Mathew N. Schmalz is an American Catholic historian of religion who serves as associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of religions and an M.A. in religious studies from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He also holds a B.A. in religion from Amherst College. His doctoral dissertation explored Hindu-Catholic interactions in a charismatic healing community in Hindu North India. Fluent in Hindi and Bengali, he has also done research in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Professor Schmalz’s first book, Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life Changing Gift, was recently published by Our Sunday Visitor Press and is available in both print and electronic formats. On May 2, I interviewed him by email about the book.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote Mercy Matters to respond to Pope Francis’ call for us to reflect upon and appreciate God’s merciful presence in our lives. The Jubilee Year of Mercy presents all of us with a special opportunity to deepen our awareness of how mercy can truly transform our lives.
Who are you writing for?
While I do write from my own experiences and perspective as a Roman Catholic, I intended the book for a broad audience. My reflections on mercy focus on the messiness of our everyday lives—friendship, marriage and family life—and meeting others who initially seem different or unreachable. I hope the book will interest not just Christians from a range of denominations and those of other faith traditions but also those who are suspicious of organized religion and who are seeking to understand how mercy can become more fully expressed in their relations with others.
How do you define “mercy” in this book?
I define mercy as an unexpected, or unmerited, experience of love. Conventionally, I think we first think of mercy in its connection with sin: that God’s love for sinners—all of us—is in itself mercy. But I also wish to expand the parameters of thinking about mercy to include connections with God and others that catch us unawares and change our lives.
What does the title phrase “mercy matters” mean to you?
The title “Mercy Matters” has a two-fold meaning. The first is descriptive; the content of the book concerns various matters that raise questions concerning mercy: adoption, sobriety, bullying, questions surrounding forgiveness and human suffering, and the process of death and dying. The second aspect of the title refers to the central point of the book: that mercy does indeed matter.
How do you “open yourself,” as your subtitle puts it?
I think, fundamentally, that we open ourselves to mercy by letting go of those things that create boundaries between us and God, and between us and others. Letting go is a way of letting in other possibilities—especially the possibility of hope and transformation—in situations that seem hopeless and resistant to change.
What is the “life changing gift” that your subtitle indicates?
The life-changing gift is feeling that we are loved.
How does your academic background in interreligious studies influence your approach to mercy in this book?
I draw upon a number of experiences during my research and study in South Asia that raised questions concerning mercy that I think have relevance beyond the confines of the academy. But I also had to let down my guard as an academic and reveal more of my self—especially my doubts, insecurities and weaknesses—than I would in a conventional scholarly context.
There are many books on mercy from Catholic authors, including the recent interview book with Pope Francis, coming out during this Year of Mercy. What makes yours stand out?
This is a tricky question, because while I certainly hope that my book stands out, I certainly do not want to minimize or dismiss the contributions of other Catholic authors who have written about mercy this year: It’s all important and relevant. But what I hope distinguishes my book is that it is geared to group discussion and individual reflection. There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter that are designed to facilitate discernment. And readers are most certainly encouraged to disagree with, or challenge, the way I have framed “mercy matters” in the context of the book.
How can we as Catholics talk about “mercy” in different religions and cultures?
I think we can best talk about mercy by sharing our concrete experiences of being loved in spite of, or because of, our failings and vulnerabilities. Approaching mercy as some sort of abstract theological concept or construct usually doesn’t work too well, whether it be in a situation of interreligious dialogue or in the conventional college classroom.
Who are the biggest influences on your faith and writing?
In terms of my faith, it would be Catholic charismatic faith healers that I studied in India. Although I did not understand or view their practices—and claims—in the same way they did, their emphasis upon God’s healing love and how hope can be found in and through hopelessness impacted me very deeply in opening my eyes and heart to the transforming power of mercy.
It terms of my writing—although it sounds really pretentious to share this—I would say that the Japanese Catholic author, Shusaku Endo, is my greatest influence: He was able to talk about—and depict—the power of the Christian message while still acknowledging how challenging it is to accept and practice.
How has your faith evolved or changed over the years?
I’ve gone through a number of phases in my faith journey. For a while, when I was younger, I tried to be “more holy than the pope,” as my parish priest once described me. Over the years, however, my Catholic understanding of faith and God’s presence has been enriched by my friendships with Hindus, Muslims and Mormons as well as those of other Christian denominations.
Having been sober now for over 20 years, I also understand that I’m still a work in progress in need of love, understanding and patience. I hope that realization has carried over into my relationships with others: We’re all works in progress and in need of God’s love and mercy.
What is your favorite Bible passage and why?
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Sometimes it’s hard to see and feel, but the fundamental reality of our lives is that God loves each and every one of us.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a series of articles about Catholicism in Sri Lanka. After that, I hope to complete a long-term book project on the late Audrey Santo, a stigmatist from my hometown of Worcester.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about mercy, what would it be?
I’d say: “Thank you, Holy Father, for reminding us of the central place of mercy in the life of the church.”
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
That experiences of weakness and woundedness can lead to transformation and a renewed sense of God’s presence in our lives. That’s the subject of the autobiographical material in Mercy Matters and is, in the end, far more relevant than the formal academic scholarship that I have been fortunate enough to pursue over the course of my professional life.
What are your hopes for the future?
I would really like mercy to become a more explicit theme in Catholic higher education—I think those of us who are fortunate enough to be educators in Catholic institutions need to focus more intentionally and consciously on creating communities of mercy.
Any final thoughts?
Mercy Matters is not an academic tract or textbook. Instead, it’s a book written to be shared. In it, I have shared my own experiences—ranging from alcoholism and sobriety to adoption and the search for my birth mother—in the hope that others will feel comfortable and empowered to share their own experiences of mercy. I think what Pope Francis is asking us to do during the Jubilee Year of Mercy is to be bold in reaching out to God and to one another in a spirit of sharing and merciful love.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.