2/18/2016 9:00:00 AM BISHOP'S COLUMN When mercy came to me
'I NEED MERCY' SERIES: This occasional series in The Evangelist for the Year of Mercy highlights personal experiences of mercy by people from across the Diocese. Read last week's installment in the series at www.evangelist.org.
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
The story I would like to tell this week is so simple, ordinary and unspectacular that I almost hesitate to share it. It happened in a kitchen on a Saturday afternoon, if my memory serves me well, one February long ago.
The important thing is that it is honest and true and that it changed my life. It is a personal story about God's mercy and how it came to me through the words of a friend. So, I have to tell it, even if it just offers just a little ray of hope for one person.
Last week, I wrote that, "in order to bring the Gospel to others, each of us, you and I, must meet Jesus ourselves. We need to let Him look at us. He is thirsting for our soul. He wants to enter our hearts. He is ready to forgive us -- of everything -- and waits to fill us with a joy that we cannot keep to ourselves. This is what it means to be an evangelizer: to know that the Gospel is Jesus Himself, to be transformed by His love and take Him to the next person in line, on the bus -- or at the water cooler."
The moral of the story I am about to tell is: You never know when or how God will decide to step powerfully into your life or the life of someone near you. Expect to be changed!
I thought you should know that I did not always think this way. While I was good at reminding others how much God loves them, I was not at all convinced that God had much time to waste on tending to me. He had more important things to do, after all, like running the universe.
Growing up Catholic in the 1950s, I don't think that I was much different from other people my age who went to Catholic school, aimed to follow the rules and dedicate my life to trying to make something of myself so that I could give something back to the world for all the blessings that I had received.
I grew up in a hard-working, middle-class neighborhood. My parents went to church every Sunday and taught us a deep respect for the priests and religious who were devout, dedicated and generally approachable. Although there were, as always, a few characters, I did not suffer from what some of my contemporaries seem to recall about excessive discipline or a preoccupation with clean fingernails and laced shoes.
Nonetheless, my general idea of the Catholic faith was that is was something you had to work on like an exercise program so that you could develop your spiritual muscles. Jesus was like a coach, there to give me tips. Mary and the saints were good for that, too. Being faithful meant trying hard to "do the right thing."
I figured that if I succeeded, God would be nice to me. If I failed, God might be ticked. So, I kept trying harder. I guess the good thing about this was that it always mattered to me what God thought about me and how I was doing. I kept God on my mind often (not knowing that I was never out of God's mind); but, quite frankly, I never thought of God as someone I could rely on to really help me through my daily routine.
Prayer was something you just did. You said your prayers. You were supposed to "get them in" in the morning, in the evening, before meals and maybe before a test or a big event.
There were some "come to Jesus" moments where I remember kneeling before the huge crucifix in our parish church, maybe after a confession or during a visit after school. I might be asking for a special favor or help with a particular problem. But it wasn't like the "Jesus is your everyday friend" and companion idea that preachers like Billy Graham talked about. That was a Protestant thing, this "personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
It wasn't that the nuns had not talked about it. I distinctly remember hearing one sister tell the class that Jesus would have died for you if you were the only person in the world. Somehow, I did not believe that meant me.
It wasn't that I felt I was particularly bad or unworthy; I just did not see our faith as being about my life, my struggles, my growing pains. Faith was a pre-existing system, a philosophy for getting to heaven that I was meant to conform to, more a regimen than a relationship.
Surprisingly, you might think, I carried this notion well into the early years of my priesthood. I relied on Jesus to help me do my priestly work of preaching, teaching, visiting the sick and going about my parish duties. But my peace of mind came (or so I thought) from my sense of how God was pleased with what I was doing -- or not.
It was not until I was well into my 30s, when I was working in the Marriage Tribunal and had undertaken the study of civil law, that things started piling up. I began to question why I was taking on so much work and not feeling any better for it.
I think my feelings were not different from parents my age who might be holding down several jobs, trying to raise a family and wondering whether it mattered to anyone -- including even their kids, sometimes -- all the sacrifices of time, sleep, money and mental resources they were making.
It began to dawn on me that I was on a treadmill, a slave to someone or something; I knew not what. I began to question God: "Why am I doing this? What does God want of me, anyway?"
What turned my life around completely was a conversation at a kitchen table. I was complaining to a priest friend who was sensitive to what I was going through. I think he could see through me and knew I was missing something in my spiritual life.
He encouraged me not to be discouraged, because he believed God had a plan for me and that it was a good thing that I was doing my work and taking on extra studies. But that did not help me feel any better. While I did not quite say it, I was wondering why I should go on living.
Don't misunderstand: I did not have thoughts of doing harm to myself. But I was wondering: "What is the purpose God has for me in life if all I must do is just work, produce, be constructive, try harder and harder each day? Why should anyone just go on this way? Why does God want us to live at all?"
What my priest friend said changed my life. He simply said, "Well, because He loves us!"
It was like a bomb went off. I can't tell you why those words hit me so deeply at that point. I must have been ready for God's mercy in a way I had never been before. Most of my life, I had felt I was able to manage on my own, with my own wits and resources. But I had come to a point where my strengths seemed to be my weaknesses. It was when I was feeling most vulnerable, most in need of assurance, that my "soul's ear" was able to hear those words.
Since then, I have never doubted God's personal love for me. I cannot explain it. I do not earn it. Nothing I have done or can do merits it. I just believe it. And because I believe it is true for me, I also believe it to be true for you and everyone else who wants to accept God's mercy.
I do not discount the value of the education I received, the talents God gave me, the skills I have learned and the knowledge and experience I have picked up over the years. They are all blessings that must be shared to help others.
But, more than anything else, I believe it is God's desire that I should be in the world at this time and place that really sustains my sense of purpose, and that it is a personal, willed decision of God Himself that I should exist -- an act of merciful and all-forgiving love for which I owe God thanks every day.
I believe that this is true for you, too. I believe that, even if you or I may have thought we are the worst sinner in the world, it does not change God's love for you and me. Indeed, Jesus would still have died for you or me if you or I were the only person in the world. Believe this. It is true. And go out and tell the good news of God's mercy!