The last few months have been for many of us a challenge, not simply in terms of physical illness, but a challenge emotionally because it has forced us to confront ourselves in a way we might ordinarily have managed to avoid. We are told that there is a danger of emotional scarring of young people because they have not been able to associate with others as they would normally. We know ourselves mostly through those associations with others and these unusual circumstances when we have been deprived of our normal socialising routine has raised all kinds of issues for many people, writes Canon Gerry Conroy.
As adults we have an awareness of ourselves, of who we are, and with that comes an awareness of the darkness that lurks within us, a darkness that can surface every now and again and that prevents us from ever achieving the full beauty of our humanity. We know we must be alert lest we allow excesses to break out in our dealings with others. We know too, even in the greatest of our ideals and values, there is always the possibility of us corrupting them with an excess of zeal and rigidity. Even pagan thinkers before Christianity, noted that justice could be turned by people into tyranny. They recognised a need of mercy to control our justice. They recognised there was something flawed in the way we human beings put into practice what we recognised as true. They could see a glory and beauty in our human nature, but they could not find a way to realise it in practice.
When Pope St John Paul wrote about mercy in his encyclical ‘Rich in Mercy’, he said, that in human history you cannot help but see that many programmes which start out to establish justice, very often suffer a distortion and spite and hatred and cruelty end up corrupting the best of intentions.
Young people from Dumbarton attending a Papal Visit. Pictures by Bill Heaney
St Thomas Aquinas said, ‘Mercy Without Justice Is the Mother of Dissolution; Justice Without Mercy Is Cruelty’. If there is no justice in life, society will fall apart, but if we insist only on justice we destroy our humanity with cruelty. Somehow we need to find a balance of both justice and mercy, but human history has consistently shown us that when we try to achieve both we fail. History has shown us that when we seek only justice we end up losing sight of our humanity in institutions and totalitarian regimes.
We know the beauty of what it means to be human, but as we look round our world we cannot deny that we have been unable to realise it. The only answer to that frustration is mercy. We strive for justice, but our failings demand mercy for ourselves and for one another – or we will destroy ourselves.
Our Faith tells us that finally it is only God who will establish true justice. Till then justice and mercy must walk hand in hand in our lives. Only in that way can we come close to the integrity and beauty of a humanity that is both just and loving.
- Canon Gerry Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton