HIS TIME last year, I was beginning my first and only season as a basketball coach. The 7th & 8th grade boys CYO team at my parish needed a coach, so I volunteered. We had a great season that produced lots of good memories for players and coach alike.
An important part of youth basketball is teaching fundamentals, beginning with the rules. Basketball, like all sports, has rules and it has boundaries. When everybody follows the rules, everything is fun & games. As soon as someone decides to stop playing by the rules, however, the game ceases to be fun. We are all familiar with this experience from our childhood. When someone breaks the rules, all of a sudden the excitement & enjoyment vanish.
This is, in some sense, an analogy for the virtue of justice. Justice is the virtue by which we give to each person what is their due. In sports, the rules are the system of justice, and they need to be followed in order to keep the game fun. What is true in sports (in this case) is true, also, in life: we need a system of justice to follow in order to keep life joyful.
Of course, simply staying within the boundaries is not enough, either. If I had put five guys out on the court and just told them not to foul anybody, we would not have had much of a basketball team! Players must acquire skills. They have to work on communication, condition themselves, take reps at the foul line, etc. Working on a variety of skills is what takes your game to the next level and makes it really fun.
So it is in life. Satisfying the demands of justice is essential, but that is not the complete story. If we want to live a joy-filled life, there has to be room not only for strict justice, but also for the overflow of mercy.
I have never understood why, but lots of people think about justice & mercy as opposites. They are not! Sometimes, in talking with people, I have even gotten the sense that they wish God wasn’t so just. This is a strange truth. In sports, everyone wants the refs to be just. In court, everyone wants the judge to be just. So why should it be different with God?
Such people apparently conceive of divine justice simply as a negative thing, but that is quite far from the truth. Justice and mercy are both positive qualities. We should want God to be just! In the words of Romano Guardini:
Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life. 1
Trying to live life without mercy is like putting five guys on the court and just telling them not to foul anybody—it’s cold and lifeless. Thus we see that all of us stand in need of mercy.
The concept of “the need for mercy” leads to a useful question: is mercy guaranteed? Is the Divine Mercy of God a guarantee?
I think the best answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes, mercy is guaranteed in the sense that God will always offer us His mercy. There is no sin too big for God to forgive; there is no number of sins too great for God to forgive; for His part, God will always offer us His mercy.
On the other hand, though, mercy is not guaranteed, in the sense that there is no guarantee we will accept God’s mercy. Divine Mercy must be accepted, and, in order to accept His mercy, we must first know that we need it.
So, yes and no. Divine Mercy is guaranteed for God’s part, but it is not guaranteed on our end.
We see this truth conveyed in a familiar prayer. In every Mass, the priest prays a prayer of consecration over the chalice, by which the wine is transubstantiated into the Precious Blood of Christ. In that prayer, the priest speaks about “the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many.” In Latin, “for many” is pro multis. Why “many,” instead of “all”?
Does this mean that Jesus did not die for all of us? No. The death and Resurrection of Jesus absolutely is meant for us all. What pro multis means is this: although Jesus paid the price for the salvation of all, we are free to reject His gift. Our Lord has purchased the salvation of every person who ever lived, but we remain free to leave that gift sitting on the shelf unused.
Every time we hear those words of consecration, they should be a reminder to us that by our lives—what we say and what we do—we choose for ourselves whether we wish to be among the “many.”
Justice & mercy are not contradictory; they are complementary. This truth has been ratified over and over in my heart while sitting in the confessional, while listening to God’s Word, and while coaching from the sideline.
We need God’s justice. It is the justice of God that gives us grounding—the boundaries we need to guide our lives and actions. We also need God’s mercy. It is Divine Mercy that enables us to live life with the abundant joy God has planned for us.
Part 1 • The Meaning of Mercy
Part 2 • The Need for Mercy
Part 3 • The Beauty of Mercy
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Romano Guardini, The Lord, Chapter VII, 257-262.