The Hand of God’s Mercy

by Fr. Pat McNulty

Since I made my first confession in about 1936, I figure I’ve been there about 2500 times. You’d think that by now things would have changed. Not so.

Of course, I’ve always known that I could “fall into sin.” But it took me a lo-o-o-o-o-g time to realize just how far. That is to say, I always knew I could sin, but I never really understood what it meant to be a sinner.

I don’t know if I would say (theologically) that we will never understand how weak and vulnerable we are until we fall so far from the grace of God that there is nowhere else but up.

But I would say that until we are so vulnerable that there is no one else but God, we probably will never know what it means to be “a sinner” versus “falling into sin.”

I could never figure Catherine out when it came to sin. She knew some of the deepest, darkest corners of my sinful soul and it never bothered her.

The only time she got after me was for the sin of pride.

Pride of any kind: too much pride to confess a sin; too much dwelling on myself because of a sin; any judgment of others because of their sins; intellectual pride (Oh boy, did she hate that one!) Pride of any kind.

I was afraid of her attitude toward sin because I feared it would deaden my notion of sin.

And, of course, the only real sin to Catherine was not to love.

So I don’t know if it was a particular sin that finally broke my heart open or even Sin itself, but it was the realization at some deep, deep, level of my soul, that I am absolutely, positively powerless. And think I learned that best in poustinia.

For there, after all the romanticism wears off, all the praying becomes boring. You can’t sleep. You can’t think. And your feelings run wild. Then you realize how powerless you really are.

For me, that was what it meant to be a Sinner. To be broken at some depth over which we have no power at all; we are left to the elements and to God alone.

We can’t change anything. We can’t do anything. We can’t plan or predict anything. There are only two places to turn: to Self or to God. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is any emotional difference.

As this sense of (powerful) powerlessness took over my poor heart, it opened; and suddenly, the whole world was there because I was exactly like the whole world—a sinner, utterly and completely dependent on God and God alone.

Then I knew why my sins never bothered Catherine, why she was always so merciful to me when I would fall, and why I knew that God was exactly like that, and why priests must become the hand of God’s mercy.

What will we do with all the shame and scandal we bring upon the Church? What can I do with all of mine? One thing only: become humble.

That is the only thing which can change our hearts. What does it matter how we finally get there—by sin or sanctity?

I have found that people forgive us very quickly, even easily, if our sins humble us, change our hearts; if we become as merciful to others as God is to us; if we realize how utterly powerless we are and how totally dependent we are on God alone.

Then Sin and Scandal amount to little in the long run. They are like the “Pssh” that Catherine would say to me when she told me I worried too much about my sins.

Perhaps the greatest witness, the most mystical charism of Catherine Doherty in my life was her sense of mercy . . . and the constant outward flow of mercy from the staff of Madonna House, too. Because of that, God allowed me to see that perhaps my greatest gift and power as priest is mercy.

Is there anything greater on earth than God’s mercy—or being the hand of that mercy—even if we have to go to confession every day! Psssh!

From Restoration 1991