Never Despair of God's Mercy

[Posted yesterday on Facebook and Beyond All Telling.]

On Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict's birthday, we are filled with gratitude for the existence of such a man.

And in light of the latest manufactured kerfuffle about our current Holy Father, I want to highlight what I love most about Benedict: his profound universalistic tendency. In this, he is more radical than his theological colleague Balthasar, who has always been the whipping boy of the infernalists.

In his 18 October 2006 audience talk on Judas Iscariot and Matthias, Pope Benedict, in his official teaching capacity, appropriates Balthasar's point that humanity in successively larger circles betrays Jesus--Christian, Jew, Gentile. But it is the first betrayal that bears most guilt. And this is what those who love hell forget: it is we Christians who are most in danger of condemnation. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Pope Benedict places this unkindest cut of all, the Christian betrayal, in a larger context, the one that matters:

"What is more, it darkens the mystery around his eternal fate, knowing that Judas 'repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood"' (Mt 27:3-4). Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Mt 27:5), it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God."

It is hard to overstate how theologically radical that last sentence is. Nevertheless, what the Holy Father teaches here is the truth, the very crux of the Father's whole plan of salvation: God seeks the salvation of each human, and so we must hope for that--and expend everything for that end.

"The betrayal of Judas remains, in any case, a mystery. Jesus treated him as a friend (cf. Mt 26:50); however, in His invitations to follow Him along the way of the beatitudes, He does not force his will or protect it from the temptations of Satan, respecting human freedom.

"In effect, the possibilities to pervert the human heart are truly many. The only way to prevent it consists in not cultivating an individualistic, autonomous vision of things, but on the contrary, by putting oneself always on the side of Jesus, assuming His point of view. We must daily seek to build full communion with him."

That "side" of Jesus is only one: the salvation of all. He is the true partisan of humanity. All consignment of others to hell is simple egoistic autonomy (the self-assertion of ressentiment)--the opposite of theonomy.

"Let us remember that Peter also wanted to oppose Him and what awaited Him at Jerusalem, but he received a very strong reproof: 'You are not on the side of God, but of men' (Mk 8:33)!

"After his fall, Peter repented and found pardon and grace. Judas also repented, but his repentance degenerated into desperation and thus became self-destructive.

"For us it is an invitation to always remember what St. Benedict says at the end of the fundamental Chapter Five of his 'Rule': 'Never despair of God's mercy.' In fact, God 'is greater than our hearts,' as St. John says (I Jn 3:20).

"Let us remember two things. The first: Jesus respects our freedom. The second: Jesus awaits our openness to repentance and conversion; He is rich in mercy and forgiveness.

"Besides, when we think of the negative role Judas played we must consider it according to the lofty ways in which God leads events. His betrayal led to the death of Jesus, Who transformed this tremendous torment into a space of salvific love by consigning Himself to the Father (cf. Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25).

"The word 'to betray' is the version of a Greek word that means 'to consign.' Sometimes the subject is even God in Person: it was He Who for love 'consigned' Jesus for all of us (Rm 8:32). In His mysterious salvific plan, God assumes Judas's inexcusable gesture as the occasion for the total gift of the Son for the redemption of the world."

Here's the final Balthasarian point of Pope Benedict: the ultimate horizon of the "handing-over" or "consignment" of Jesus is the primal and universal philanthropy of the Father. And in that supreme paradox, all the misery of our sinfulness may yet be swallowed up.