When I was a young boy, I wanted very much to be a "good Catholic."
You might be wondering what that is, and that's OK, I didn't really know what that was either.
What I knew was it was a very good, noble, and holy thing to be, and essentially, God would love me very much. It would bring me the most joy and freedom.
I also felt it was very difficult, and required a lot of hard work.
There were a lot of standards I was given in order to be a "good Catholic". I had a very Catholic upbringing; going to Mass every day, saying the Rosary, and learning from Mom the teachings of the Church in my home school religious education class.
So I tried my very best, praying whenever I thought I had to, thinking only good thoughts, and never ever swearing (OK, maybe once, don't tell). Heck, I even tried drinking Holy Water to speed up the process (still not sure if it worked).
To be honest it was really exhausting work, and I didn't often feel I was getting very far. It was rather frustrating because I really was trying very hard but getting little reward. What on earth was I doing wrong?
It was later I realised what was wrong was "I doing".
My background as a young lad may not relate to you. You probably weren't raised going to Mass daily, and home schooled in a big Catholic family (if you were, that's awesome! We should meet up sometime and compare memories). What might relate to you, however, is my ingrained belief that I had to earn love. I thought deep down, that if I want to be accepted, I had to meet the standards placed before me. Otherwise I was a disappointment, and ultimately... rejected.
Well, I wasn't stupid, pressure all around was telling me so. It started early on. I was a loud and mischievous boy, and very argumentative. And when this frustrated my friends and family, they would yell at me, insult me, and tell me to shut up and go away. Often it was hard to differentiate that from them rejecting me, and not loving me.
As I grew older pressures increased. I was a chubby boy, and some people didn't mind telling me. This gave me body image pressure to live up to as well, if I didn't want to be rejected. And then, reaching the teenage years, I went through the bucket loads of pressures all teenagers go through. Peer, parent, academic, social, sporting, and extra-curricular pressures all compounded. My experience of teenage life hasn't been particularly tough compared to others, but not because the pressures weren't affecting me, more because I was lucky enough to feel I was meeting at least the minimum.
However, this toxic mentality damaged my attitude towards my relationship with God and being a "good Catholic".
Just like everywhere else in life, surely only if I met the standard would God love me. Otherwise, He would be frustrated, disappointed and tell me to shut up and go away.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
One day when I was about 15, I was reading a book, and in it the author was delving into his experience with Isaiah 43 (a chapter of the Bible).
"Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.... for you are precious in My eyes, and honoured, and because I love you."
I had been sitting in my room, and when I was reflecting on it later standing outside, a sense of simple peace came over me. I think for the first time, I had realised God loves me, and not because of anything I had done. And not because I had earned it. And not because I had met a strict set of standards. What a great joy that is! It was because of Him, not because of me.
It was later I realised this was when I started understanding mercy. When it's not because I am good, but because God is merciful. Being a good Catholic was not something I could "do" so much as something I could allow. It wasn't me acting, it was me accepting. It's not my initiative, it's God's.
Read the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In the Father's great love, He is extravagantly generous to the son, and as soon as the son realises his desperate need for the Father and returns to Him, the Father abundantly lavishes great love on him.
The only thing stopping the two sons from receiving all they need and deeply desire from the Father, is them not realising they need and deeply desire all from the Father.
Like for His sons, how long will our Father in heaven have to wait for us to recognise this?
Whether we are like the younger son, and don't think we deeply desire God's love, and prefer to search recklessly in the world for hope, pleasure, and fulfillment.
Or like the older son, and don't think we desperately need God's love, but can rather can work hard and earn his reward. Thinking we can do it ourselves, and only showing Him our strong stoic nature. Thinking He will eventually owe it to us. The attitude of entitlement can quickly and quietly sneak into our mentality.
The Father will give us what we deeply want and need - His abundantly love - but only if we allow Him to; He respects our will. For so long, I was the older son, trying to earn His love, not showing God my weakness for fear of rejection. I still haven't shaken the older son off entirely. But now I recognise God loves me no matter my weakness, and what great joy that is! I just let Him love me and He will.
This is the good news! This is the joy of Christianity.
In recognising God loves me, it is only then can I meet the standard of being a "good Catholic". And the only standard is to love as Christ loves. Like the woman (probably Mary Magdalene) who anointed and kissed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50) I too can love, because God's mercy has empowered me to do so. "So I'm telling you that her sins, as many as they are, have been forgiven, and that's why she has shown such great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little."
And now the Pope tries to remind us this year what we forget so quickly. We need and deeply desire God's love. And we cannot earn it, but we desperately need it. We can only allow Him to be merciful, because we do not deserve it.
So I implore you with the Pope: experience God's mercy.
This year, the universal Jubilee of Mercy, come before Him, recognise you desire and need Him, that you are desperate for him, and then let Him love you.
You can do this by returning to His Church, exploring His Word (the Bible), frequenting the sacraments, and deepening your relationship with Him.
This is life fully live. This is real love. This is freedom.
"I came so that you might have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)
This reflection was written by Brandon Kengmana, who prides himself on being a citizen of the world, with Thai, American, Chinese, Polish, Irish, and Lithuanian descent, and was born in New Zealand and now lives in Australia. What nationality he most identifies with depends on who he's with at the time.