Pope Francis has designated December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016 as the Year of Mercy. This is to be a time when we are to contemplate mercy – God’s mercy for us and our own call to be merciful. Pope Francis is challenging us all to be better imitators of Christ in a world that is deeply in need of merciful love. As we enter the Year of Mercy, I want to reflect on what “mercy” truly means.
God is love itself. God is also perfectly just and merciful. God’s justice and mercy are not opposed to each other. In justice, God is to give to us what is due to us. Because of our sin and rejection of God, humanity deserves hell. However, because of God’s love for all humanity, in His great mercy, God sent His only Son Jesus to become man and then to die for all of us. In this act of merciful love, even though we did not deserve it, God made it possible for all men to once again have the possibility of entering heaven to be united to God eternally. But Christ reveals to us the unfortunate reality – though God desires all to be in heaven, many will choose to walk the easy road to eternal destruction (hell).
Saint Pope John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia reminds us that God has revealed that His mercy is infinite and His readiness to receive His Prodigal Sons who repent and return home is inexhaustible. No human sin is greater than God’s power to have mercy on us. The limiting factor is on the part of man. If man lacks good will, is unrepentant, persists in obstinacy and opposes grace and truth man is freely refusing God’s mercy (DiM, 13). While God’s mercy is a special power of love that will prevail over sin, it will be given only to those who repent and experience true conversion. For those who reject God and die unrepentant of sin, in perfect justice they will have freely chosen to be in hell – separated from God forever experiencing sorrow, hatred and misery. However, for those who repent and love God, the profound reality is that God’s mercy overcomes His justice and, only by the grace of God, these people will be in heaven, united to God eternally enjoying perfect peace, love and happiness.
How are we to be merciful to others?
“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matt 5:7). We are to be merciful to others in our lives. However, too often today the notion of “mercy” is professed to be simply showing kindness to people, not judging people’s actions and tolerating all behavior even if it is sinful. But this is not true mercy at all! In the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, Saint Pope John Paul II refers to Jesus as mercy “incarnate” and says that Jesus “personifies” mercy (DiM, 2, 8). With this being the case, to understand “mercy” we must look to Jesus Himself.
In the greatest act of merciful love, Jesus freely sacrificed Himself on the cross – undergoing crucifixion, the most excruciating form of death – to make heaven possible to all. Additionally, throughout Jesus’ ministry we see even more acts of mercy. Jesus protected the innocent and welcomed the sinners. He preached love and had a zeal for the salvation of souls. Jesus cared for the sick, fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty. Jesus encouraged the hopeless. He comforted those mourning and had compassion for those suffering. Jesus preached the Gospel. Jesus prayed for others. Jesus forgave others and loved His enemies.
But Jesus’ mercy does not stop there. Jesus criticized hypocrisy. Jesus expressed righteous anger and rebuked disobedience. Jesus called for repentance. Jesus called all people to love and be merciful to others. To be His disciple Jesus expected one to experience conversion and, like the Prodigal Son, to repent and return home to God the Father. Jesus reprimanded the superficial faith like that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus expected that the sinners whom He forgave would sincerely “go” and strive to “sin no more”. Jesus clearly loved all people but at the same time He did not tolerate sin.
Jesus shows us mercy is not limited to compassion for another and forgiving those who hurt you. Though important, our mercy for others cannot end there. John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia writes that mercy is “love’s second name”. JPII teaches us that mercy is “an indispensable dimension of love” (DiM, 7). Jesus shows us that mercy is continuing to love even though you have been hurt or rejected. It is forgiving and praying for those who wounded you. Mercy is putting love about all things, and, in love, we are to desire for all men to one day experience the unending joys of heaven. Mercy does not ignore or minimize sin but rather it recognizes the horror of sin and the reality that sin brings death to the soul. Mercy calls for repentance, not as an act of humiliation but in order to restore that person to life through conversion. In mercy we are to reach out to those who are too often marginalized – the sick, suffering, materially poor, orphans, widows, imprisoned, oppressed, etc – and help them in whatever way we can, acknowledging that even if we cannot remove them fully from their plight showing them they are loved can transform their suffering. And in our merciful love for others, we must see that, above all else, the spiritual poverty and the state of one’s soul are of the utmost importance and cannot be neglected as we are to always live in the present with eternity ever before our minds.
Year of Mercy
Throughout this upcoming Year of Mercy, let our reflections on God’s mercy help us to recognize our own sinfulness and then be moved to repentance and conversion ever more deeply so we can enjoy the riches of God’s mercy. Additionally, as we contemplate the true meaning of mercy as seen through Christ, let us pray for the grace of God to transform us so that we can be witnesses of God’s mercy to the world and better live our call to be merciful.
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