The Church - Witness of Mercy
The Mission of the Church is to be a witness of Mercy. If the Jubilee year is celebrated authentically it will re-ignite the desire to evangelise. Having encountered God’s infinite mercy every believer will have the desire to share that mercy.
The Holy Father sets the call to evangelise at the heart of the Jubilee:
“The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person… in the present day as the Church is charged with the task of the new evangelisation, the theme of mercy needs to be proposed again and again with new enthusiasm and renewed pastoral action. ”
THE CALL OF MERCY
Before we can witness to mercy we must encounter mercy, we must experience it and we must make it our own. One of the ways in which Pope Francis has explained his own experience of mercy is in the episcopal motto he has chosen. It consists of a few words from a sermon by the Englishman, St Bede: Miserando atque eligendo – which may be translated as, ‘by gazing at me with the eyes of mercy, he has chosen me.’ These words of St Bede are part of his reflection on the calling of St Matthew: ‘As Jesus was walking on from there he saw a man named Matthew sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, ‘Follow me’. And he got up and followed him’ (Matthew 9:9).
That short Gospel passage can throw light on the ways in which we come to an experience of God’s mercy. It begins by saying Jesus ‘saw’ Matthew. Salvation begins by being seen by Jesus, by his turning his merciful eyes toward us. The great Spanish mystic St John of the Cross insists that ‘for God to look is to love’.36 The look of God toward us is never one of judgment but is always a look of merciful love. Pope Francis writes: ‘It is as if to say that not only in history but for all eternity man will always be under the merciful gaze of the Father’. The merciful gaze of God came to Matthew when Jesus looked upon him and called him.
Feeling the gaze of Christ’s mercy Matthew hears Christ’s words ‘follow me’ and immediately he gets up and follows him. The Greek word that we translate as ‘he got up’ is anastasis which literally means he rises. It is the same word that is used in the Gospel for the Resurrection of Jesus. It is a powerful word and teaches us that the call of Jesus completely transforms Matthew. On hearing the call of Christ he doesn’t just get up from his chair, Matthew rises. We can see in the calling of Matthew the structure of the resurrection: whatever Jesus touches becomes full of new life, is resurrected. The merciful love of the Father is not just a love which bends down to us, it is a mercy which raises us up. St John Paul II said that mercy is sometimes misunderstood because it seems to keep us small, to denigrate us. He wrote: ‘we are quick to deduce that mercy belittles the receiver, that it offends the dignity of man.’ The calling of Matthew teaches that the opposite is true, that the mercy of Jesus raises up and restores.
After the calling of Matthew Jesus is invited to a dinner: ‘and it happened that a number of tax-collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples’ (Matthew 9:10). Seeing what Jesus does for Matthew the sinners surround Jesus, they are like bees round a honeypot. They see the change in Matthew and they too want to be raised up and so they crowd around Jesus to share in this rising up and following. They too want to be changed as Matthew was changed - if it can happen to Matthew it can happen to them. Jesus is criticised for eating and drinking with sinners but there is no easy grace here because Christ’s call always involves following. Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea to his critics and says ‘Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). The mercy of God does not let us off the hook but demands conversion, faith and a change in the direction of our life.
Each of us is called as Matthew is called. The Lord looks at every disciple with a merciful gaze and he calls each of us to follow him. Each of us is called to rise up and share in his new life, to allow his eyes to rest upon us, and to hear him address those words to us individually, ‘Go and learn the meaning of the words: what I want is mercy’.
In the Old Testament mercy is an attribute of God. Very rarely is it used to describe human behaviour but Jesus calls us to be ‘merciful even as our heavenly Father is merciful’. (Luke 6:36)
Our mercy is to be as the Father’s - our own mercy must reflect his mercy. Not a mercy which is condescending and belittling but which raises up and restores. There is a saying that something can be as ‘cold as charity’. Good actions can often feel as if they are carried out from a safe distance or out of a barren duty. This Jubilee of Mercy reminds us that our love must be as warm as the heart of Jesus.
Pope Francis writes, ‘there is a need therefore for a Church that is capable of rediscovering the womb of mercy. Without mercy it is scarcely possible today to penetrate into a world of the “injured” who need understanding, forgiveness and love’. Our diocesan logo for some of the artwork for this Jubilee used in this resource shows the Body of Christ in the shape of a heart. We, the Church, are called to be the Body of Christ, his heart of mercy for the world.
If Jesus Christ is the incarnation of mercy then surely every encounter with him should be an experience of mercy? How do we make each of the seven sacraments an encounter with God’s mercy? While the Sacrament of Reconciliation has a pre-eminent place in this Jubilee Year, can we see each of the sacraments as the sign and instrument of God’s redeeming mercy? In the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist God gives himself to us completely, makes us more deeply a part of the Church. In these sacraments Christ binds us to himself in a covenant of merciful love. As the Catechism teaches us, the Sacraments of Marriage and of Holy Orders are the sacraments at the service of communion, building up the Church in love and service. In the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick we are configured to the Passion of Christ who, in his mercy, saved us by his death on the Cross. Can we celebrate each of these sacraments in such a way that the merciful love of Christ is made even clearer?
The Holy Father asks us to make a special place for the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the Jubilee. Confession is a privileged time of encounter with God’s mercy. ‘Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands’. The whole life of the Church should be the place where we can touch the grandeur of God’s mercy. ‘In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy’
Having found an oasis of mercy we are called to turn outward. We receive the blessing of God so that we may be a blessing to others; we experience the healing touch of God’s mercy so that we too may be merciful. Mercy is always practical. It always addresses a real person who is in need. It is never a mere idea. The time has come, says Pope Francis, quoting St John XXIII, to ‘use the medicine of mercy’. ‘It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty.’
Pope Francis reminds us of the traditional manner in which the Church has spoken of the way we put the teaching of the Gospel into action. Rooted in the Gospel he enumerates for us both the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual works of mercy. These works of mercy can be a useful yardstick for us to discern the depth of our discipleship of Christ. As Pope Francis says: ‘It is Jesus who has introduced these works of mercy to us and by them we can know if we are living as his disciples’
In order to apply the medicine of mercy we are to:
feed the hungry,
give drink to the thirsty,
clothe the naked,
welcome the stranger,
heal the sick,
visit the imprisoned
and bury the dead.
And then Holy Father reminds us that we are not to forget the seven spiritual works of mercy which are to:
counsel the doubtful,
instruct the ignorant,
comfort the afflicted,
bear patiently those who do us ill
and pray for the living and the dead.
The extent to which these spiritual and corporal works of mercy are present in our lives can be the measure of the extent to which we apply ‘the medicine of mercy’ in our relationships with others.
In a recent message Pope Francis offered the poet Dante Alighieri as an authentic guide to this Jubilee Year, especially his meditation on heaven and hell – ‘The Divine Comedy’. In that poem the encounter with redeeming love is not just an idea but leads to a profound transformation: it speaks of a merciful love as something active. The poem is deeply imbued in a worldshattering vision of God’s mercy in action, of His redemptive grace saving souls who will accept it. “We are able to enrich ourselves with [Dante’s] experience in order to cross the many dark forests still scattered on our earth,” the Pope said, “and to happily complete our pilgrim story, to reach the destination dreamed of and wished for by everyone:
“The love that moves the sun and all the other stars."
Dante’s vision is a vision of love, of an all-consuming love that is the prime ” dynamic of the universe and moves all things in existence; a love that longs to give itself totally to each human soul. That love is the climax of the Divine Comedy and Dante’s journey: the Beatific Vision, the healing sight of what Francis calls the “merciful face of God.”
This is at the core of Pope Francis’ Jubilee of Mercy, that we all encounter and witness to ‘the love that moves the sun and all the other stars’.
How do we understand the phrase ‘medicine of mercy’?
How might I, in my life, bring that medicine to others?
Which of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy do I practice?
Have I experienced the medicine of mercy through the ministry of the Church?