These are the words I and my fellow novices mumbled solemnly while prostrated on the church floor, in response to our superior’s question, “what do you seek?” It was a perfect summer day, back in 2001, and we were making our first religious vows, following the ancient rite of Dominican profession. Little did we know how much these words – and the reality behind them – would be needed in the coming years of priestly formation, of continuing discernment, and of learning about our own weaknesses as well as those of our fellow Dominicans. Living the Dominican way wouldn’t be possible without God’s mercy and the mercy we have for one another.
I heard these words once again last week when eight novices from the Western Dominican Province made their first vows at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland, CA. Myself and the other “grownup” Friars were being asked to receive these new brothers with mercy, and after 15 years of community life I know that these two dimensions of mercy – the divine and the human – are indispensable in persevering in this beautiful vocation. In any vocation, actually.
You might have heard that Pope Francis is introducing certain changes in the Canon Law in order to make the annulment process less complicated and less painful for those involved. The new canons are to become effective this December as a part of the jubilee Year of Mercy. You may want to read more about the legal aspects of this reform on Dr. Edward Peters’ blog (the links are below), but the overall perspective on them that I would like to suggest is the one that Francis himself has suggested: a perspective of mercy. Obviously, the primary emphasis of the Church’s pastoral activity should be placed – and perhaps this has not been done sufficiently yet – on cultivating in our people a countercultural conviction that a lifelong marriage is possible and also on the practical wisdom the Church has for how to build and maintain a healthy marriage from the very start. That’s where mercy comes in, as an individual’s daily choice of standing in truth before God, bringing our confused desires and emotional needs to the One whose loving light can show us genuine ways of growth in our vocation. “God’s mercy and yours” should truly be the daily mantra of married couples! Still, toward those who for diverse reasons have experienced a painful failure in their marital relationship, the Church being the expression of God’s merciful and healing presence in the world should make her best to examine speedily (yet thoroughly) if their marriage ever had the essential qualities necessary to be a conjugal lifelong union. Truth and mercy need to go hand in hand if the declaration of nullity – the proper name of “annulment” – is meant to achieve what it signifies, namely, applying God’s true and profound healing to one’s broken past.
“Having made my choice for ever / every day I still have to choose,” wrote a young Polish poet Jerzy Liebert back in the 1930s. This line has always been for me a reminder that the only way to remain faithful to what you have chosen – your faith, your vocation – is to keep recommitting to that choice every day. Actively seeking God’s mercy and the mercy of our brothers (spouses) is what has to accompany it. And God’s merciful love is the reason behind the Church’s quest for pastoral outreach to those whose first choice has not worked. Let us all be grateful for God’s infinite mercy.