Homily notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, 20 years of Mercy International Association

24 Sep 2014

  • Archbishop Martin – Challenge for Synod is to be “open to ways of applying the primacy of mercy”

“It is sometimes hard for us Christians to defend the authenticity of our language in a culture where the meaning of words can constantly change. Words, for example, are altered to be more politically correct.  This can be a good thing in the fight against stigma; it may also leave us feeling correct and good, but without actually changing the situation of those being categorised.

Words can go out of fashion and good words can take on negative overtones.  How often do we use the phrase that “people do not want charity, but justice”?  We all know what that means and we all agree with it.  The problem is that what has happened is that the value of one of the central concepts of Christianity – charity – has been reduced from its true meaning.  Charity, from being the greatest commandment, has been reduced to meaning simply hand-outs or responding to needs of the moment leaving the beneficiary without what is their real right.

The same can happen with the word “mercy”.  Mercy can be looked at as a sort of privilege, something that in my niceness I grant to someone else, even though they might not deserve it or that I was not obliged to give it.

Pope Francis said of a recent book by Cardinal Walter Kasper on the theme of mercy that: “this book has done me such good”.   Not a bad recommendation for a book!  The key to the understanding of the book is the subtitle: “Mercy: the essence of the Gospel and the key to the Christian life”.

Mercy is not an optional discretionary extra.  It is of the essence of the Christian life.  Many of us grew up in a generation where the image of Christianity was one more of being judgemental, than of being merciful  Mercy was reduced to a sort of lucky escape from the consequences of hard judgement, hardly the essence of the Christian life.

Mercy, as Kasper notes in referring to Marx’s analysis of religion, has been limited to a superficial idea of consolation which somehow appears, even though marginally, as one dimension of the activity of a god who is fundamentally judgemental, punitive and avenging.  The problem is that if we are trapped into an image of God whose justice is primarily punitive, we will never see mercy as essential to the Christian concept. Mercy will, to use the words of Cardinal Kasper, become “a concept often to be downgraded, degenerating in to soft spirituality or vague pastoral concern, lacking clear definition and shaped somehow to suit each individual”.

The concept of biblical mercy can only be understood if we turn our image of a punitive God head-over-heals.  God’s mercy cannot be fitted into our human categories.  The way we live mercy in our lives will make us counter- cultural, both in society and as regards some distorted theological formulations.

I worked for many years with a remarkable Vietnamese Cardinal whose cause for beatification is under way.  He had been in prison for over fifteen years and was then released with the gift of a passport, which was in effect a one-way ticket to exile.  He came to live in Rome and worked as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of which I was Secretary.  Some years later, Pope John Paul invited the Cardinal to preach the retreat for the Pope and the members of the Roman Curia.  As is the custom at a certain point he was asked to send in a letter indicating the broad outlines of the plan of his retreat.  One title stood out: it was called “Jesus was stupid”.

It did not take long before I, as his deputy, received a telephone call from the Secretariat of State expressing some alarm at such a title and wanting to find out what the Cardinal was at.  That title was not going to be acceptable.

The Cardinal was highly amused and agreed to modify the title slightly, but to keep the content intact.  What he was talking about was the logic of the parables of God’s mercy, which in human terms were not just impossible to impose but outrageous.  Just think, he told me, of the parable of the poor woman who looses the small coin.  She turns her house upside down for days until she discovers it; and then what is her reaction?  She throws a party for all her neighbours and friends which costs about one thousand times what the coin was worth.

That concept of mercy which is superabundant would be looked on by many today as stupid, but this is the essence of God’s mercy.  Living out God’s mercy in our lives is not about a gift which we in our discretion hand out and measure out on our terms.  God’s mercy is something we receive in measures which go way beyond our merits.  God does not sit there in splendid isolation in judgment, spying on our innermost thoughts.  He is the Father of the prodigal son who is out there looking and waiting and does not even allow the prodigal son the opportunity to recite his well-prepared speech of repentance.  Instead of setting out the conditions on which he might return, the Father robes him and prepares a feast.

Our world needs that concept of mercy.  We live in a world which is calculating and measuring.  If you go to the supermarket you get exactly what you paid for.  If it says 12 ounces you will get no more or no less.

A world of measured quantified justice would be an impossible world to live in.  None of us would be here if we had not experienced the loving generosity of so many others, above all our parents, who gave of themselves so that we could do better in our lives.

Our world is very harsh, especially for those who do not meet the criteria for worldly success:  celebrity, wealth, good looks, outward success.  And indeed below the surface even of those who appear to be successful there is very often a deep sense of anxiety and anxiousness.  Many young people have difficulty in finding meaning and purpose in their lives and are offered only superficial solutions.

The Church itself has so often transmitted a sense of guilt in the hearts of those who fail.  Our world and our Church need a new resurrection of the sense of mercy.  I use the term resurrection, because ours is a faith of resurrection, where God’s activity is not that of humiliation, but of raising up and enabling and encouraging and giving new hope and vision.  The challenge posed by Pope Francis for the up-coming Synod of Bishops is to be open to ways of applying the primacy of mercy to particular situations while remaining faithful to fundamental truth.  But the implications of the primacy of mercy will only be understood when we grasp how all human relations must be characterised by mercy and not just self-interest, but also that mercy is not passive acceptance of everything – a soft spirituality – but is also part of the path of living the Cross.

Catherine McCauley’s concept of mercy was not one of condescending consolation, but one which saw mercy as building up thorough education and health care so that the men and women of her time would reach human maturity knowing that they enjoyed the support of the love of God who sustains them even in difficult moments.  Your task is to carry on the tradition of that charism, not through simply recycling it, but through resurrecting it today to respond to the trauma and suffering of those who seek a sense of meaning which they will only find in God, but who once they find it can rejoice like the women who had lost the coin, and radiate joy in our lives and share it with others.