Raymond Ramirez | Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Fr. Joe Corpora’s recent book, “The Relentless Mercy of God,” chronicles a chase as persistent as that undertaken by Inspector Javert in pursuit of Jean Valjean. In contrast to Javert’s obsessive years-long hunt chronicled in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Corpora spins a story that is deceptively simple: We are all sinners, but we are also all constantly generously offered God’s mercy. Seems simple enough, but the story of God’s relentless and mercy-filled pursuit of each of us is a riveting read that may take readers out of their catechism comfort zones.
Corpora is a worthy guide in this journey. He is the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Director of University–School Partnerships. You may already know him from his work as Dillon Hall priest in residence. I know “Fr. Joe” as a classmate, friend and fellow Holy Cross Hog. Corpora is no neophyte in the mercy business: He was named by Pope Francis as a commissioned Missionary of Mercy (MOM). This position carries with it a daunting responsibility to “be the maternal face of the Church to all who come seeking the mercy of God.”
Of special interest to me as an attorney (a licensed and certified sinner), is that the Pope has also provided the MOMs with a unique superpower, as if each had been bitten by a radioactive and particularly compassionate spider: MOMs are authorized to forgive even those sins which normally require special absolution reserved by the Holy See. These crimes under canon law include desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, physical violence against the Holy Father, a priest’s violation of the secrecy of the confessional, a priest’s attempt to grant sacramental absolution to his partner in sexual sin and a bishop’s ordaining another bishop without an express mandate from the Pope.
Because there was a time I seriously considered a vocation in the priesthood, Corpora’s discussions about the experience of providing absolution were enlightening. When we wrestle with our demons, the confessor is available as a willing partner we can “tag in” to help us in the struggle. I appreciate Corpora’s assurance to students of his worthiness in this role when he explains, “I’ve been sinning for a lot longer than you have been, so I know way more about mercy and forgiveness than you do.”
Forgiveness is a crucial and central aspect of the priesthood, but Corpora helps us to see that it can and should be a part of our lives, especially with the toughest challenge of all: showing forgiveness and mercy to ourselves. Corpora’s personal struggles are familiar to many of us, especially his ongoing battle against the twin temptations of bread and pasta, described lovingly and longingly in his chapters on travel in the Middle East.
So what exactly is mercy? Whether from God to each of us or from one person to another, mercy definitely is not pitying, patronizing or looking down on someone. It reveals the ultimate strength and power of God to offer mercy and forgiveness to each of as imperfect and sinful human beings. If mercy was only given by God in exchange for good deeds or prayers or well-meaning actions, then that is not mercy — that is merely a quid-pro-quo business transaction. At the least, true mercy is empathy, compassion and forgiveness freely and lavishly given.
We look to God for the model of mercifulness because our pride, prejudices and real or imagined slights make our showing mercy to one another difficult, if not impossible at times. As Corpora explores the nature of God’s mercy, through parables and his own experience, divine mercy reveals itself through prayer and recognition that the gift of God’s mercy requires an honest, childlike willingness to receive it and share it with others. His exegesis of the parable of the Prodigal Son (or the Merciful Father) gives us hope that God will meet each of us where we are and shower us with forgiveness and compassion; his discussion of the Good Samaritan is a timely reminder of the care we owe to refugees and those in need.
After reading Corpora’s book, I grew to appreciate God’s relentless pursuit of us with the generous gift of his mercy was not at all like Javert’s self-destructive and obsessive pursuit of justice. Rather, it brought to mind the comforting and persistent pursuit of a character evading and testing the generous love of a parent. In “The Runaway Bunny,” Margaret Wise Brown gives us one of the greatest scamps in fiction, the nameless bunny who announces to his mother: “I am running away.”
What follows is a classic call-and-response as the bunny announces a number of different ways he will evade his mother (“I will be a bird and fly away from you”) while his mother replies with all the ways she will get him back (“I will be a tree that you come home to”). The book must have been a comfort to children overhearing the murmur of war and global upheavals when first published in 1942, and it continues to be a favorite for calming anxious children (and their parents) at bedtime.
The mother bunny, the MOMs and loving parents all serve as generous, forgiving and persistent models to help us understand the even-more gracious and accessible mercy of God. I have a suggestion for what you can give up for Lent: $18.94, made payable to Corby Books, sent to Rev. Joe Corpora, 124 Corby Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556, for a copy of his book. But I won’t leave matters there. Instead, I’ll end this piece as Corpora ends each chapter, with this simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.