Mercy_Horizon of life

Mercy: A Believer’s Horizon

Frank DeSiano, CSP

President: Paulist Evangelization Ministries

 

Outline:

 

Images

Justice

Inadequacy
Mercy as initiative

Grace
                Changes the context
Metaphysics and Mathematics of Mercy
Mercy and Eschatology
Church of Mercy

Relationship, restoration, entrance to the eschaton


 

 

I love to tell this story when I’m out preaching.  A priest has to say Mass in New York on Sunday, so he goes into the subway with his vestments and alb in a garment bag, and enters a subway car that is almost empty.  A few stops later another man enters.  He’s wobbling, his shirt is unbuttoned, and he has lipstick all over his neck and collar.  A few stops further, the intoxicated man, who is trying to read a newspaper, asks the priest: Father, how does someone get arthritis?  The priest lowers his brow, thinks he has an opening, and says: “How does someone get arthritis?  You get arthritis by debauching yourself, drinking all night, hanging out with floozies . . . That’s how you get arthritis.”  The mean looks puzzled and says, “Really?”  He goes back to reading his paper.  A few more stops and the priest starts thinking that he laid things on too hard.  He says to the other fellow: “Gee, I’m sorry to hear you have arthritis.”  The intoxicated man looks up from his newspaper.  “Oh, Father, I don’t have arthritis.  It just says in the paper the pope has arthritis.”

 

This story captures so well the way religious people, particularly those on the right—and we Catholics have looked like folks on the right to many in our society today—come off to others.  No, no, no.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Bad, bad, bad.  Sin, sin, sin.  So that, as Pope Francis puts it, they are only hearing a fraction of the message we have to bring to the world, mostly those parts that have to do with sex and gender; and it’s almost impossible for us to be seen as people of Good News.[1]  The heart of our Gospel gets lost.  In fact, if we went to our average Catholic Church as randomly asked people coming out of Mass on Sunday, “What do you think is the primary message of the Church?” it might be very hard to know what we might hear.  Certainly Jesus died for our sins.  Certainly good people will escape hell.  But would we hear anything about mercy?  About grace?  About the unrestricted love of God now poured into our hearts?  As a Paulist, I might wonder if people would even remotely think of mentioning our receiving the Holy Spirit as the fulcrum of salvation. 

 

Mercy is about image, or about the possibility we have to do some re-imaging of our Church in the eyes of our own Catholics and, even more importantly, in the eyes of broader society.  And we desperately need to think about this as a Church, particularly in the United States.  We have a broader image problem, and an immediate image problem.  The broader one revolves around our immigrant story in the United States, coming here and having to primarily build our churches and schools.  So we have been deeply involved in building and maintaining buildings; and, therefore, raising money to do this.  But to younger generations, all this looks like nickel-and-diming people.  More particularly, we have the acclaimed movie “Spotlight,” which throws a spotlight on a problem which runs through society but now society has localized, fairly or not, in the Catholic Church.  The same Church that keeps yelling “Sin, sin, sin,” is the same Church that was caught, pardon the directness, with its pants down.

 

But re-imaging ourselves around mercy will not be easy, because mercy is a very difficult concept for a variety of reasons.  When people are hurt, we think justice, redress, law, and punishment.  Our courts are overbooked just because of this penchant.  Perhaps English Common Law, with its generous provisions for tort, distorts the picture, but I suspect Italian stereotypical images of how the Mafia works also sustains the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” approach to law.  So mercy seems opposed to equity and justice.  Mercy, also, can look like condescension.  It is the person who holds all the cards who decides to let someone else use a joker now and then.  It is when someone grovels enough that mercy can somehow be extracted when, really, it should not be given.  “The quality of mercy is not strained,” we learned from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”  But, in fact, it is strained.  While drugs exacerbated the issue, people still were more than ready to vote the “three strikes you are out” standard for criminals.  We jail at a higher proportion than any other country, including China.  We warehouse our prisoners, returning them to the streets with none of the skills that might make it less likely that they return to jail.  We rejoice when huge fines are exacted from corporations, even if lawyers get 40% of it.  We love it when coaches are thrown out of a game by the clear-seeing umpire.  Yes, law-and-order reigns.  So we should pretend that the theme of mercy will be an easy sell for the Church?  It will be, in fact, an uphill battle.  Mercy rankles our most primitive instincts.

 

Justice

 

Mercy is often juxtaposed to justice.  Later on I will try to ease this juxtaposition a bit.  But the logic of justice, in some ways, is not easy.  Sure, “eye for eye” was a formula of moderation: when someone violates us or someone we love, we don’t want their eye.  We want their whole head!  But we can see from historical patterns how entrenched sin is, and how hard a time justice has dealing with this entrenchment.  Let me just mention what has been called the original sin of the United States, slavery.  It certainly was a huge injustice to make people slaves.  But how does justice correct for that?  Is it even possible?  In fact, trying to correct for it can lead to what others perceive as injustices.  How would reparations work?  Should Puerto Ricans, for example, who came to this country starting in the 1920s, pay for actions people did one hundred and twenty years earlier?  Or how can justice be done for victims of Nazi torture or death?  Or how can justice work out relationships between Jews and Palestinians?  What justice tries to do, but often is not able to do, is stop a cycle or recrimination whereby each party keeps “paying back” for what the other party just did. 

 

Justice presumes a level playing field which, once disrupted, can be restored again.  But the truth may be more like this: we don’t have a level playing field, but an embodied human.  I may be able to level a field, but I cannot restore the torn flesh of another.  When flesh is torn, we have a scar.  The only one who relishes scars, that I know of, is Jesus, whose death is exactly a triumph over the seminal scar of the soul that defines human experience. 

 

So there is not place “back there” we can go and pretend to get to some pristine state, some level playing field, some place of health before our wounds.  Christian theology has, in fact, been torn about this, with Fathers of the Church talking about a return to Eden or Paradise; the more precise doctrine is that we can never go back.  The “happy fault” of Adam means that we have a redemption far greater than a return, a restoration in the Garden.  Justice looks backward; mercy forces history to look not backward, but forward.  Justice represents the necessary, but inadequate, strategies we use to ameliorate our need for revenge.  That’s why we need mercy.

 

Mercy

 

Our modern theological and pastoral landscape has been amply planted with themes of mercy.  Many of these themes have come, directly or indirectly, from Saint Faustina whose devotion to mercy strongly stamped the ministry of St. John Paul II.  His earliest encyclicals dealt with themes of mercy.  He called for the Second Sunday of Easter to be called “Mercy” Sunday.  Many parishes I visit regularly do the “chaplet of Mercy.”  Pope Francis attributes his interest in mercy to the emphasis of St. John Paul. 

 

But even with all this emphasis, it’s still hard to get mercy right.  Very often the image we have is this: if someone comes to God, if someone asks, if people make enough reparation, then God will have mercy.  The feeling is that God is merciful, but God has to be negotiated into bestowing it; or that people need to be herded into God’s corral of mercy.  Paradoxically, the quality of God’s mercy often seems, in a Shakespearian reversal, quite strained.  We still carry a lot of Roman images that we project onto God.  Rome, remember, became quite imperial; Julius Caesar, was killed to keep him from destroying the more diluted power of an oligarchy, but it didn’t work. Rome believed in emperors, people who conquered and exacted tribute, people who drove armies and demanded submission, people who expected homage or else the vanquished would be destroyed.  Some of this links all too easily with images of God from the more warrior times of Israel, particularly from the efforts to establish a kingship.  God is the conqueror who demands the ban, the complete extermination of the conquered, including women and children.  So mercy is understood as a doled out teaspoon of putting rage aside on the part mighty one who has every right to complete extinction.

 

I put things pretty baldly, I know, but I think we need to face these images because we have them, and people have them.  Whenever evangelicals see the destruction of cities as God’s proper retribution, this is the image of God they have.  Whenever a woman comes to tears because, discovered with cancer, she can only ask herself, “What did I do to deserve this?” she has this image.  When, for centuries, we blithely imagined most of humankind in hell because they were not Catholic, or not Christian, or not predestined, or not in the state of grace—well we presumed this kind of image as well.  A perspective of mercy calls for an exorcism of very strange ideas in our own religious heads as much as an invitation of others.  By the way, our new translation which hews very close to the original Latin, that most imperial of languages, in both overt and subtle ways reinforces this image of God as the supreme ruler who, if begged the right way, might just not beat us up so much.

 

I put up on our website a few weeks ago a link to some talks that were being given, and summarized, during a retreat for the Curia by Carmelite Fr. Ermes Rochi, a retreat that Pope Francis was, at least in part, present at.  The opening line of one of these links says a lot about our awkward approaches to mercy.  It goes like this: "For a long time the Church has transmitted a faith covered in fear, which revolved around the paradigm of blame and punishment, rather than of flowering and fullness.”  It certainly was possible for people raised before 1960 to think of the Christian faith primarily in terms of sin, law, shame, punishment, and fear.  In fact, what Protestantism had to offer in particular was the freedom from the law part, but they pretty much kept the other shame-and-blame package.  Now I know that Christian life was far more than that; I would not have chosen my vocation if it were only that.  But those were the emphases.  And, in that kind of world, mercy means not being punished—even though I deserve it.  Confession was the process whereby we lessened our chances of being punished: I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.  That was not our primary motive, of course, but it was a major one.

 

The Year of Mercy, and the initiative of Pope Francis, gives us a chance to turn our images on the head.  Because mercy is primarily about the divine initiative that God takes toward us, God making the first move in an embrace, and creating, by his embrace, a space whereby we know we are welcomed because we know healing has begun in us.  Mercy comes first.  Once we have the seminal sin of Adam, mercy comes before anything else as that quality of God that embraces us in our brokenness, and assures us of acceptance and healing, because it is of the very essence of God to bring creation to fulfillment. Mercy is not something I have to beg from God, and maybe God will give it.  Mercy is already given.  The Death and Resurrection of Jesus made manifest, before the eyes of all humankind, the extent of divine mercy, just in case we could not see, or even imagine it, otherwise. 

 

Let me specify how this mercy works.  God initiates the mercy and, in the process, changes the whole framework of our understanding.  A human analogy barely gets near the truth.  John smacks Henry.  Henry wants to smack John back.  But, instead of doing that, Henry not only decides to withhold the retaliation.  Henry goes out of his way to extend his hand in friendship and love.  The offended one takes the initiative and, in doing so, changes the reality.  Now John doesn’t have to bite his nails, wondering when Henry is going to get him back.  Henry has already shook his hand, hugged him, and bought him a beer!

 

The outrageous parable of The Prodigal Son, as it is usually referred to, gives us just this image of God.  It isn’t like the mercy appears when the father in the story sees his son return.  The mercy is always there.  It’s the son who is slow in realizing not only that the mercy is there, but also how the mercy works.  He wants to come back as a hired hand, something totally outside the imagination of the father.  No, we are killing the fattened calf—something we’ve never done before—so you know just how abundant and unstoppable mercy is.  There is only one thing that can stop mercy: the inability to recognize or accept it.  This is the older son who, I am sorry to say, looks mostly like the righteous, church-going goody-goodies that others think we look like.

 

A Metaphysic and a Math

 

Mercy has a metaphysic which can challenge us theologians whose theism is partially deduced from formulas about being.  Our query about whether God exists makes us frame the answer in terms of existence, of being; and surely no one did this better than Thomas Aquinas.  His formula of Ipsum Esse Subsistens has stunned many theology students because it forces upon us a level of transcendence that begins to do justice to the God who is virtually unnamable, or at least not-speakable, in Jewish tradition.  Pascal complains about the God of the prophets being different than the God of the philosophers.  But we link Hebrew Scriptures and Plato-Aristotle together in something more than a truce.  Once we have the category of being, we then attribute qualities of total action, completion, perfection, and living, to it.  Down the line, we also add qualities of love.  “Bonum et ens convertuntur,” we say; and the Good is all about love, isn’t it?

 

But a metaphysic of mercy forces us not to put being first, but love first.  With reference to creation, God is Ipsum Amare Subsistens before God is Ipsum Esse Susbsistens.  Bernard Lonergan is the theologian who has most given us this formula as he describes faith as the encounter with absolute, unrestricted love[2].  This means, metaphysically, one must always have relational categories; nothing can be described outside of relationship.  (For that matter, our curious Christian doctrine of the Trinity says exactly that—God cannot be described outside of relationship and, indeed, God is relationship.)  Everything exists in a field of relationship which is Love.  Everything, then, is charged with love—the dynamics that arise from the inherent attraction we have to the other, to the good, to Goodness itself.  Even modern physics has had to give up its view of existence as individual balls that collide for the sake of a vision of interrelated waves that cannot be understood alone.  Physical reality is a field.  But so is metaphysically reality.  And so is theological reality.  The field is absolute Love, a Love that rushes in at the first rupture of relationship, seeking to bring at least wholeness; but because creation is dynamic, heading toward an Eschaton—we will talk about this soon—the wholeness is something future, when creation has come to its unimagined completeness.

 

Because mercy is a metaphysic, it also has a math—one that is difficult to comprehend.  “How often should I forgive my brother?” Peter asks.  (Matthew 18:21, ff.)  Jesus spins Peter’s suggestion of seven times on its head, the whole number seven multiplied by unlimited wholeness, causing a virtual rash of alternative translations.  Seventy-seven.  Seven times seven.  Seventy times seven.  It almost makes no difference because Jesus is saying we should forgive without any limits at all. 

 

Now this defies all logic.  Of course I can give someone a chance.  Maybe given them a second change.  But endless chances?  This is an excuse to let people walk all over us, to enable their dysfunction, to reward the most sophisticated passive aggressive behavior.  Everything we learn about being healthy, taking care of ourselves, respecting boundaries, and looking at life as reciprocal, equal relationships—all of this makes us say, “Wait a minute.  Fool me once and it’s your fault; fool me twice, and it’s mine.”  If we give people unlimited chances, we give them unlimited excuses to wallow in their own slimy slop. “I love you too much to let you do that to me,” we could rightly say.

 

But God has a different algorithm, and it’s a difficult one for us.  God says: I give you unlimited chances because it’s the only way I can be sure that a breakthrough might happen in your life.  I make no limit.  I am waiting for one moment, one point where heaven and earth will jump for joy.  The one moment you stop offending and you start realizing there are other possibilities in your life—that’s the moment that God is waiting for.  Oh, sure, we cannot put up with potentially unlimited offence.  But an infinite God, who loves infinitely, has endless time, and gives endless opportunities, for something different to happen.

 

And we’ve all experienced this in our own lives, the mercy of God who seemingly put up with our nonsense, our excuses, our hypocrisy, our return to the same patterns of sin again and again.  But because God did that, something else was able to come about in our lives.  And because God does that, something else is always able to come about in our lives.  The logic of God, unlike the logic of those who know who to count every penny that is owed, is the logic that allows breakthroughs, the logic that permits conversion, the love that knows no limit except the limit of despair which others may put upon it.

 

Mercy, then, is another word for grace.  We Catholics have gotten much clearer about grace in the twentieth-century.  Durwell, Kung, Rahner, Congar, DeLubac—they all forced upon us images of grace that were primarily relational.  They forced us beyond the “supernatural grace” as something we either had or didn’t have, into the vision of an initiating, free, loving grace in which Godself is offered to humankind as healing, life, and being.  We’ve been able to shake hands with our Lutheran friends over this in the monumental agreement just before the millennial year, in 1999.  We sing “Amazing Grace” without batting an eye, except, perhaps, we don’t think we are as wretched as other people think they are!  But to believe in grace as an abstract idea is quite different than to see grace, the already-given infinite act of Love, as the primal structure of existence.  We think of the final line in “The Diary of a Country Priest,” when the dying priest of Ambricourt can only utter: “God is not a torturer,” and “All is grace.”  It will take our entire lifetimes, and beyond, for us to begin to begin to grasp grace.

 

Here’s an image that captures this, a story told of Roberto de Vicenzo, the great Argentinian golfer who is mostly known for mis-signing his golf card at the Masters which led to his subsequent disqualification.  But they tell of a time when, after a tournament, he was coming out and a woman approached him, speaking of her son who was close to death in the hospital and the family had no money to save the child.  He took the check of his winnings and endorsed it over to her.  The next week people approached him with the news that the woman was a con artist and just took his money.  He looked around and started smiling.  “You mean there was no sick child, there was no little boy who was suffering and about to die?  That, my friends, is the greatest news I’ve heard this week.”  When we are more afraid of being conned, rather than being cold, we are far from God’s ideal of mercy.

 

Mercy as Eschatology

 

Pope Francis, in his bull “The Face of Mercy,” treats the relationship between justice and mercy in several section. [3]  I see justice in terms of the finality which is implicit in every relationship of love: the dynamic that drives us outside ourselves, toward the other, and therefore toward a future with the other.  While many have not seen existence and history as dynamic, we Christians do not have that option.  When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, already present in experience but not yet complete, he is pointing to a dimension of human experience which is driving forth, or, perhaps better, being driven forth by the Spirit, toward the completion of creation.  While we can see sin as a powerful counter-dynamic to the forward movement of creation, we also know that sin is essentially defeated in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what we are celebrating in this season.  The cross is the scar showing both the rupture of our relationship with God and also, more importantly, its healing.  Jesus shows his scars, his wounded hands and feet, to his disciples so they will never forget what creation’s fullness looks like: not some fantasy Disneyland, but the very overcoming of death itself.  Because death has no more sway, creation can now move forward toward its fulfillment, a fulfillment undreamed in the beginning but also latent in the beginning, but now manifest in the Resurrection, the bestowal of the Spirit, and Kingdom of God.

 

Time and time again in the prophets we hear of justice as some future state toward which God will bring God’s people.  The prophets spoke, of course, against the backdrop of the Babylonian Exile which, in biblical estimation, was both just and unjust.  Just, because people had broken God’s covenant again and again, and therefore did not deserve to hold onto their land.  Wasn’t this exactly the equation that Deuteronomy held out, that if the people kept God’s law, they would inherit the land; but if they did not, then they would not be able to dwell in it?  So Moses lays it out in chapter 4 of Deuteronomy:

 When you have children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, should you then act corruptly by fashioning an idol in the form of anything, and by this evil done in his sight provoke the Lord, your God, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you, that you shall all quickly perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You shall not live in it for any length of time but shall be utterly wiped out.  (Deut. 4:25-27)

Now such an image would probably have been unthinkable for most of Jewish history before 580 BC, before their actual experience of exile.  But, having experienced exile, and the loss of all that they felt secured God’s covenant from Temple to the king’s Palace, they could look back and see that, indeed, their infidelity was the cause of the Exile.  At the same time, however, Isaiah can make the point in several places that the people have paid double for their sins; that is, the punishment exceeded what was truly deserved.  We read at the start of what is often called the book of Comfort these words from Isaiah 40:

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
    says your God.
Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
    that her service[c] has ended,
    that her guilt is expiated,
That she has received from the hand of the Lord
    double for all her sins. (Is. 40:1-2)

It is against this kind of framework that the prophets cry out for justice as some state that God will bring about, when all the wrongs will be addressed, and God’s people will be able to live as an intact and faithful society.  In Isaiah 30:18, we read: Truly, the Lord is waiting to be gracious to you, truly, he shall rise to show you mercy; For the Lord is a God of justice: happy are all who wait for him!

 

Jesus makes Isaiah 61 his ministerial platform, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to bring Good News to the poor, the very people who experience the least justice, and tell captives they are free, give sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim a time of favor, that is a Jubilee of Mercy, from the Lord.  (Cf. Luke 4: 18-19.)  Of course, his own Resurrection from the dead is the inauguration of this vision, when he, becoming poor, oppressed, captive, and blinded by blood-soaked eyes, is raised from the dead as the First Fruits of all God was going to bring about.

 

Justice, then, is an eschatological concept: it is a final destination of God’s will, when all of creation will come to completion, the completion implied in creation itself.  But this justice will come about because of the working of mercy throughout history.  As Christ’s Spirit fills his people with his risen power, and that power shows itself in wonders and virtues, and as those virtues propel people to ever bolder acts of faith, hope, and love—as all of this happens, creation moves toward its fulfillment.  For what else will the Eschaton be except creation itself, exalting in those relationships which it can then clearly see, the relationship established by God’s initiating love, and the relationships among all who have discovered that love in the course of their lives.  If God’s Love will be experienced as justice in the fulfillment of the Kingdom, it surely is experienced as mercy in the arduous process by which the Kingdom comes about; arduous because of our ongoing resistance to mercy, because of our disbelief in absolute Love.

 

An old Slavic story captures this well.  It is told in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” and it has many variations in its telling.  This version has the carrot.  A miserable woman, mean and heartless, dies and is destined to go to hell.  Her guardian angel, however, goes to God, and tells God about one time when she gave a half-rotten carrot to her neighbor who was starving, so the neighbor could put it in her soup.  God nods and gives permission.  In the next scene, the angel is descending into the fires of hell, bending down with the same rotten carrot the woman gave to her neighbor.  He reaches down and the woman grabs onto it.  Slowly the angels begins to ascend, and slowly the woman rises with him.  But as she comes out of the fires, other poor souls grab onto her skirt and her legs.  She looks down and sees them, and begins kicking them with resentment.  As soon as she does that, the carrot breaks and she descends back into hell.  The measure you measure with will be measured back to you, says Jesus in Matthew 7:2.  And the range of mercy you have exercised in your life is in proportion to the mercy you have seen, accepted, and lived in this life. 

 

We are building up the Eschaton, but slowly.  I have a bag of greeting cards that have a phrase from Teilhard de Chardin, who has made an eschatological theology not only possible but necessary.  “Above all, trust in the slow work of the Lord.”

 

Mission and Pastoral Vision

 

In this last section I wish to touch just a bit on what this means for us as pastors, theologians and evangelizers, even though it should be quite clear what mercy means for us.  Nevertheless, as we saw in the various issues leaked and endlessly commented on from the Synod on the Family, how mercy actually operates can be hard to see.  I saw some link, which I didn’t click, on Facebook the other day: some bishop saying that denying communion can be the greatest act of mercy.  On the one hand, of course, we have lots of teaching, some of it crystalized by centuries of articulation and definition; on the other hand, we have the realities before our faces, and the experience of people who have come to accept God’s mercy, and experience conversion, in ways that were not always straightforward.  It was a frequent experience in the early days of my priesthood, when we could have things like home Masses, to find out later that some neighbor was there, and received Communion, who had been away for a while.  Nevertheless, you’d begin seeing that person at Mass once again.  Was that some act of sacrilege, or was that the way mercy could touch a heart?  Is the sacrament of Reconciliation always the first step people take, or might it be the last one? 

 

Of course, we need our practice and rules.  But perhaps these can be more as guides and ideals than limitations for us.  My Paulist mind thinks, perhaps cynically, that as long as we read the list of reasons why visitors should not take Holy Communion on Sunday, we lose an opportunity.  That if we did it the other way, we might have many more in our Church.  The other way?  Sure, just as happened during some years after Vatican II, we would let people who believed what we believed about the Eucharist, if they were baptized, come and receive.  Perhaps I am too much of a Pollyanna optimist to think that the Lord Jesus, now more powerfully present in their lives, might do things for people that our articulation of dos and don’ts cannot accomplish.  I wonder how many of these visitors might find themselves drawn to our Catholic faith?

 

We have clashing ideas about divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion.  Does the actual spiritual hunger of a person, and that person’s actual virtual-impossibility of leaving a present relationship, count for nothing?  Jesus, at least in Mark’s Gospel, is not afraid to tweak the most obvious certainties of the religious leaders of his time.  Tell me, he says, was man made for the Sabbath, or was the Sabbath made for man (Mark 2:7)? 

 

Indeed, Christian life is founded on the greatest confounding of religious certainties.  Paul gives his life to make one argument, that Gentile believers now have full status within God’s Covenant community, just like Jewish believers.  I cannot imagine an upset greater than this.  What did that first piece of pork taste like to Peter, Paul, and the others?  Certainly our New Testament, virtually in its entirety, is a long discourse on just this revolution.  We can see from the arguments about meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians that this argument was not an easy one.  People lived with ambiguity; they had to, coming down eventually to the solid certainties that grounded the faith of all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom through the power of the Spirit.

 

I am hardly here saying that rules do not matter, and that procedures are not important.  I do not want, at this late stage of my life, to be hauled into heresy court.  But I am saying that the Scriptures you and I preach give us something more than a set of clear rules and the expectation that everyone follows them, or else.  And I am saying that when we deal pastorally with people we have to sin on the side of mercy, giving people every possible break we can, and working for the fullest attainment of values that we can secure within the ambiguities of human behavior and intention. 

 

We are called to be a Church of Mercy.  Through the relationships that we experience as part of God’s people—symbolized and made real so powerfully in the sacraments—we are part of the ongoing inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  What you and I do as ministers and disciples does more than bring restoration to peoples’ lives, needed as that is.  Rather, the very restoration of wholeness, the repair of brokenness, the renewal of hope, is itself the definitive sign of God’s ultimate project: to bring all of creation into relationship with itself and with its origin of Absolute Love, with the divine.  As we do this, we cannot escape the passion that goes along with mercy, for it is not some add on to Christian life.  Rather, it is the passionate energy engendered in creation by a God of love, a passionate energy pushing forward, relentlessly and restlessly, until it achieves it goal.  Irenaeus said it: The glory of God is humankind fully alive.  Creation fulfilled.  And justice finally accomplished.

 

Ultimately, though, this Year of Mercy makes clear what our basic role is as preachers, teachers, and pastors: we have to proclaim a Gospel of Mercy, a Gospel of God’s initiating and transforming love, a God whose very being is self-gift, generosity, and diffusive goodness.  The greatest saints have seen this, from Irenaeus, through Augustine, through Thomas and Francis, down to the great French theologians—although they could get a bit contorted—who followed up on De Sales’ “Treatise on the Love of God.”  And, of course, Terese of Lisieux who, in the midst of that Jansenist universe, discovered a God of love and a way of love and who, in her own way, thawed the frozen ice enough to allow for the major cracks we experienced at the Second Vatican Council when the waters of love began to flow more freely.

 

Mercy is the horizon of every Christian and every believer of whatever sort.  “Horizon” is a deliberately chosen word, echoing the Transcendental Thomists of the twentieth century who made it so crucial in their thinking.  A horizon is always there, but a horizon is never attained.  A horizon is always there, but not passively.  Rather, the horizon subtly but inevitably affects everything in its sway.  Horizon says that we are surrounded by and unable to escape its force, not that we would want to escape it.  Horizon means that I allude to it all the time, just to get my perspectives.  When we go out in a fishing boat, my advice to people all the time is this: if you want to avoid getting seasick, keep your eye on the horizon.  If you stare at the waves, back and forth, you will get sick.  But if you keep your eyes on the horizon, it enables you to keep perspective and your stomach will not rebel.

 

Mercy is the horizon that Christ gave us, not as something new, but as a particular and more accurate take on his Jewish heritage.  Its sway is so subtle that, at times, we may think we can get along without it, that establishing procedures, rules, and laws can suspend our need for mercy.  Of course, just as we need human bodies, so our social bodies need procedures and rules or else there will be endless conflict.  But all of this happens, in the vision of Jesus, not apart from mercy but within its vision.  Mercy is our horizon.  We are lost without it.  Working from this horizon, and extending it with all our energy, is the great privilege we have, and surely yet one more sign of God’s gracious mercy in our lives.

 



[1] Joy of the Gospel, #34: 34. If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message.

[2] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, p. 105-107.

[3] Face of Mercy, 20-21. Salvation comes not through the observance of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, who in his death and resurrection brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies. God’s justice now becomes the liberating force for those oppressed by slavery to sin and its consequences. God’s justice is his mercy (cf. Ps 51:11-16). 21. Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.

Subpages (1): Mercy-Civic
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