The Year of Mercy – Pastoral Reflections

X Rodrigo Mejía Saldarriaga, s.j.

Vicar Apostolic Emeritus of Soddo (Ethiopia)

http://www.consolata.org

 YEAR OF MERCY

Sagana, 1th of March  2016

 

 

Introduction

Pope Francis has not yet produced any document specifically addressed to the priests and religious on the theme of pastoral ministry. However, from his main documents, The Joy of the Gospel and more recently Misericordiae Vultus we can extract some suggestions that invite all those who are  full time oriented to pastoral care  to reflection, prayer  and evangelical discernment.

First, the Pope addresses the priests not so much as presiders of the Eucharist celebration but mostly as pastors and guides of the people of God. In other terms, the Pope stresses more the presbyteral function rather than the priestly function as a liturgical function as such, following in this point the more recent theological trends.

Having recently opened the extraordinary Jubilee Year on Mercy for the universal Church, I think it is normal that the profile of the apostle today, as a merciful pastor, is stressed. This is why I want to reflect on this theological theme as a central theme for us during this year of Mercy. I will be guided in these reflections by the excellent book of Cardinal emeritus Walter Kasper untitled “Mercy” of which the Pope said in the cover jacket : “This book has done me so much good”.[1]

More recently, the same Cardinal Kasper has published another small book on Pope Francis and his “Revolution of Tenderness” [2] whom he calls a “Pope of surprises”.

Why a Year of Mercy?

The response may be found in an interview to Pope Francis by the known magazine “America” only six months after his election as Pope, he said: “Mercy to heal wounds, to warm the hearts of the faithful. The service of mercy is central in the Church’s mission…The Church ministers must be “ministers of mercy above all”. They have to accompany the people like the good Samaritan”.[3]

Later on in his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”, he wrote: “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel”.[4]

The concern for mercy is not new in the Church. Already Pope St. John XXIII in his address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council said: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine off mercy rather than taking up arms of severity…”.[5]

Blessed Pope Paul VI spoke in a similar way at the closing of the same Council: “We prefer to point out how charity has been the principal religious feature of this Council…the old story of the Good Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the Council”.[6]

But one greatest pastoral contribution towards the issue of mercy wasthe Encyclical Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II, “Dives in Misericordia” (1980), a teaching that deserves to be taken up once again during this Holy Year. This letter was written in the background of Pope’s St. John-Paul experience of the horror of the Second World War, the Shoa, the Nazi era, and the communist oppression in Poland.  Later on, he took up the suggestions expressed in the writings of Saint Faustina Kowalska and made the Sunday after Easter “Mercy Sunday”. In the Jubilee Year 2000, he canonized Sister Faustina as the first saint of the new millennium.

In that Jubilee, among other things Saint John-Paul II wrote, “The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer – and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour’s mercy, of which she is trustee and dispenser”.[7]

Benedict XVI in his homily during the Mass at the beginning of the conclave (18th April 2005), commenting the Gospel reading, stressed, “Jesus Christ is mercy in person. To encounter Christ is to encounter the mercy of God. Christ’s commission has become our commission through priestly anointing. We are charged with proclaiming “the Year of the Lord’s Mercy” (Lk 4:19) not only with words but also with our lives and with the effective signs of the sacraments”.   Consequently, Pope Benedict made of love the main theme of his first Encyclical letter in 2006, “Deus Caritas est”. Later on, in the following encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (2009) he made of love, not of justice, the basic principle of Catholic Social teaching.

This convergence of the four successive Popes of the XX century on the issue of mercy is confirmed by Pope Francis who, since the beginning of his pontificate, chose as his heraldic motto for his episcopal coat of arms: “miserando atque eligendo” (by looking at me with mercy, he chose me).

For Pope Francis, the message of mercy stands at the heart of the message of the Gospel. We can affirm that the topic of mercy has become now the key word of his pontificate. He insistently repeats that God’s mercy is infinite. We may get tired of seeking his mercy but God will never get tired of forgiving us.[8]

Pope Francis, in his first Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”, stresses that mercy “is the greatest of all the virtues and quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas in order to explain the reason: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all others revolve around it, and more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular of the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree”.[9] No wonder that the Pope, in this background, has proclaimed the Holy Year on Mercy.

We have neglected the issue of Mercy

 However important, Cardinal W. Kasper affirms that theology has neglected the theme of mercy: “ It is all the more surprising  that Scholastic theology has neglected this topic and  turned it into a mere subordinate theme of justice. Scholastic Theology thereby was tangled up in great difficulties. For when one makes justice the higher criterion, the question arises how a just God, who must punish evil and reward good, can be merciful and grant pardon. Isn’t’ that unfair to those who have striven in an upright manner to live a good life?”[10] There are some reasons for this negligence. Let us see some of them:

1 – In Theodicy, the main attributes of God derive all from his metaphysical essence as a “Subsistent Being”: its being simple, infinite, eternal, omnipotent and perfect. However, in this view, there is no room for mercy because it derives, not from the metaphysical essence of God but from the revelation of God consigned in the Bible.

2 – The absolute perfection of God, according to the traditional metaphysics, entails the inability of God to suffer (apaqeia), because suffering must be understood as a deficiency proper to creatures. However, this approach makes very difficult of a “compassionate God”.  Can a God, conceived so apathetically, be sympathetic with our human suffering?  On the other hand, if God is insensitive to our human suffering how can he be “rich in mercy”? (Eph 3:2)

3 – There is an apparent ontological conflict between mercy and justice.  Justice, according to the traditional philosophical definition of “unicuiquesuum” is “iustitiacommutativa”, “iustitiadistributiva” “iustitiaretributiva”.  According to this approach to justice, God rewards the just and punishes the wicked. If God, in his mercy, does not punish the sinner, how can that be compatible with the notion of divine justice? And if we respond that God punishes only those who do not repent, then we are making of repentance and forgiveness an exchange of retributive justice, more important than mercy!

Due to this philosophical background, the traditional catechesis has stressed the image of an “avenging God” that has thrown many Christians into a state of fear and anxiety about their eternal salvation. The case of Luther is a notorious case in history until he came to understand the real meaning of divine justice in the Bible as we will see later on.

Mercy under Suspicion of being an Ideology

The issue of the mercy of God is not only a theological problem. It raises a social problem.  This was a problem proposed in the past century by Karl Marx and the Marxism. For Marx, Religion is the foundation for “consolation and justification” of the distress suffered by people by promising them reward of eternal happiness through unsolved suffering. He describes religion as “opium of the people”.   Though his primary intention might not have been to go against religion (opium, in his time, was popularly used as a very efficacious medicine in order to relieve unbearable pain), it becomes not a real response to the meaning of suffering in human life but just a temporary relief for the oppressed victims. A social medicine that would calm the oppressed classes of society so that they do not claim for their rights. In this way, the hope for divine mercy becomes a way of silence the earthly need for justice.  We must confess that such an ideological misuse of divine mercy existed and perhaps continues to exist even today.

The influence of a social application of Darwinist evolutionism has also contributed to a misconception of mercy. According to Darwin evolution theory, only the strongest species of living beings can survive. The weak all perish. It is the law of the “survival of the strongest and the fittest”. If we apply this principle to the human society, it justifies the strength of the powerful and the promotion of one’s strength, not of mercy.  This is what exactly what happens in a competitive and globalized economy in which the dictatorship of the “free market” ends up with the exclusion of the small enterprises: they cannot resist the competition of powerful and multinational corporations. Economy today, is far from being inspired by mercy but rather by competition.

In this context, whoever holds firm to the ethical values of the Beatitudes is perceived to be naïve and out of the world.

 

The Current situation of the World is crying for Mercy

 

There is also a historical reason for a year of mercy. Due to the widespread terrorism, violence and wars, there is need for empathy and compassion perceived by many people today. The world, according to Pope Francis, has to get rid of a “globalization of indifference”. The Church cannot contribute to build up a different society, if it remains indifferent in the face of dramatically suffering situations today.  Compassion is not a merely sentimental pity or diplomatically condolence. The very word compassion implies empathy, “suffering with”, solidarity and “passionately” being committed to redress the unjust social structures that are at the root of injustice.

 

It is here that the call for mercy surpasses the cry for justice. Mercy is applicable even in situations in which complete justice cannot be achieved.  Mercy does not undercut justice but goes beyond it especially in hopeless situations of unmerited natural catastrophes.

 

But, then, we, as pastors, are challenged by several pastoral questions: if God is rich in mercy, how to explain that he allows underserved suffering in the world?   What would be the deep meaning of the Beatitude “Happy are the merciful”? (Mt 5:7).  How can we reconcile mercy and divine justice? What would be the practical consequences if we apply mercy as a fundamental criterion for pastoral action and sacraments in the Church?

Such questions constitute a main motivation for priests, pastors, to reflect on the Theology of Mercy in order in order to gain a sound understanding of it.

 

 

I –   The Message of Divine Mercy in the Old Testament:

 

 The terms of the Bible to express Mercy

 

The important issue at this point is to go beyond the understanding of mercy as a natural human feeling of compassion and deepen in the message of the Bible about a God that is merciful.

 

There is a common popular opinion that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and revengeful God in contrast with the God revealed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament as a merciful Father. There are some passages of the Old Testament that may sustain this opinion.[11] However, we have to take into consideration the following aspects:

 

  1. The progressive process through which the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament reveals the concept of God and his plan of salvation.
  2. The internal development of the Old Testament in the direction of the New Testament
  3. The different terms used to indicate the different aspects of mercy in the Old Testament. Characteristically, the Old Testament uses the radical raham thatmeans “womb” or “intestines” and the derivations that indicate compassion and mercy localized in this part of the body. We have also to understand “mercy” when we include the concept of “heart” because this is the core human person, the seat of human feelings, of judgment and of decisions, which is also applied to God in a figurative sense.
  4. In the Bible compassion is not regarded as a weakness, something unworthy of a strong hero (See for example the psalms of lament, the Laments of Jeremiah, David’s sorrowful complaint at the death of his son Absalom (2 Sam 19). This will appear more clearly in the life and reaction of Jesus in the New Testament.
  5. The Old Testament goes further in order to speak theologically of God’s heart (Gen 6:6; 1 Sam 13:14; Jere 3:15; Ps 78:72). The apex is found in prophet Hosea 11:1-11.
  6. The most important expression for understanding the notion of mercy in the Old Testament is hesed which means unmerited loving kindness. It is quite frequently together with the term “fidelity” of God. It is an unmerited and unexpected grace from God transcending every relationship of reciprocal fidelity.

 

 

The Divine Response to the Chaos and Catastrophe of Sin

The reality of God’s mercy does not appear in the Old Testament only in the use of the terms we have proposed but mostly in the events from God in the history of salvation.  From the beginning God created everything gratuitously, unmerited and good (Cf. Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 20,25 31) and in a special way the human being in his image (Gen 1:27-30; 2:15).

But the human being brought the catastrophe by wanting to be like God (Gen 3:5) and also by jealousy between brothers leading to murder (Gen 4).  However, God is merciful and does not want people to run headlong into disaster.  Although the term “mercy” may not appear in the early chapters of the Genesis, God’s mercy is factually visible and effective (promise of a Redeemer in Gen 3:15) and even protection to Cain so that nobody may kill him (Gen 8:23; 9: 1-5 ff).

In Gen 6:6, before the flood, it is written that God regretted making human beings. But nowhere in the Old Testament it is written that He regretted having   had mercy of his people.  Again in another sinful crisis, the project of the tower of Babylon, after the chaos of the confusion of languages God makes a new start and gives a new opportunity with the calling of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) which is the actual beginning of our history of salvation.  The love, graciousness and faithfulness of God is manifest in the whole story of Abraham (Cfr. Gen 24:12, 14, 27 32:11).  It is through his mercy that God overpowers evil.

The Revelation of God’s Name as Revelation of God’s Mercy

The revelation of the mercy of God is bound to the fundamental revelation of God to Moses in the process of liberation and exodus from the oppression in Egypt. God identifies himself as in continuity with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and he “has seen the misery of the people in Egypt and has heard their cries (Ex 3:7-9).  The mercy of God in liberating his people becomes like the fundamental statement of faith in the Old Testament: “The God, Yahweh who has brought us out of Egypt”.[12] In the episode of the Mount Sinai, after the  idolatry of the people  to the golden calf that the mercy of God is better disclosed after Moses “reminds” God of his promises and asks for his mercy towards the unfaithful people:   “ I will be gracious  (hen) and will show mercy (rahamim) on whom I will show mercy”.   (Ex 33:19). Then, God commands Moses to prepare a “second edition” of the tablets of the Law  (Ex 34).

Finally, there is another description  of  God in Ex 34:6:   “ The Lord, The Lord, a God merciful (rahum) and gracious (henun) slow to anger and abounding  in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emet)”. This revelation of God’s nature appears repeatedly  in the Old Testament, especially  in the psalms, as another “credo” summary of the people of Israel  (Cf. Ps 86:5).

However, the high point of the revelation of God’s mercy in the Old Testament is found in prophet Hosea. The drama of his message corresponds to the drama of the situation of the people of Israel at that time (722-721 BC).The people had broken the Covenant and God had “decided”  to show no more mercy to them (Hos 1:6; 11:18) But God is not a human being and to be merciful is his divine essence. This is one of the  radical difference between humans and God. Only the one who stands above and not depending on the demands of only legal justice can forgive and pardon.

The books of Jonas and of Job are a revelation of the mercy of God. The same can be said of the book of Tobit.

Mercy, Holiness, Justice and the Fidelity of God

A brief analysis of the  texts of the Old Testament reveals that mercy permeates and integrates  all the other attributes of God and this is why that it cannot be treated apart independently of them. We could see the integration of mercy and justice, for example, in the text of  Exodus 34:6 and also in the texts of Hosea quoted above. Let us analyse  a bit more deeply this interaction of the attributes of God who is perfectly one.

  • Mercy and Holiness: Holy, etymologically, means “set apart”, (it is said of a place o of a person). God is not just part of creation, not a being belonging to the universe. His being holy means being completely other, radically different from everything that is created.  The mercy of God, therefore, cannot be understood as a sort of “compromise with the evil” produced by human beings.  He is not just “allowing our mistakes and malice  letting run wild in us. God does not “close his eyes” to evil for the sake of maintaining “diplomatic relations”, as we humans usually do. His mercy is not caused by his ingenuity or naivety.  As Paul clearly wrote “God does not let be mocked” (Gal 6:7).

 

  • Mercy and Divine Justice: The Old Testament mentions more than once the “wrath of God”. We cannot interpret this according our human categories as an emotional surge of uncontrolled rage but as an external expression of the interior total opposition of God to sin and to injustice.  God’s mercy conforms to his justice. A purely human interpretation attributes the wrath of God to his justice, a justice whose function is to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous already in this earthly life.  However, this conception enters into a crisis in the case of the unmerited suffering of the faithful in contrast with   the success of the sinner in this life. This is expressed several times in the psalms and it constitutes the crucial question of the book of Job.  In this context, the “anawim”, the victims who cannot expect real justice on earth put their hope in the divine justice that will have the last word, the eschatological hope for “a new heaven and a new earth in which justice dwells”.   This hope is directed towards the coming of the Messiah which will bring the irruption of mercy in a corrupted society.  The justice of God is successful, not when the sinner is punished but when the sinner converts and lives. It is not a merely “punitive” justice but a grace for conversion, a justice whose purpose is not to condemn but to justify, that is, to give the humans another opportunity for justification.  God never gets tired of giving new opportunities of conversion (Cf. Is 54:7-8,10).

 

  • Mercy and the firm Fidelity of God. The mercy of God is not motivated from outside but from inside, that is from his own merciful nature. When God is merciful, he is faithful, first of all, to himself and also faithful to his promises.  This is what Paul will teach later: “If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful because He cannot deny himself”(2 Tim 1:13).  The faithfulness of God is solid and firm like the foundational roc (aman). Our  liturgical formula “amen” does not mean first of all an intellectual assent to the truth but an expression of hope and confidence in the solidity of the promises of God: “If you do not stand  firm in faith, you will not stand at all” ( Cf. Is 7:9) .

Inspired on St. Anselm off Canterbury, S. Thomas Aquinas recognized that God is not bound to follow our rules of human justice. God is sovereign; he is just, not in reference to any law that is not controlled by Him but in reference to Himself, who is Love (1 John 4:8, 16).  Because God is Love and, therefore, is faithful to himself, he is also merciful. Mercy is the aspect of God’s nature “ad extra”, in His relations to humankind. By being merciful, God, who is Love, is faithful to himself and his mercy is the expression of his absolute sovereignty in love. Love is the supreme Law of divine Justice and divine mercy is faithfulness to Love. That is what the elder son of the parable of the prodigal son could not understand (Cf. Lk 15:28-32).

 

  • God’s option for Life and for the Poor in the Old Testament: The Old Testament message about the mercy of God is not restricted to the pure spiritual realm of the forgiveness of sins. God has not only mercy of our souls but of our entire human being made of body and soul, therefore, it has concrete physical and social dimensions. God is the God of life, not the God of death. He does not like that the sinner dies but that he repents and continues to live (Cf. Ez 18:23; 33:11). This already goes in a opposite direction to our human idea of justice according to which, we may think that when the capital death makes the evildoer disappear from the world of the living, then “justice is done”. On the contrary, mercy is God’s option for life, (Cf. Ps 27; 36:10; Wis 11:26). To suppress the life of the unjust has never produced more justice nor suppressed the problem of injustice and evil in society.

 

  • The Poor in the Old Testament (the oppressed, the marginalized, the weak, the forgotten, etc.) area a constant reality in Israel. The whole people were “poor” in the servitude years in Egypt ( Ex 22:20; Dt 10:19; 24:22). Mercy towards the victims appear in the command of God of not exploiting the widows and the orphans as well as the aliens   (Cf. Ex 22:24-26; Lev 19: 11-18; 25).  This mercy appears in the canticle of Hanna, which prefigures the Magnificat of Mary in the New Testament (See 1 Sam 2:8).

 

The institution of the Sabbath was a moment of mercy providing a day with no manual work, especially for slaves and foreign workers, allowing them to catch their breath and have a rest (Cf. Ex 20:9 ff; 23:12; Dt 5:12-15).  The institution of the Sabbatical year (Ex 23:10; Dt  1-18) and especially the year of the jubilee were animated by the same spirit of mercy towards those who were victims of the excessive  inequalities in society.  This merciful concern of God  for the poor is a theme that  appears constantly in the Prophets, bound to the denunciation of injustice. The texts of  Amos are well known denouncing  exploitation and  social oppression (Cf. Amos 2:6-8; 4:1, 7-12; 8:4-7). Burning offerings cannot please God more than justice and mercy (Amos 5:21-25).  Similar words are found din Isaiah (Is 1:11-17; 14:32; 254; 41:17; 49:13; 58: 5-7).  According to the third Isaiah, the Messiah will come especially to the poor, the little ones in order to bring them good news and hope for mercy (Is 61:1).

 

The prophets praise often God for his mercy (Is 54:7; 57:16-19; 63:7- 64:11; Jer 31:20).

 

f – Praise to the merciful God in the Psalms: In many places, the psalms sing the mercy of God. Here are the main references:

Psalms of praise for God’s mercy:  25:10;  36:5; 103:8, 13; 106:1; 107:1; 116:5; 145:8.

Psalms that show the mercy received  by the Poor from God:  9:10,19; 10: 14, 17; 22:25; 113:4-8.

Of a special value is Psalm 51 (penitential psalm) and Psalm 86:15.

 

Conclusion:  We cannot say that the profile of God according to the Old Testament is the one of an angry and revengeful God, a severe and insensitive judge.  Even when he punishes his people, the punishment is not the one of a “punitive justice” but rather the   pedagogical and medicinal punishment aiming at the correction and rehabilitation of the persons. We rightly can call it a “medicinal punishment”.

 

II – Jesus’ Message of God’s Mercy

 

1 – In the Infancy Narratives:  Leaving aside  the question about the nature and origin of these narratives, we approach them as real Revelation and go directly to see how the revelation of a merciful God is to be found in them.   The very names of “Emmanuel” (God is with us)  (Mt 1:23)  and Jesus ( Saviour) (Lk 1:31) are already a program of mercy on the side of God. The central message of these narratives is the mystery of incarnation, which is an initiative of mercy for the sake of our salvation in order to fulfil his promises    “from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50,54).  The canticles of the Benedictus and theMagnificatmake the explicit link with the mercy of God revealed in the Old Testament.  However, there is a fundamental progress: the mercy of God is now revealed as embracing all the nations , as it was promised to Abraham,  and is no longer confined to Israel as a chosen people.  The   short canticle of Simeon affirms this universality in a very explicit way (Lk  2:30-32).

In these infancy narratives the humanity of God and its closeness to our human situation is underlined. There is no manifestation of power or majesty. God wants to share our human condition. His kenosis is a visible sign of his compassion for us as it is explained in the Letter to the Hebrews  (Cfr. Heb 2:14-18).

 

2 – Jesus through his Mercy reveals the Mercy of God the Father

In the Gospel of Mark, the signs that the Kingdom of God is near is the activity of Jesus moved by compassion towards the sick, the possessed and the healing of everything that harms human life.  In Luke, the message of mercy appears in a more clearly manner.  The messianic mission of Jesus is described in the light of Isaiah as a mission of  mercy towards the blind, the lame, the sick, the captives and the poor in general and  also in the  way of a “Year of mercy” of the Lord, as it had been described in the book of Leviticus  (Cf. Lk 4: 18-19. See Is 61: and Lev 25.  The same statements appear substantially in Matthew 11:5 and ff; Lk 7.22).  What the three Synoptic gospels say is expressed in the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3. Cfr. Lk 6:20): the poor in spirit (anawim) are not only those who are economically and socially poor but all those who have broken hearts, who are discouraged or despairing, all those who stand before God as beggars.[13]

Jesus proclaims the message of mercy not only with his teaching but especially with his life. The attitude of Jesus is the one of compassion and mercy: “Come to me all you who are carrying a heavy burden and I will give you rest” (Mt: 11:28). The examples of healing and liberation of possessed are well known, the blind, the lepers, the hungry and even the mourning  widow of Naim touch his heart.

What is new in the revelation of the mercy of Jesus and distinguishes it from the message of mercy in the Old Testament is that his merciful attitude is addressed to all, good and bad, not only to the righteous but also to the sinners like the tax collectors, the prostitutes, etc. Jesus explains why: “I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32; Lk 18: 9-14 and Lk 19:1-10). In his merciful attitude Jesus reveals the mercy of his Father because who sees Jesus sees the Father ( Cf. Jn 14:7,9)

However, the mercy of God as Father occupies the centre of Jesus’ message. The “Abba” became a characteristic of Jesus, a way of referring to God unusual to the Old Testament. Hence the centrality of the prayer of “Our Father” not only as the  prayer par excellence but as a revelation for us of the right understanding of God as a merciful Father who is Father of all humans, “who makes his sun shine  on the bad and the good and let  the rain fall on the just and the unjust”.  (Mt 5:45)

The mercy of the Father appears in a special explicit way in the parables of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25 -37) and of the so-called “prodigal Son” (Lk 15: 11-32).  In the Good Samaritan – Pope Francis comments – appears the current phenomenon of a “globalization of indifference”,[14]that is, a lack of sensitivity and compassion for the millions of people suffering in the world. The Priest and the Levite, precisely two men supposed to be closely attached to their religious office, pass by the victim without being affected (Cf. Kasper pp 69-70).

In the Parable of the prodigal son the father’s mercy appears as the highest form of justice: divine mercy leads “human beings to a return to the truth of themselves. God’s mercy does not humiliate the person; it respects the dignity of the human being”.[15]

Conclusion: Not only the quoted texts but the whole life of Jesus shows that he is oriented to serve others.  Even if Jesus has opponents who criticize his healings in a Sabbath day (Cfr. Mk 3:6; Mt 12:14; Lk 6:11) and for daring to forgive sins  (Mk 2:6; Mt 9:2ff; Lk 5:20-22).  It is  true that Jesus responds to them with stern words of judgment.  We cannot ignore his angry reaction towards the exchangers and sellers in the temple. But even in those cases, the purpose of his reactions is not to condemn. We have to understand them as “prophetic actions” (frequent in the prophets of the Old Testament) in order to warn the people and to urge them to conversion, offering them by the same token a chance for forgiveness. [16]

 

III – Ecclesial Praxis and the Culture of Mercy

 

Leaving aside other important consideration on Mercy from the Systematic Theology point of view, we are going to consider some of the main pastoral consequences for the Church in the light of mercy. Today, more than ever, the Church is judged by people more by its deeds than by its words and it is important that there is a certain coherence between both for the credibility of evangelization.  As an instrument and a sacrament of the Kingdom of God the Church must be before all an instrument and a sacrament of the mercy of God as Pope Francis teaches: “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone  can feel  welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged  to live the good life of the Gospel”.[17]  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Church promotes the mercy of God especially through the sacrament  of reconciliation [18]. This is a call specifically addressed to all the priests:

“I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy. Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves. We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this. None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it. Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgement is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy”. [19]

May confessors not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what”.

 

There is a great challenge to the merciful attitude in general  as Pope Francis explains, quoting a paragraph from his predecessor Saint John Paul II:

 

“Let us not forget the great teaching offered by Saint John Paul II in his second Encyclical,Dives in Misericordia, which, at the time came unexpectedly, its theme catching many by surprise. There are two passages in particular to which I would like to draw attention. First, Saint John Paul II highlighted the fact that we had forgotten the theme of mercy in today’s cultural milieu: “The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man, who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it (cf. Gen 1:28). This dominion over the earth, sometimes understood in a one-sided and superficial way, seems to have no room for mercy… And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God”.[20]

 

However, the mercy of the Church is not confined only to the sacrament of reconciliation but it pervades all its pastoral activity, as Pope Francis teaches in his Bull of Indiction “Misericordiae Vultus”: “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; 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 Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”.[21]

 

One of the most important pastoral consequences of mercy is the orientation of the Church towards those most in need in the human society. [22] For Pope Francis, this means today the poor, the displaced, the refugees, the marginalized and the powerless. Hence the duty of the pastors of reminding all the Christians of the practice of the “works of mercy”:

 

“It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on thecorporal 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. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.

We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45)”.[23]

 

Conclusion:

The year of mercy is not to be conceived as a year of relaxing our concern for justice. Mercy and justice are not opposed nor contradictory. If there is such a great need for mercy today, it is precisely towards the millions of victims of social injustice.  The growing gap between the rich and the poor, consequence of a wild neoliberal capitalism, is one of the main root causes of the exclusion of the poor in society. Therefore, the promotion of justice remains a main concern for the pastoral activity of the Church. To make the affluent upper classes aware of the unjust economic structures in which they live and whose practice they justify in the name of a “free market”, an uncontrolled market, is a great service not only to the  victims but  for the rich themselves. The greatest beneficiary of the visit to Jesus to the rich tax collector Zacchaeus was Zacchaeus himself who felt liberated from the chain of the social debt of his conscience. The mercy of Jesus produced justice.   (Cf. Lk 19:1- 10).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] W. Kasper,  MERCY  The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, New York, Paulist  Press, 2014.

[2] W. Kasper, Pope Francis. Revolution of Tenderness and Love, New York,Paulist Press, 2015.

[3] Cf. America magazine of the 30th of September 2013.

[4] Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel ( 24th November  2013), 114.

[5]St. John XXIII, Opening Address of the Second Vatican Council, “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia”,11th October 1962, 2-3.

[6] Bl. Paul VI, Speech at the Final public session of the Second Vatican Council  (7thDecember 1965).

[7] Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter “Dives in Misericordia” , 13.

[8] Cf.  Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 3.

[9]Cf.  Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 37.

[10] W. Kasper, Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love, 32.

[11] See, for example: Dt 7:21-24; 9:3; Josh 6:21; 8:1 -29; 1 Sam 15; Ps 58; 83; 109.

[12]  W. Kasper interprets the TetragrammatonYHWH, as “I am the one who is always with you”. (pp. 47-48).

[13]See W. Kasper, Mercy, p.67.

[14] Cf. Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 54.

[15] Cf. Kasper, Mercy, pp  70-72 for a comment of this parable.

[16] Cf. Kasper, Mercy, 72.

[17]Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 114.

[18]See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nº 2040.

[19]Pope Francis, “Misericordiae Vultus”, 17.

[20]Pope Francis, “Misericordiae Vultus”, 11. Cf.  St. John Paul II,“Dives in Misericordia”, 2.

[21]Pope Francis, “Misericordiae Vultus”, 10.

[22]Cf.  Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 186 -216.

[23]Pope Francis, “Misericordiae Vultus”, 15.

 

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