorsement of sin some would allege. Rather mercy and a blessing are the first hopeful steps toward healing and reconciliation for those on the edge of Church life.