The Quality of Mercy

On March 13, Pope Francis surprised the world by proclaiming a year-long Jubilee of Mercy. Since then he has begun to give indications, in homilies and talks, as to what this entails.

As I write, the formal bull of indiction has not yet been published. That will be done on April 12, the Second Sunday of Easter, also called Divine Mercy Sunday. But it is already clear that Francis does not want a replay of the Great Jubilee 2000 with mega-events in Rome and lesser initiatives in local churches worldwide.

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He wants this jubilee to go much deeper spiritually and to be a far-reaching Christian witness of mercy to the world. There will be a Roman dimension, of course, but for the most part it will involve creative, concrete initiatives of mercy by Catholic churches at parish, diocesan and national levels across the globe.

Visiting Naples on March 21, Francis gave an indication of what he expects during the jubilee. Speaking off the cuff to 2,000 priests, women and men religious, permanent deacons and seminarians, he posed one question: “Can you tell me what are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?”

Knowing there would be general embarrassment if he asked for a show of hands, he refrained from doing so. The lack of knowledge is hardly surprising, considering that these works are given short shrift in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which simply states (No. 2447):

The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.  Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.

Francis, on the other hand, gives powerful expression, almost daily, by word and deed to what is timidly stated in the catechism. He constantly reminds people that we will be judged at the end of life according to the standard—“the protocol”—given by Jesus in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (25:31–46).

For Pope Francis, mercy is the interpretative key to the Gospel of Jesus. Francis had his first profound experience of God’s mercy at age 17, when he went to confession and felt the call to the priesthood. Throughout his priestly ministry, he has sought to give concrete expression to God’s mercy by word and deed because he believes, as he wrote recently: “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude; it is the very substance of the Gospel message.”

He wants to bring the whole church, starting with the cardinals, bishops, priests and consecrated persons, to open themselves to God’s mercy and to find concrete, creative ways to put mercy into practice in their areas of ministry.

As pope, Francis is blazing the trail by word and deed, showing what mercy means in relation to the poor, the homeless, prisoners, immigrants, the sick and the persecuted. They are for him “the flesh of Christ.” In this same optic of mercy, he recently called for the abolition of the death penalty and life-imprisonment (“the hidden death penalty”).

Affirming that God always shows mercy to everyone who turns to him with a repentant heart, the pope is exploring ways to reconcile and reinstate Catholics who are excluded from the sacraments by church legislation. But he is meeting resistance.

He confronted this resistance in his homily to new cardinals on Feb. 15 by recalling that “the church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.” This means “welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.”

He reminded cardinals and bishops that “the way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity”; rather “it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.” This is what he wants to happen during the Jubilee of Mercy.

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