We live in strange times. Never in human history has it been possible for so many people to live lives so disconnected from reality. Former Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Vigano has just released a remarkable meditation for Lent which touches on that issue. He starts with a prayer from the Ambrosian Missal, which says in part:
Venite flentes, fundamus lacrymas ad Deum:
quia nos negleximus, et propter nos terra patitur:
nos iniquitatem fecimus,
et propter nos fundamenta commota sunt.
Festinemus anteire ante iram Dei . . .
Come weeping, let us shed tears to God: because we have transgressed, and because of us the earth suffers: we have committed iniquity and because of us its foundations have been shaken. Let us hasten to prevent God’s wrath . . .
“It is difficult for a man of today,” Archbishop Vigano remarks, “to understand these words of the Ambrosian Missal.” The idea that we owe any obedience to anything outside of our own will and desires has become foreign to us. The understanding that justice demands that we submit ourselves to God’s judgment is particularly difficult:
The de-Christianized world and the secularized mentality that has infected even Catholics does not accept the idea of a God offended by the sins of men, and Who punishes them with scourges so that they repent and ask for forgiveness.
We can see the mentality that Archbishop Vigano is describing everywhere today, even, as he says, in the Church. Not only is it a problem everywhere, it is a problem that undermines everything. When we reject the truth of our relationship with God, we undermine the very concept of truth itself. As St. Paul tells the Ephesians:
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. (Ephesians 4:17-29)
This “darkening of the understanding” makes it very difficult to carry on any sort of reasoned discussion on matters of importance. When all that matters are feelings and desires, when disgreement (at least, disagreement with favored positions or practices) is ipso facto “hate,” real dialogue is impossible.
This curious state of affairs complicates the efforts at evangelization in various ways. For instance, a few years ago when I was the moderator of an online community a young non-Catholic Christian suggested that sharing the Gospel with other people and praying for them was impeding their free will. Now, it would never have occurred to me that informing or attempting to persuade somebody, much less praying for them, somehow interfered with their ability to make free choices; on the contrary, without free will, such efforts are pointless. Nonetheless, I had heard similar questions from other young people as well. Most young people today (and many older ones as well) have been formed in a popular culture that teaches that simply disagreeing with somebody can be a “microaggression”, particularly if the alleged microaggressor holds more traditional views, and most especially if those views can be traced back to orthodox Christian morality. How should we respond to this situation?
The first thing, I think, is to stress that evangelization and prayers for conversion are an act of mercy. How? Since we are all ultimately held accountable for the things that we do with our free will, we try to save others from the consequences of bad decisions, which is to say, sin. It is, of course, merciful to save another person from sin (and, potentially, from eternal damnation). More specifically, I think we can profitably look at this question in terms of several of the traditional Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Let’s start with free will itself. Even though our will is free, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t influenced by many things. Not only that, we can’t make good choices if we’re missing essential information. Let us suppose, for instance, that a friend is about to dive into a lake that has just been declared unsafe due to high levels of harmful bacteria. Informing him of the danger doesn’t violate his free will; in fact, it allows him to make a truly free choice, because it’s based on the truth, and not on a false belief that the water is safe. If it’s merciful to protect a friend from getting sick in this way, how much more so if we can give him information that can save his soul for eternity? This is the 2nd Spiritual Work of Mercy, “Instructing the Ignorant” (“ignorant” isn’t meant as an insult; it simply means someone who doesn’t know).
We sometimes have the right information, but we may also have disordered desires (that is, attraction to sin) that lead us to do things that we know are wrong. Disordered desires such as greed, lust, envy, etc., pull our will away from what we know is right. Consequently, it often happens that a Christian who knows full well that a particular act, adultery for instance, is seriously wrong, follows his or her desires instead. The consequences can be disastrous for such a person and for others involved in his sin. It is merciful to point out these abuses of our will to each other, because in doing so we can sometimes bring a sinner back to right conduct. As an added bonus, we help ourselves as well, as Holy Scripture tells us:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
This is the 3rd Spiritual Work of Mercy, “Admonishing Sinners” (and we are all sinners who sometimes require admonition).
In the end, of course, none of us exercises our free will perfectly, and none of us can save ourselves: that’s why we needed Christ to die on the Cross for us. For that reason we “Pray for the Living and the Dead” (the 7th Spiritual Work of Mercy). When we pray for the living, we are asking God not to override their free will, but to give them the Grace (His help and support) to freely use their will in accord with His Will, and not according to their disordered desires. We also pray for the dead in Purgatory who are being cleansed of the consequences of the misuse of their free will, that God’s mercy might ease their passage into His Presence.
We hear a lot less about the Spiritual Works of Mercy these days than we do about the Corporal Works of Mercy (a reflection of materialist tendencies affecting even the Church). That’s a shame, because in the midst of the greatest material prosperity that this world has ever seen we have a vast sea of spiritual suffering. The world is full of people, including me and you, whose choices are hampered by ignorance, whose desires are disordered, and who are desperately in need of prayers. Answering their needs isn’t an imposition: it’s an act of mercy.