A new book shows that merciful priests who don't water down the truth are vital for the Church

It is no surprise that Pope Francis has announced that the Church has dedicated next year to the theme of Mercy, God’s mercy towards sinners and the invitation to reconciliation with him. Mercy has been the keynote to Francis’s pontificate so far; his wish for people to see behind the sometimes formidable institution in order to grasp what is really the point behind the organisation: God’s love for us (especially the lost sheep) and his longing for us to love him in return.

Yet inevitably Francis has his critics within the Church, some of them vociferous. They fear that the message of mercy obscures the justice of God, the need for sinners to repent; indeed, they fear it evades the Way of the Cross that Christians are called to follow, merely offering a quick-fix solution to those not in good standing with the Church. They think that the oft-quoted passage in the Gospels where Christ supped with sinners is too often twisted by those within the Church who want to water down the hard sayings.

They have a point and so does the Holy Father. All these thoughts were distracting me at Mass this morning as I was composing this blog in my head. Then, by divine serendipity, I discovered my distracted thoughts were actually concerned with the Gospel for today’s liturgy: the passage in St John, chapter 8, vv1-11, where Jesus responds to the woman taken in adultery: “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.” Jesus, in his perfect way, had summarised my blog theme: true mercy will always include the counsel that the sinner must mend his ways. My thoughts had not been wandering after all.

It so happens that I have also been reading a book which brilliantly frames this whole debate, Redeemed by Grace: A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Planned Parenthood and Back by Ramona Trevino. Ramona, by her own admission more of a cultural Catholic than a serious one, with a defective understanding of the Church’s moral teachings, spent three years, 2008-2011, working as the manager of a Planned Parenthood facility in Sherman, Texas. (Planned Parenthood, for those who don’t know of the organisation, is the largest provider of abortion in the US.)

Trevino emphasises in her book that her small clinic handed out contraceptives and tested for pregnancy; abortions were done elsewhere. But naturally some girls came, took a pregnancy test, found they were pregnant and wanted an abortion. So she had to refer them to a Planned Parenthood facility where they could obtain one. This made her very uneasy. She stilled her conscience by telling herself that she had taken the job “to help people” and that she “had to respect [the girls’] choice.” At the same time, her conscience told her, unmistakeably, that “someone I was helping was actually considering killing her baby”. Citing Pontius Pilate, she told herself that “the final decision was hers, not mine…I was just fine with washing my hands.”

Several good things conspired to give Trevino a change of heart: the prayers of kindly pro-lifers outside the clinic; thoughts of her own daughter, almost the same age as the girls she saw at the clinic; listening to “Catholic Answers” on the radio as she drove to work. Then the clincher: she went to Confession. The young Mexican priest gave it to her straight, compassionately but firmly: she should stop using contraceptives in her own marriage; further, “The place where you work and spend so much of your time is also contrary to the will of God. In fact, by working there, you’re putting your soul in danger.” The truth changed Ramona’s life. She finally resigned her job – after persuading her last client not to have the abortion she had requested. The end result was that for lack of clients the clinic in Sherman was forced to close its doors.

Thank God for priests such as the one Trevino encountered: merciful, gentle but not watering down the truth; indeed, acting “in persona Christi”. Surely this story encapsulates what Pope Francis means the an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 to be all about?