Mercy as the Last Word

In his book-length interview with Italian Journalist Andrea Tornielli entitled The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis offers what, is in essence, an extended commentary on his Bull of Indiction for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.  Like his three Papal predecessors he is convinced that we are living in an important time of mercy.  Because of this, one gets a sense of urgency in his words as he tries to move us from mercy as an abstract idea to a concrete reality—a reality that in many ways is the Church’s only reason of existence.  “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident” (Misericordiae Vultus, 12).  He speaks of his experience as a confessor where he looks for the slightest opening in which God’s mercy might enter.  The Holy Father ardently believes that “when you feel His [Jesus] merciful embrace, when you let yourself be embraced, when you are moved—that’s  when life can change.”   He even draws parallels between the Church’s approach and that of the fictional priest, Fr. Gaston, in Bruce Marshall’s novel To Every Man a Penny.  A young, dying soldier comes to the priest for confession.  The problem is that although he confesses to numerous amorous affairs, he is unrepentant and admittedly would do it all over again.  Distressed that he will be unable to offer him absolution, Fr. Gaston asks the soldier if he is sorry that he is not sorry.  The priest absolves him based on that sorrow.  The Holy Father comments that it is simply proof “His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins.”

This Year of Mercy is not just about indulgences and confession, but as the Pontiff says, the  main purpose for calling this Jubilee is for the Church “to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (MV, 3).  His point is that while the Sacraments of the Church are efficacious signs of God’s mercy, the entire Church needs to contemplate this same divine attribute so that we all become sacraments of His mercy.  “[W]herever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy” (MV, 12).

It is in this spirit of reflection and witness that the Holy Father expresses his “burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy” (MV, 15).

The Holy Father is inviting all the Faithful to participate in this great Jubilee of Mercy by actively practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.  These particular acts of love, because they touch those in most need, act as chisels on the hard hearted so that God’s mercy may enter.  The Works of Mercy have fallen into disuse in recent decades and so Francis reminds us all during his interview that the works of mercy are “still valid, still current.  Perhaps some aspects could be better ‘translated’ but they remain the basis for self-examination.”  If what Our Lord told St. Faustina is true, namely that, “I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it” (Diary 742) then this is a grace filled time for us to re-introduce these practices to our spiritual lives.

Year of Mercy

It is helpful for us to reflect on two reasons why these practices may have slipped the minds of many in the Church.  The first is that we often fail to see God’s mercy as something personal and real for us.  Most of us don’t have great conversion stories or a real awareness of grave sin in our lives.  Sure we see places where we have drifted from God and He has led us back, but it is often so subtle that we do not even know it at the time.  That in and of itself is mercy.  To see into my own heart and no I am capable of just about anything at times and yet to never have fallen—that is mercy.  In fact to receive the mercy of preservation is one of the most beautiful gifts that God gives us.  He spares us so much pain.  This is why a favorite spiritual practice of St. Augustine when he did his Examen and could not find any sin that day was to thank God in His mercy for all the things that he kept the Saint from falling into.

The point is that we can never spread God’s mercy until we see how He has touched us personally with it.  The word mercy literally means “a heart moved by misery.”  If you do not know what misery “feels” like, it is very difficult to be moved by it in another.  This is why mercy and empathy go hand in hand.  Empathy, according to John Paul II, is “experiencing another person within ourselves as the other person experiences himself.”  It is a path to love and mercy because by seeing the other from the inside, we see them as a subject and not just an object.

A second reason why the Works of Mercy have fallen into disuse is because we set our goals to high.  We assume we must go somewhere to practice them.  We may not have time amidst our family life to volunteer at the Soup Kitchen.  But that misses the point.  How many of the Works of Mercy does a parent perform daily with their children?  Add the supernatural intention of showing them the love of God and all of family life becomes sanctifying.  Children grow up with an innate sense of the Merciful love of the Father.

Jesus addressed a similar obstacle to St. Faustina when he said,

“write this for the many souls who are often worried because they do not have the material means with which to carry out an act of mercy. Yet spiritual mercy, which requires neither permissions nor storehouses, is much more meritorious and is within the grasp of every soul. If a soul does not exercise mercy somehow or other, it will not obtain My mercy on the day of judgment. Oh, if only souls knew how to gather eternal treasure for themselves, they would not be judged, for they would forestall My judgment with their mercy.”

Pope Francis further attempted to simplify things by grouping the first four spiritual works of mercy (counsel the doubtful, teach the ignorant, forgive offenses, be patient with difficult people) are all part of the “apostolate of the ear.”  As proof that these are most needed at this time, look at all the money spent of therapists just because they listen to their patients!

There is one Spiritual Work of Mercy that ought to be of particular focus during this Year of Mercy and that is admonishing the sinner.  If there is one unforgivable sin today even among the most secular it is “being judgmental.”  While obviously this is an abuse of Jesus’ words to “judge not,” there is a truth to it.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy of a culture that is dominated by relativism is that it keeps so many from seeking God’s mercy (no absolute moral law, no sin, no need for mercy).  So it is extremely important that we all realize that to admonish the sinner without pointing them towards the mercy of God is no act of mercy.  It is simply a condemnation.  This is not because sin is inconsequential or because there is no such thing as mortal sin, but because sin can never have the last word.  God’s mercy is more powerful.  The Holy Father is quick to say that “The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘This is a sin.’ But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.”

How different our approach to admonishing sinners is if we do so only with mercy in mind.  For those who have been truly touched by God’s mercy, they want nothing more than for that sinner to experience it too.  A good way to examine ourselves on how we are doing with this is to see our response when we encounter someone who is doing something gravely sinful.  Is my first response, almost visceral in that I despair that the person could be lost?  Or am I concerned only with the fact that they are breaking some rule?  Neither of the two downplays sin, but only the former allows mercy to have the final word.  In truth it might be that for those people who cannot point to specific instances of God’s mercy in their own lives, the greater Work of Mercy is not to admonish the sinner at all.  Blessed are the merciful, for mercy has been theirs!

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