I have to confess that I have long had a resistance to canon lawyers, canon law and ritual, thinking of them as restrictive and limiting for the church and for individuals. A number of years ago a single statement by a friend of mine helped me to overcome this view and to see the lawyers, law and ritual in a different light. Commenting on my view of the law, he remarked: Canon lawyers are not about restricting anyone. Their role is to help us find the exceptions to the law and to offer a pastoral and open way of living in a community of faith. The person was a canon lawyer himself and was just completing his doctorate in the law. He was also a pastor and familiar with the dangers of interpreting it and our rituals in a literal and restrictive fashion.
Our faith tradition is intended to be a path to liberation and new life. It is not a narrow path by which our personal salvation is guaranteed. Rather, it is an outreach to the whole of life and human existence, aimed at bringing all of creation together in a manner by which we become the creation of God’s dream. We find it expressed in the very early poetic words of the Old Testament Book of Genesis: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (1:31).
The gospel writer Matthew, saw this as the direction in which Jesus was leading his disciples. He captured this core teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:5-7). After introducing this core with the Beatitudes and using the images of salt and light for the role of the disciples, Matthew honours the Law. But he warns that if we do not go further than the scribes and Pharisees who honoured the Law literally and strictly, we have fallen short. More is called for (Matt 5:17-37).
Jesus, and his teachings are the new Law for his disciples. This new law is not mere rules and rituals, it is a way of life. This life is in imitation of the Master. It is a way of living that brings compassion and love, healing and peace. One can say that at the center of Christianity is not the law or the rituals or even the scriptures, but a person and that this person is Jesus the Christ. He it is who, in word and action, reveals the everlasting love of God. This is our center.
In 2016, when Pope Francis proclaimed a Jubilee Holy Year, he took as its theme and focus, Jesus as the face of God’s mercy. As a community of Jesus, our Church, both globally and locally is to be “The Face of Mercy” in our world. With this mercy there is a call for openness to one and all. Pope Francis’ hope was that our church would “become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope.”
Globally and locally, the challenge is to discover that we can reveal mercy and welcome to all, especially the outcasts and marginalized in our midst. We face this challenge as church, as a community of faith. There are many areas of our relationships with one another and with our world where mercy and love to all is a difficult path. Is our compassion sufficient and open enough to welcome all? How open are we to all who have for so long been outcasts? To the poor and homeless, to gay persons and the divorced in our churches, to all the lost and ones who come to our door.
When Pope Francis proclaimed the jubilee year in 2016, he stated: The church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love (“The Face of Mercy” 10). Our very identity lies not in meticulous observance of law and ritual, but in our love, our compassion, our mercy and openness to all.