Why did Pope Francis call for a “Year of Mercy”? In his letter explaining his decision, he said this:
At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives. For this reason I have proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy as a special time for the Church, a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective.
So there it is. The Holy Father is calling us to be a more effective sign of God’s actions in the world; to be more effective witnesses of God’s love.
We might wonder, why the emphasis on mercy? If the pope had asked, I’m sure there are people who would have said, maybe we should talk about marriage and family; or about the dignity of human life. Maybe the focus should be on reviving the practice of the Faith; perhaps the emphasis should have been on the reality of hell and the hope of heaven.
Why focus on mercy, of all things?
And Pope Francis had an answer to that as well. His first words of his letter are these: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” Those words are worth pondering: I’ll repeat them: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.”
And that is exactly the truth.
What did Jesus say? “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” And he said: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That giving—that ransom—that mercy—is the heart and soul of our Faith. It is what we witness and participate in at each and every Holy Mass.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
Now, we often have a shallow notion of mercy. If I am a student, and I play video games all night, and don’t study – and then I arrive at school and flunk the test, I may plead with the teacher: “please don’t me an ‘F’ – have mercy!”
And maybe the teacher will show mercy. But that mercy doesn’t mean I don’t have to learn the material; or that there won’t be consequences to laziness. What it means is that there is an avenue back, a way of reconciliation.
If there is one thing I have learned as a priest, it is that many people really struggle to forgive. And I have come to see that in myself as well. For those who struggle with this, I wish I had some simple prayer or mental trick, but I don’t.
Here’s all I have. I have come to believe that we find it easier to forgive when we know, in a powerful way, what it is to have been forgiven ourselves.
On the other hand, if we don’t feel we’ve been forgiven all that much, we may find it hard to give it.
I invite you to stop and think. Have you ever felt your soul was in real peril of hell? Have you had the experience of forgiveness lifting weights off your shoulders and your heart? Have you cried at the realization of being forgiven? It’s not necessarily an experience everyone has. But if you have – then you know the power of forgiveness. And I’ll say it again. When we know more powerfully what it is to be forgiven, the more we will find it possible to give that to others.
We often pit mercy against justice – but this is false.
Mercy does not replace justice; rather, mercy directs justice to its true purpose. True justice is always concerned with restoration and wholeness. So, if I am a thief, justice requires that I pay back – if I can – what I stole. But God’s Justice aims at something more than balancing the scales. The truth we learn sooner or later in life is that we never quite get those scales balanced just right, do we? When I get to my car in the parking lot, and I see a dent someone left in my car, I’m furious! How could someone be so dishonest? Maybe I don’t choose, at that moment, to remember times I accidentally dinged someone else’s car, and rationalized driving away without leaving a note. And even if we can fix a problem fairly simply: I lie – and then I own up to it, and apologize, will that be enough to restore the broken trust?
And when we come to the worst offenses, what justice can there truly be? We know that there are wrongs that no punishment can ever put right. Even when murderers are executed, does that really heal the harm? How can it?
Do you recall, last June, when that man went into a church in Charleston and in the middle of a Bible study, murdered nine people who were praying one night? As terrible as that crime was, something happened in that story that shines out even more powerfully. It is when family members of the victims stood up in the courtroom, and one after the other, said they forgive him!
Let me read something from an ABC news report:
"I forgive you," said Anthony Thompson, the husband of slain Myra Thompson, 59. "But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you and you'll be OK. Do that and you'll be better off than what you are right now."
I don’t know how Mr. Thompson and the others found the grace to forgive that man. But they did. We do know where that grace came from. As Mr. Thompson said, it comes from Jesus Christ. All this serves to remind us of why the Son of God – in coming to earth – chose to go to the Cross. Not because he had to. Not because God the Father demanded it, and would not be satisfied unless there was a sacrifice. Many people say that, but that’s not true.
No, the truth is this. We are the ones who hunger and thirst for justice, and for too many, there is no justice in this world. And yet God tells us to forgive! How can we forgive?
We forgive, because Jesus on the Cross absorbed the punishments and wrongs and injustices, and took it all on himself. And then he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Holy Father is inviting us to be about mercy. To receive it, and to give it. The world needs it. Our community needs it. Each of us needs it.