Solid in Law

Published in the Michigan Catholic
November, 2013
Paul Stuligross

Solid in law; generous in compassion. No fingernail painting in the house unless you ask mom and dad first. A good rule to have in our house; especially when our daughters were younger.  I pondered that rule as I lay siege to our kitchen’s mess one day after dinner and started to hear the sink running upstairs. I listened carefully as the water turned on, and off, and on again. Then I thought I heard sniffles. Soon it was evident that my eight-year-old (at the time) was crying. I ascended the stairs to see what was afoot. As I approached her room, I saw her kneeling on her bedroom floor, crying. There was nail polish all over her arms, hands and clothes.

While I can’t say I’m always this collected when things like this happen, this time I felt something strange. As I gazed down at this little girl, rather than being angry, I felt the strange compulsion to stoop to her level and pick her up.  After all, here she was, this child whom I still recall as a baby; and all she was trying to do was … well … be a little girl. Who was I to tell her she shouldn’t do that?

It reminded me of a conversation I had with an acquaintance not long ago, about our new pope. He wanted to know what I felt about Pope Francis. The implication in his voice was clear: Pope Francis was throwing in the towel on the old, out-dated rules of the Catholic Church and was suddenly “getting with the program.” I didn’t say it in so many words, but I told him the Pope hadn’t changed a thing. He was simply reminding us how we should treat those who fall short of those rules --- and isn’t that truly all of us?

This is a conversation I’m having often these days. And just as often it’s fueled by shoddy reporting by the media. Pope Francis is challenging us to seek the better part – much like Jesus did with Martha and Mary – that part that embraces opportunities for compassion. When we take a close look at what he is actually saying – within the context of the entire report, and un-jaded by the agenda-driven media – it’s clear to me he is pointing us toward the very thing we see so little of today: Mercy.  

My students often ask me questions about Church teachings. They hear all kinds of things in the news. Problem is, most of it isn’t true. I learned this best in my final year at Sacred Heart Seminary. I was taking a class in Canon Law for Campus Ministers. What I found most intriguing in that class was just how much mercy IS in the Canon. And I came to appreciate how much the Church – even with its faulted people (self included) – exemplifies my own family. Solid in law; generous in Compassion.

Jesus Christ is the ideal toward which we should all strive. Yet we’ll never reach that type of perfection on this earth. Does that mean we should take that ‘ideal’ away? The Church gives us laws that help us live a holier – and necessarily happier – life. So, since we’re often inept at following those laws, we should ‘lower the bar’, right? My daughters don’t always follow the rules of our house. So, since it’s impossible for them, should we take the rules away? After all, they’ll never follow ALL the rules.

I wonder if these analogies underscore the relationship between law and compassion with which we all struggle. Perhaps the lesson in all of it is that being compassionate doesn’t mean we’re unconcerned with God’s laws. And protecting the law doesn’t mean we have the right to harshly judge those who fail to uphold it.

Jesus taught us the Sabbath was made for man, not the converse. Perhaps we all need reminders of that. Yet, at the forefront of our eschatological journeys, those immovable ideals are not insignificant, regardless of whether or not they agree with pop-culture.

So, that day, I gazed down at my eight-year-old weeping in her own mess, and I felt God nudge me. I knelt down to help her clean up the mess. Then I followed that compulsion a step further … and painted her nails for her. And while I would scarcely admit that to my male friends, I’m reminded of what Mother Teresa once said: that in the end, we’ll ultimately be judged by how well we love. We haven’t changed that rule in our house – and we don’t intend to. But the next time one of my daughters falls short of it, I hope I can remember what’s most important, without forgetting what’s not. 


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