The mystery of mercy
By Fr. Jack Lynch, S.F.M.
“We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and humanity, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, (The Face of Mercy), MV #2
Mercy is defined as a kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly. It is also expressed as compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. God’s mercy and kindness have been appreciated for centuries, especially by the psalmists: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23.6).
With his extraordinary jubilee, Pope Francis invites us during this year to reflect on mercy and our call to be merciful as God is merciful. In his Papal Bull, “The Face of Mercy,” Francis gives us a beautiful reflection on the meaning and nature of mercy, and above all, on God who has been so merciful with all of humanity throughout history.
Before Francis, two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, strongly recommended that mercy be at the centre of the Church’s proclamation and praxis. John XXIII observed that “mercy is the most beautiful name and the most beautiful way to address God.” In his opening address at Vatican II, the pope made people sit up and take notice when he stated that the Church has condemned the errors of every age with the greatest severity, but “now the spouse of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
John Paul II, in his second encyclical Dives en Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), called mercy “love’s second name” and expanded on John XXIII’s “medicine of mercy.” John Paul II also met face-to-face with his would-be assassin and forgave him.
I still recall the photo of Francis embracing a man suffering from a disfiguring disease. I recall his gentle presence among prisoners he has visited, and his first Holy Thursday as pope washing the feet of young men and women in a detention centre in Rome. He has reached out to the city’s homeless and invited them to the Vatican for a tour and a meal with him. In all his travels as pope, he has included meetings with the poor and marginalized, continually reaching out to people on the peripheries. I find in Pope Francis a precious harmony between his preaching and writings and his actions.
A description of God’s nature
Reflecting on the Papal Bull, Dr. Alessandro Rovati writes, “When Christians speak of mercy, they are not merely advocating for gentleness, compassion, generosity, and understanding. Mercy certainly entails all of these things, but mercy is first and foremost a description of God’s nature. The call to become merciful (Matthew 5.7) is not simply an invitation to a more non-judgmental way of looking at others and ourselves; it is the invitation to ‘be merciful as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6.36); that is, to participate in the very way in which God loves his creatures.”
Yes, God readily forgives us and invites us to be forgiving to others and to ourselves. A number of years ago when I was going through a difficult period, I remember speaking with George Freemesser, a Basilian priest, a psychiatrist, and a friend. When I told him I was going on a retreat during Holy Week, he invited me to reflect on Peter, but not Peter the sinner who denied that he knew Jesus. George looked at me and said, “Jack, I want you to think about Peter who went to the garden and cried. Peter hadn’t understood what Jesus was saying about mercy all the time he was with him. Jesus was abundantly merciful and forgiving, and he invites us to be merciful to ourselves, accepting his forgiveness and moving on.”
It has only taken me a few years and a lot of grey hair to catch on. Mercy is not merely refraining from condemning; it is being generous with others and with ourselves as God has been immensely generous with us.
When I read the Gospels I see a very merciful Jesus. The essential characteristic of his ministry is compassion. Everything in Jesus’ life radiates mercy. The image of Jesus crucified between two thieves speaks of his identifying with the poor and marginalized. “His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously. The relationships he forms with the people…the signs he works, especially in favour of sinners, the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering, are all meant to teach mercy.” (MV #8) Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, mercy is a person and to truly encounter mercy as Christians, we need to encounter the person that is Jesus.
In this Jubilee year, Pope Francis is inviting all of us as individuals and as Church to witness to God’s mercy. “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life…Nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love…The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” (MV #10)
Pope Francis tells us that the Church is commissioned to announce God’s mercy, which is “the beating heart of the Gospel” and must penetrate the heart and mind of every person. The Church is to behave like Jesus who went out to everyone without exception. “In the present day,” the pope writes, “as the Church is charged with the task of the new evangelization, the theme of mercy needs to be proposed again and again with new enthusiasm and renewed pastoral action…Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father.” (MV #12)∞