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Mercy: the greatest of all the virtues

March 19, 2015
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Perhaps we should be used to the “element of surprise” in the pontificate of Pope Francis.  He was at it again last Friday, March 13 on the second anniversary of his election, when he unexpectedly announced a “Jubilee Year of Mercy” to take place in the Church and around the world from December 2015 to November 2016.
Jubilees have been celebrated in the Catholic Church since the fourteenth century, though the practice dates back much earlier in the Jewish tradition.  The goal, as some will recall from the last great Jubilee of 2000, is the restoration of equality, justice and peace among peoples.  Still, no one was expecting another Jubilee until at least 2025, and so we can chalk up another “surprise!” for Pope Francis.
The Announcement
Like most of his surprising words and actions, there is a deeper significance to note and reflect on.  Francis made the announcement in a homily during a penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Reflecting on the powerful gospel story of the pardoning of the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), the pope said that the woman’s encounter with mercy, and consequently forgiveness, compelled her to show great love for Jesus:  “For her, there will be no judgment except that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy.  The protagonist of this meeting is certainly the love that goes beyond justice.”
Simon on the other hand, “invokes only justice, and in so doing, he errs.  His judgment on the woman distances him from the truth and does not allow him even to understand who his guest is. He stopped at the surface; he was not able to look to the heart.”  Pope Francis concluded:
"We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable of.  No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.  Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert."
Mercy at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry
No one can forget that first Sunday after the election of Pope Francis when he prayed the Angelus from the window of the Apostolic Palace high above St. Peter’s Square.  Today we would call it “classic Pope Francis,” but back then it was shocking to see him set aside his text and casually speak about a book written by one of his cardinals on mercy that he said, “has done me such good.”  He expounded on mercy and then spoke the words he has repeated so often since: “God never ever tires of forgiving us!”
It has been two years and many books have already been written on the central role of mercy in the pontificate of Pope Francis, the most authoritative of which is his own apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  Most people do not require a theological treatise to convince them on the matter—they simply watch him in action.  But we are “the Church of the great tradition” and even Pope Francis submits himself to the established practice of writing lengthy theological works.
In one of the most profound and consequential sections of Evangelii Gaudium entitled, “From the Heart of the Gospel,” Pope Francis quotes St. Thomas Aquinas asserting that “mercy is the greatest of all the virtues” (37).  He explains that the most perfect external expression of our faith is the love we show to others, and that that love stems from an encounter with the mercy of God.  “I am a sinner,” Francis has said elsewhere, and for that reason God’s mercy embraces him and creates in him the capacity to show great love.  It is just as Jesus taught in Simon’s house: the more one is forgiven, the more one is capable of showing love.  Mercy is at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry because mercy is at the heart of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s faith.
Mercy at the heart of the Church today
Today a common observation is made about the way Pope Francis is being interpreted.  It goes something like this:
"Pope Francis speaks candidly and unexpectedly; he’s taken out of context and people misinterpret or misrepresent what he actually said.  This creates confusion about the Church’s established teachings, and leaves the impression that the Pope is saying entirely new things."
The response of people who are concerned by this is to put Francis’ words into context, and thus show that he is not saying anything new—in the sense of being foreign to the tradition.  This is more or less a good strategy.  But we must be careful not to succumb to the temptation of criticizing the Pope, or even harboring anger or frustration against him for opening himself to such misinterpretation.  The solution to the confusion is not for the Pope to stop communicating as he does, but rather for Catholics to better understand and then explain how his words come out of our long-standing tradition.  In other words, it’s okay to be unsettled by the way Francis is sometimes misinterpreted, but don’t mistake his remarks as being inconsistent with the tradition.
A perfect test-case for this is the virtue of mercy.  Mercy is at the heart of Francis’ life and ministry, and next year it will be at the heart of the universal Church.  He has spoken so much about mercy that it can appear as though it was never as important in the life and mission of the Church.  This is obviously false, as the words of St. Thomas in the 13th century and the powerful story of Jesus at Simon’s house show.  But even in our times the Church has been consistent in its proclamation of mercy as the highest of virtues and as the necessary expression of our faith to the modern world.
I will give two brief examples of this.  The first comes from St. John XXIII, the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.  In his opening address to the Council he said that today, “the Catholic Church…desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness…”  His words set the tone and direction of the Council that became, as historian Fr. John O’Malley called it, “A Council of outreach and reconciliation.”  The consequences of this are extraordinary, but suffice it to say that Pope John’s insight came directly from the heart of the Gospel: in order to build a better world, the people of today need the Church’s medicine of mercy above all else.
The second is a more recent but related example.  Some might think that Pope Francis is speaking a lot about mercy, which is true.  But another Pope of recent memory—St. John Paul II—spoke even more often about mercy and tried to instill in Catholics a real consciousness of mercy as the heart of the Christian life.  Early in his pontificate he wrote an encyclical on mercy, and described it in this way:
"The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission… The genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew. In spite of many prejudices, mercy seems particularly necessary for our times."
(Dives in Misericordia, 6)
Mercy and Justice
At the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the Family the virtue of mercy was front and center.  Many of the bishops echoed the cry of St. John XXIII, calling for the Church to accompany families in their joys and struggles, ministering with the medicine mercy, which is available to all.  In the same discussion the virtue of justice arose, as a kind of counterbalance to a deceptive mercy that, as Pope Francis observed, “binds wounds without curing them.”
An overly simplistic reading of the Synod would pit one virtue against the other, as though they were mutually exclusive.  They are not.  But neither are they totally complementary, in the sense of balancing each other on the “virtue scale." It is quickly becoming apparent that mercy is an essential virtue of singular importance in terms of the Church’s mode of expressing its faith.  And so, building first on the Scriptures, and on St. Thomas, and on Vatican II, and on St. John Paul II, and on countless others, Pope Francis can confidently assert that, “For her, there will be no judgment except that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy… a love that goes beyond justice.”
Leading up to the Jubilee of Mercy, perhaps our first consideration should be the extent to which our understanding and practice of mercy “goes beyond justice.” As St. John Paul II reminds us:
"In every sphere of interpersonal relationships justice must, so to speak, be “corrected” to a considerable extent by that love which, as St. Paul proclaims, “is patient and kind” or, in other words, possesses the characteristics of that merciful love which is so much of the essence of the Gospel and Christianity.”
(Dives in Misericordia, 14)
For Catholics, it is not a matter of doing something new, in the sense of adopting a virtue previously unknown, but rather of remembering who we are by going back to the heart of the Gospel: we are a community of people who have experienced the mercy of God.  As a consequence of this experience--and this is the real question--are we capable of showing great love?
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