It’s the Catholic Church buzzword under Pope Francis: mercy. The theme has reached a high point with the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8 to the Feast of Christ The King on November 20 this year.
A new book published just last Monday further expounds on the Holy Father’s constant mantra: The Name Of God Is Mercy, the English translation of his extended interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. It follows The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church, published in 2014, compiling selected speeches, homilies and papers in Francis’s first year as pope.
So what exactly is mercy?
Many believers think it’s mainly about forgiveness of sins. Others cheer — or fear — that Francis’s mercy would declare that those who engage in homosexual relations, use artificial contraceptives, or remarry without having their previous marriages annulled, are no longer violating moral precepts.
And there is worldwide admiration for Francis’s constant admonition that mercy and compassion means being one with the poor, needy, oppressed and sinful, personally knowing them and their pain, and lifting them from distress, deprivation and despair.
As we celebrate the mercy of Creator becoming creature, let us explore the most brilliant cuts of this divine jewel.
Creation — the first act of divine mercy
Eons before man and sin, God already showed mercy in making the world. Creatures are of course not the Creator and therefore far from perfect like Him. So in making the cosmos God had to be forgiving of flaws in every being, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the vast galaxies, from the simplest microbes to the unfettered minds of men.
Without this mercy, God would not have allowed anything but Himself to exist. But mercifully, the Almighty brought forth and loved all creatures, even if all in countless ways violate His absolute goodness, truth, justice, beauty and love.
Indeed, as a father shows loving forbearance and sometimes delight over his child’s tantrums, rowdiness and disobedience, infinitely more so does God for every creature He fathers.
Mercy perfects the world
Now if God’s mercy stopped at forgiving and forbearing creation’s imperfections, then frankly that would be cruel. It would be like bringing a child into the world, then letting it grow up ignorant and savage, bereft of knowledge, goodness, beauty and love.
But divine mercy sought to elevate the world toward heavenly perfection, while always letting the created be what it is or wills to be. In the rise to ever greater things, starting with subatomic particles randomly bouncing around, simple forms combined into more complex and capable ones, eventually producing self-replicating genes which form the basis of life.
And man continued this advancement through the harmonious union of separates, forming couples and families, then communities and nations, and today the interconnected global village.
At the same time, for all the progress in matter and mind through the eons, there remains a vast gulf between infinite heaven and finite earth. For all the advances of human civilization, we still have appalling atrocities, oppression, depravity, and agonies.
Hence, in His supreme act of mercy, Creator became creature to directly impart the fullness of divinity to humanity and open the door for every person to rise to perfection. Thus, the Logos by which God created the cosmos is also the Christ Who redeems it.
Mercy for the repentant sinner
These twin acts of God’s mercy — creating and loving all beings despite our flaws, and lifting all and sundry to His flawlessness — find expression in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God embraces fallen man, sins and all, and in his repentant desire to find his way back to holiness, divine grace strengthens and purifies his soul.
Pope Francis’s many actions and pronouncements reflect Christ’s compassion and forgiveness toward every sinner, seeking out all who go astray, like the shepherd searching for the lost sheep and the widow for the lost coin; and welcoming every wayward soul back to His bosom, like the prodigal son’s father.
In understanding God’s mercy then, be crystal-clear about its twin aspects: forgiveness for our imperfections, and repentance and rising to God’s perfection. That’s why we need atonement: being sorry for our sins we want to be rid of them and return to God.
Thus, forgiveness must lead to conversion. As Jesus told the adulterous woman, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
However, some quarters of the Church, including a leading U.S. Catholic publication, think mercy means watering down or even abandoning some ideals of Christian living, including the model of the Holy Family, with father, mother, and child.
Said a September editorial of the National Catholic Reporter (not to be confused with the National Catholic Register) about the following month’s Synod on the Family: “… the challenge is to create a new ideal that embraces new realities.”
The NCR argues that since countless Catholics daily violate many prohibitions, practicing contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, then those proscriptions may need to change.
That sounds like the kind of thinking for which Jesus told Jewish leaders: “… you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
Mercy means seeking forgiveness, not changing the rules.
In the Year of Mercy, let us recall the twin acts of the All-Forgiving God, always embracing and forgiving our fallen nature, and lifting to His perfect glory those who repent and turn to Him for mercy and grace.
Pope Francis says in his new book: “The expression of mercy is the joy of the feast, and that is well expressed in the gospel of Luke: ‘I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance’.”
In Christ, God embraced our brokenness and elevated it to His perfection. Let us to Him in repentance, and His boundless mercy shall make us whole.