Opening of the Year of Mercy, Our Lady’s Shrine, Knock, December 8th, 2015
On the Sunday after his election, Pope Francis said “You get tired of asking God for mercy, God never tires of being merciful”. Through this the Pope has pointed out a very real challenge for all of us. We know how difficult it can be to live in the midst of a struggle and imperfections in our lives. It can be so easy to become discouraged. Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday, 11th April this year. It begins on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th, 2015 and will end on the Feast of Christ the King (Nov. 27th, 2016). The Holy Father is convinced that the Church and the world at large need the experience of mercy. In our own situations don’t we all cry out for such an experience? The history of God’s dealings with human kind is constantly and consistently depending on God’s mercy. We see this both in the Old Testament and in a very special way in the Mission and ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ. In focusing on mercy we are at the core of the good news, the Gospel. In order to know what it means to be fully human it is necessary to focus on Jesus Christ.
Mercy is the bridge that connects God with human beings. Mercy opens up our hearts to the hope of being loved despite our sinfulness. One of the Collect prayers of the Mass reads: “God, who reveal your power above all in mercy and forgiveness”. In the Old Testament the people experienced God’s mercy as they endured suffering and misfortune. In spite of their repeated transgressions, God remained faithful to his relationship with them which we call the Covenant, a Covenant of love and mercy. This mercy expresses a love that is faithful. Indeed the word Mercy, when applied to God is always in the context of the covenant with Israel. As we know Israel betrayed that covenant relationship, but God’s mercy was more powerful than betrayal. This loving-kindness includes fidelity. This loving-kindness illustrates generosity, not obligation and it is a normal part of good human relations. We experience it quite frequently with the word compassion. So mercy includes all those ideas – love, forgiveness, compassion and faithfulness.
It denotes the love of a mother for her child and it has all the overtones of tenderness, patience, understanding and readiness to forgive as we look into our own experience and particularly as we reflect on the experience of our own mothers we get some indication of this. The Prophet Isaiah had to console a people who were languishing in exile and feeling that God had forgotten them and he says “can a woman forget her child, that she should have no compassion for the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”. God’s fidelity to his promises provides hope for us in spite of human infidelity. A fundamental experience of the people of Israel is expressed in exodus 34:6 in the following. “The Lord, the Lord, a God of tenderness and graciousness, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and fidelity, showing kindness to thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, but who will, by no means, clear the guilty”. In the Psalms which the people of Israel prayed and which Our Lady would have taught to Jesus when he was a boy you have summed up his attitude “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy…..he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our inequities”. (Psalm 103:8-10).
Today we tend to identify mercy with compassion or forgiveness, but this risks curtailing the richness of the biblical idea. The mercy is not an abstract ideal, but rather a concrete reality which illustrates God’s fatherly love “mercy and faithfulness will meet, justice and peace will kiss. Faithfulness will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven”. (Psalm 85:10-11). Another Psalm impresses upon us God’s mercy endures forever. (Psalm 136). This Psalm was sung at the most important Feast in Israel and was prayed by Jesus before his passion. It is within this context of mercy, that Jesus entered into his passion.
The New Testament does not speak as frequently as the Old Testament about divine mercy, but rather it focuses directly on Jesus Christ and his mission which is a manifestation of God’s mercy. Jesus’ whole ministry is an interpretation of that mercy. So often, the words used to describe the reaction of Jesus are: to have mercy on someone, to have compassion, to be moved with compassion, to feel sympathy. Saint Paul sums up the Old Testament describing God as “the Father of Mercies”. (2 Corinthians 1:3) and “God as rich in Mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). Mercy is the principle theme of the preaching of Jesus as he points to God’s love for weak and sinful humanity which takes the form of mercy. The story of the merciful Father, the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:13-35. Mercy goes beyond justice as we see in the parable of the Merciless Servant (Matthew, 18:23-35). An outstanding feature of the life of Christ was his sympathy, compassion for human misery, mourners, for the sick and suffering, for those who are hungry, for repentant sinners. We are reminded of the stories of The Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, (10:1-18) The Good Samaritan in Luke, (10:30-37). An illustration of mercy is shown by the help one gives to someone in need as in the story of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:37). Jesus underlines the fact that God’s attitude towards the human being is one of mercy. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful”. (Luke 6:36).
Jesus is “the merciful High Priest” (Hebrews 2:17). In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus shows the nature of God as a Father who never gives up scanning the horizon until he forgives the wrong done by his Son with compassion and mercy; the father in that story is “moved with compassion” and, “casting aside his dignity runs to meet him”. (Luke 15:20). You may recall Peter’s question about forgiveness, the way in which Jesus responded “I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22). So mercy is not only a divine attribute; it becomes the criterion of the true children of the father and is essential for entering God’s kingdom (Luke 6:36). What is frequently referred to as the last judgement scene in Matthew 25 illustrates that we will be judged according to the mercies we have shown.
In our culture today mercy, in many cases, has been replaced by revenge. The credibility of the Church will be demonstrated in works of merciful and compassionate love. Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium invites the whole Church to announce the mercy of God which is at the heart of the Gospel. So being merciful like the Father is the motto of this Jubilee Year of Mercy. It invites us to reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
There is a close relationship between justice and mercy. Mercy cannot be opposed to justice, rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner. God goes beyond justice in bestowing mercy and forgiveness. Justice must be complimented by merciful love. Justice which is imbued with love sets mercy in motion. While justice is integrated to the social order, mercy is the most profound source of justice. Only merciful love can restore fully the values of lost human dignity.
Mercy does not mean indulgence towards evil, scandal, injury or insult. Mercy is the indispensible element for shaping mutual relationship between people.
Today we live in a culture where profound changes in lifestyle have come about which affect social life. People today have a great need of mercy. The Church’s pastoral mission is to profess and to proclaim the mercy of God, to help people embody it in their lives as well as praying to God for mercy. In today’s world mercy is often regarded as a sign of weakness. Mercy however is not belittled but rather involves the restoration of the wayward son’s dignity (Luke 15, the parable of the merciful father). In that story the dignity of the individual is anchored in God’s faithful and merciful love. The person who practices mercy is also a beneficiary of mercy. In practicing mercy, givers discover their humanity more fully because they recognise the dignity of the other. Mercy is an indispensable dimension of love for it is the particular manner in which love is revealed in our world today.