Monday, 13 April 2015

Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us

Pope Francis apostolic letter initiating the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy opens with the words:
Misericordiae vultus Patris est Christus Iesus. ....Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy.
The Jubilee will begin on 8th December 2015, the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council II and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis sees in both of these celebrations a significance for the Jubilee of Mercy (cf nn.3-4). Pope Francis identifies the event of the Council as a time when the Church entered a new phase of her history, a time when the Council fathers sensed the need, inspired by the Holy Spirit, "to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way...The Church sensed a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father's love in the world". The Solemnity, too, marks the moment when God, faced with the gravity of sin, makes the first step in mercy, the mercy that is always greater than sin. The language and action of mercy, to which Pope Francis calls us in this Jubilee, are in absolute continuity with the inspiration of the Council and of the Church's liturgy.

There should be no doubt that Pope Francis call to experience the Divine mercy is also a call to conversion of life (cf n.19-20). He is not at all advocating a mercy that is indifferent to the seriousness of sin.
May the message of mercy reach everyone, and may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy. I direct this invitation to conversion even more fervently to those whose behaviour distances them from the grace of God (... qui ob suae vitae rationem a gratia Dei longe absunt ... those who by reason of their way of life are a long way from God's grace).
Pope Francis refers to two particular situations - criminal gangs and corruption - which, I suspect, reflect his own pastoral experience in both South America and in Italy. But the principle applies to all of us in our different situations.
When confronted with evil deeds, even in the face of serious crimes, it is the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings, and even their very lives. To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests. All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church.
In this context, one should also note the central part that Pope Francis expects the Sacrament of Penance (though Pope Francis uses the title Sacrament of Reconciliation, I have a preference for the title used in the Code of Canon Law) to play during the Jubilee of Mercy (cf nn.17-18).

Pope Francis firstly asks the Church to use a language and a gesture of mercy (cf n.12) in approaching the world during the Jubilee. But he also asks the Church to act in a merciful way (cf n.15):
In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today!...
It is my 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. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not 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.
 As far as the language and gesture of mercy are concerned, I am reminded of two anecdotes. A friend recently related to me her experience of encountering street preachers from evangelical/Pentecostal traditions in our town centre. The most off putting of these preachers was one who referred only to the evil of sin.

The second anecdote is a story often used by Mgr Paul Watson, a former Director of Maryvale Institute. He would start a talk with the story of the captain of a large oil tanker, who, on seeing a light ahead of his ship, radioed the other ship to ask them to change course. The reply was an insistent refusal, to which the captain of the oil tanker pointed out that he was a very large ship and could not change course as easily as a smaller ship. However, as soon as the other light pointed out that it was in fact not another ship but a light house, the captain immediately recognised the need to change course, without that need being in any way an externally imposed demand. Mgr Watson likened this to the first conversion to Christ that is the aim of a primary proclamation of the Gospel, a conversion that is needed first in order that a change to a new way of life might then readily follow as action of authentic freedom.

There is a criticism of Pope Francis' call to renew our proclamation of Divine mercy that suggests that Pope Francis is accusing the Church, unjustly, of not being merciful in the past. However, the temptation to proclaim a morality before we proclaim the conversion towards a Person is present in some reactions towards both Pope Francis' calling of the Jubilee of Mercy and towards events surrounding the Synods on the Family. Pope Francis call for us not judge or to condemn (cf n.14) is precisely about us having a correct ordering of the proclamation of mercy and conversion of life, and not about denying the need for conversion. [And for the record: there is no suggestion here that giving a missionary primacy to the conversion towards the Person of Christ is intended to alter or undermine the fullness of Catholic doctrinal or moral teaching, which follows from that conversion. That would be to mis-represent both Pope Francis and me.] A renewal of a language and gesture of mercy seems to me very timely, and to be something that can be achieved without loss to the integrity of faith.
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.... [n.2]
The Jubilee year will close with the liturgical Solemnity of Christ the King on 20 November 2016. On that day, as we seal the Holy Door, we shall be filled, above all, with a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving to the Most Holy Trinity for having granted us an extraordinary time of grace. We will entrust the life of the Church, all humanity, and the entire cosmos to the Lordship of Christ, asking him to pour out his mercy upon us like the morning dew, so that everyone may work together to build a brighter future. How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst! [n.5]

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