Author: Fr. Michael Byron
February 24, 2019

This month the archdiocese circulated a draft of a proposed revision of the employee handbook for everyone who works in local Catholic parishes and schools.  It’s basically a policy manual for how people are to conduct themselves in the workplace, not unlike those used in many businesses.  But of course the church, while it is a business in some respects, is very much unlike a lot of others.  What goes on here is ministry, not just work.  Employees here are part of a Christian community, not just people with jobs.

And so one of the stated reasons for the revised employee handbook is to better conform its contents to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church.  That sounds like a noble aim.  The document runs about 45 pages and with 3 appendices.  It discusses the typical stuff like hiring and firing protocols, grievance procedures, a code of conduct, etc.

But the word “forgiveness” is not to be found in all those rules and policies.  My first thought upon realizing that was, “Well of course it’s not—this isn’t that kind of a document.  It’s policy and procedures, not the gospel.”  And then I wondered more about that.  Why isn’t a workplace that deliberately calls itself Christian willing or able to speak of mercy and forgiveness at work as part of its primary expectations among employees?  The gospel doesn’t call people merely to be just and fair and respectful.  Any business expects that from its members, and there’s a whole industry called employment law to make sure that those things are made to happen.  But disciples are called to all of that and something quite a bit more, and actually, quite a bit more difficult.  Is it so unthinkable to propose in writing that ones’ first instinct upon feeling wronged at work would be to make an attempt at forgiveness rather that to initiate a grievance proceeding?  And as an employer, when an employee makes a big mistake in the course of his or her performance, might it be imaginable to extend mercy and forgiveness as a first response, rather than to start a discipline file?

It is true that in church—as any place else—there are some offenses for which there must be zero tolerance and for which even a single instance will get you fired.  But even when that has to happen, then what?  Is the offender simply shunned and banished and erased from memory?  Or might mercy be a stated policy goal there too?  Our local Catholic Church sends chaplains into prisons every week because of our conviction that even the most sordid of criminals are deserving of our attention—even if they have done terrible things deliberately.  Perhaps it’s not so crazy then to articulate a policy of mercy and even forgiveness as a goal of any organization that would presume to call itself Christian, and especially among the ministers who work there.  It’s not in the handbook yet.

And the reason we are obliged to consider such a thing is that this is at the top of the priority list of expectations of the Lord whom we wish to serve. 

Jesus was a direct descendent of David, of whom we hear in today’s 1st reading.  So Jesus would certainly have been very familiar with the story of this encounter with King Saul of Israel. 

David’s only offense here was that he was becoming too popular and charming among the king’s subjects, and Saul deeply resented it.  David was an innocent man, but King Saul was literally chasing him around the wilderness trying to kill him.  And by great good fortune, David was presented with an opportunity to turn the tables when he discovered the king asleep and a lethal weapon right there for using.  David had the chance to kill the one who was trying to kill him, and one could argue that he had the right to do that.  But he didn’t, for no reason other than mercy.

Is that any less outrageous than a stated policy of mercy and forgiveness in the church office?  And speaking of outrageous, let us turn again to Jesus’ instruction in today’s gospel of Luke.  In case you missed, here’s what he says we’re supposed to do:        
Love our enemies
Do good to those who hate us
Bless those who curse us
Pray for those who mistreat us
To one who presumes to take from us, give that person even more
Lend without repayment
Do to others as we would wish them to do to us—even when they don’t

Why in the world must we do all of these crazy things?  Simply because God does.  God’s name is mercy.  God’s name is forgiveness.  Jesus came to tell and to show us just who God is, and to invite us into God’s very life.  But let’s not pretend that that’s always easy or that it seems always reasonable.  Forgiveness sometimes requires courage and heroism, but if it is truly our desire to be like God, there is no option otherwise.  It is no surprise that many who heard Jesus preach chose not to follow him.  This gospel can be very demanding.

So about that church employee handbook…

I’m aware that 99% of people here right now are not formal employees of any Christian organization, but all this pertains directly to all of us.  Because all of us strive to live as true Christian disciples in families, in schools, in places of work, in communities, in political societies, and yes, in parishes—where there may not be policy manuals to order our behavior or to list the expectations for our being together, but the priorities must be the same ones:  Mercy as a first response when we feel injured or insulted by others, and a willingness to forgive even those who have done great harm—if not right now, then maybe someday.  This is God’s summons to us.  It may not be completely outrageous, but it can be pretty close.


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Pax Christi Catholic Community

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