Mercy and Justice

“When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours.  More than performing works of mercy,
we are paying a debt of justice.” - Pope St. Gregory the Great

One concept I found myself repeatedly explaining to my children over the years, and later to my students, was the idea of justice.  Every parent of more than one child has heard the cry, “It’s not fair!” Children are very sensitive to the concept of justice, or maybe it is injustice they are so attuned to.  It seemed to come as a shock to them when I informed them that fairness, or justice does not mean equal.  Justice means everyone gets what they need or deserve, whether reward or punishment.  Equal means everyone gets the same thing.  A mother of a large family will not buy all of her children shoes when only one child needs them.  This is not equality, but justice.

If justice means everyone gets what they need or deserve, then mercy means that we get the good we don’t deserve, or conversely, we don’t get the punishment that we do deserve. 

Fr. Kevin Niehoff, O.P., Adjutant Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, describes the relationship between justice and mercy: “ ... justice is a cardinal virtue from which all else flows. Mercy is one of the fruits of charity, along with joy and peace. Justice is the value from which mercy flows and is then seen in actions. The difference between the two is this:  Justice is foundational in that it is a value one holds and with which one lives his/her life, and mercy is the charitable action blossoming from the value (justice) that is held within."  So, mercy proceeds from justice and without justice there is no mercy.

This past Sunday, we celebrated the feast of Divine Mercy.  My family had the opportunity to watch a mass celebrated by Fr. Chris Alar, the Director of the Marian Helpers at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Fr. Alar described Divine Mercy Sunday in a beautiful way. The feast occurs on the “8th day,” with the first day being Easter Sunday.  To the ancient Jews, the number seven was the perfect number, so the number 8 represented eternity.  God greatly desires us to enter into eternity with him, but knows that “nothing unclean will enter it” (Rev 21:27). So, in His unfathomable love and mercy, he gave us this feast whereby he grants a full and complete pardon of our sins and the temporal punishment due for them, rendering us “as spotless as the day of our baptism” according to Fr. Seraphim, former rector of the Shrine of Divine Mercy. 

I think it is difficult for us to truly understand the depths of Divine Mercy, as the mercy we can show, as human beings, is limited. When I was a new Catholic, upon hearing the story of the Prodigal Son, I completely identified with the older brother who was angry that the father was lavishing love, mercy, and forgiveness on the wayward younger brother. I wanted to cry with the older brother, “It’s not fair!” However, I came to understand that the father’s forgiveness of the younger son took nothing away from the older son. His status as rightful heir and loving son was unchanged.  But, the gift of that mercy for the younger son had the power to change his life --  to bring him back to life!  

This is the mercy God wants to shower on us.  It is the mercy he does shower on us.  We do not deserve forgiveness for our sins, yet he has given us the sacrament of reconciliation.  We do not deserve to receive God into our very selves, yet he has made it possible for us to receive him body, blood, soul, and divinity each time we attend Mass.  We do not deserve the gift of life, yet our God deemed our very existence necessary to His plan.  It is an unspeakable Mercy.

At Mount Royal Academy, I see mercy in action.  When I first began teaching here, I was impressed that whenever I brought a concern about a student to administration, their initial response was based in mercy, always focused on the child’s best interest, and respecting the dignity of the child. Mercy was the primary motivator, then justice. 

Justice is why teachers provide separate spelling lists or abbreviated assignments to struggling students.  It is why some students are allowed extra time to take a test, or why any number of accommodations are made. The students get what they deserve. It is also why some students receive extra, more challenging work. Education cannot be about “equality.”  No two students are the same and do not deserve to be treated the same. 

We show mercy when we take the time to speak gently to a student who is behaving badly and try to discover the root cause, because there usually is one.  Mercy is shown when a student is given a chance to repent and atone for their transgressions in the classroom, rather than just having a punishment administered. Education must be a prudent mix of justice and mercy.  By God’s grace we attempt to deliver that mix here at MRA.

“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You.”

- Lisa Sweet, Academic Dean