The Holy Father Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There have been several other Holy Years in my lifetime, but somehow the theme of God’s Mercy seems to be a particular focus of this one.
1. Images of Mercy
In the last few weeks, as the refugee crisis in Europe has unfolded, you may have noticed how one image of a drowned child on a beach in Turkey appears to have changed everything. The image does not, however, take away the need for us to try and understand the underlying reality.
In much the same way, there are images associated with the Mercy of God. One image which has become very well-known in recent times is the painting by Rembrandt called “The Return of the Prodigal”. Another more recent one is the image of “The Divine Mercy” revealed to Saint Faustina and then, of course, there is the older tradition of the image of the Sacred Heart, revealed to Saint Margaret Mary. Underlying all of these is the person of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis tells us, in his letter proclaiming the Jubilee of Mercy, that Jesus “is the face of the Father’s Mercy”.
2. The Quality of Mercy
I don’t know if people still study the plays of Shakespeare at school. During my Intermediate Certificate year, we studied the Merchant of Venice, which is all about borrowing and lending and what happens when you find yourself deep in debt. It is based in Venice in the middle ages, but the theme is just as relevant today as it was then.
You may remember that, in one of his great parables of mercy, Jesus uses this image of being deep in debt to explore the challenge of mercy. He tells to the story of a servant who owed his boss a lot of money. He couldn’t pay, so the boss ordered that he should be sold as a slave, together with his whole family. When the man pleaded for mercy, the boss had pity on him and forgave him the debt. You would think that the servant might have learnt something from this experience. Instead, he went out and started to bully one of his fellow servants who owed him money. When he heard this, the boss was not impressed. “’You wicked servant’ he said, ‘I cancelled your debt when you appealed to me. Were you not bound then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?’ And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.”
“And that”, said Jesus, “is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart”(Mt.18:23ff.)
In the Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio, who has fallen on hard times and is unable to pay his debts to Shylock the money-lender, appeals for his life, with a very powerful speech about the quality of mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)
It seems to me that there are two very important messages for us in that passage:
– Mercy is something we receive, but it is also something we are called to give; and we are blessed both when we receive mercy and when we offer it to others
– Mercy is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. People who are insecure, feel the need to show their power over others. People who are strong and confident, can take the risk of showing mercy. God, of course, is all-powerful, but he is also rich in mercy and compassion. Most people would agree that Jesus, who is the face of God’s mercy, was a strong personality in his life on earth.
Saint Pope John Paul II reminds us that mercy is the meeting place between the justice of God and the love of God. “Mercy” he says” differs from justice, but it is not in opposition to it” (Dives in Misericordia, 4). God, who is the source of life, cannot take back his love for the man and woman he has created in his own image, even if they themselves sometimes seem to have lost sight of their dignity.
In much the same way, Pope Francis suggests that, we may have focussed too much on justice in the past, and lost sight of the love of God.
without a witness to mercy”, he says, “life becomes fruitless and sterile….. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope”. (Misericordiae Vultus, 10)
3. Word of Mercy
Pope Francis reminds us that “In order to be capable of mercy …. we must first of all dispose ourselves to listen to the Word of God”. The mercy of God is everywhere in the Scriptures, and not just in the New Testament. At times, in the past, there was, perhaps, a greater emphasis on the justice of God, and Pope Francis is at great pains to emphasise that there is no conflict between justice and mercy. The biblical notion of justice is about being in right relationship with God and with one another. The mercy of God is about recognising the reality that God is great and we are small and that we can only be in right relationship with him, because he reaches down to us and lifts us up.
a. The Exodus
One of the great sagas of the Old Testament is the account of the Exodus, when God heard the cry of his people and saved them out of slavery, leading them journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. At a very early stage in that story, when Moses meets the Lord in the burning bush, he is told to take off his shoes because he is walking on holy ground. There is no question of equality here. God is God, but in His mercy he reaches out to His people. In other words, the mercy of God is built on the justice of God.
In the light of the present day circumstances, it is not without significance that this great story of God’s mercy is built around what was effectively a refugee crisis brought on by ethnic cleansing. I will say something more about this later, but is an image of mercy which clearly challenges us all.
b. King David
King David is a complex character. He started life as the youngest son of Jesse; one who would easily be overlooked. It was out of that smallness that God chose him and the prophet Samuel anointed him as King over Israel. He found strength in the Lord but, like many Kings and political leaders, he let the power go to his head. The saga of Bathsheba is really a story of covetousness, adultery, betrayal of trust and murder. But even that is not beyond the mercy of God, who sends the prophet Nathan to preach God’s justice to David. The result is David’s repentance and his great prayer for Mercy.
Have mercy on me God in your kindness
In your compassion blot out my offence
O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 50)
c. Jonah and the Leafy Plant
One of my favourite images of Mercy in the Old Testament is the image of Jonah and the Leafy Plant. Jonah is sent by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Having completed his mission, he sits on a nearby hill to watch the fireworks. He is sure that Nineveh will be destroyed. He becomes quite angry and self-righteous when God extends his mercy to the people of Nineveh. Translated into modern idiom his response to God might be expressed as follows: “you and your mercy. I might have known that you would go all soft”. As he sits there in his frustration, the sun rises and Jonah is at risk of being burnt, except that God thoughtfully causes a leafy plant to grow up and give him shelter. The next day, God provides a worm to chew the roots of the leafy plant which withers. Once again Jonah is furious with God. But God says:
You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10)
4. Sacrament of Mercy
Jesus is the “face of God’s mercy”. His ministry takes him out among the blind, the lame and the lepers. He crosses of the Sea of Galilee to bring good news to those who are on the other side. He sits down with sinners. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes off in search of the stray. In all of these ways he reminds us, time and time again, that nobody is outside the mercy of God. How many thousands of people have listened to his Parable of the Prodigal Son and remembered the face of a loving God.
If you have ever been forgiven, especially when it was done graciously and with no strings attached, you will understand the meaning of gratitude. St. Luke tells the story of a woman who had the bad reputation and who came to see Jesus in the house of one of the Pharisees. She was taking a very public risk. She stood there and wept, recognising her own smallness. Then, with simple reverence, she began to anoint the feet of Jesus. This scandalised the Pharisees, but Jesus simply said “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7).
When he came to his disciples in the Upper Room after the Resurrection, Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit, those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven, and those whose sins you retain they are retained”. The Church has always seen herself as having the authority to forgive sins “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Pope Francis challenges priests as they celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be “authentic signs of the Father’s Mercy”.
We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this. None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it. Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgement is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy. May confessors not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what. (Misericordiae Vultus, 17)
It has often struck me, when reading the Gospels, that Jesus preached to people in groups. He healed people in large numbers. He also fed large crowds of people. It would have been easy for him to get up on a balcony and, with a wave of his hand, tell thousands of people that their sins were forgiven. But he doesn’t seem to have done that. Whenever we hear about Jesus ministry of reconciliation, it always seems to be a personal encounter.
– “Zachaeus. Come down. I want to eat at your house tonight”;
– “Woman does nobody condemn you. Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”.
– “And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’.”
– “So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these others do?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Feed My lambs’.”
Jesus was an expert when it came to understanding the needs of people. He understood the need that we all have to be told personally that we are forgiven.
I am always sorry when I hear people talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation as if it were some kind of hoop that we have to jump through in order to be forgiven. Like the Prodigal Son, we are forgiven in the Father’s heart even before we think of coming for reconciliation. It is not difficult for God to forgive. It is sometimes difficult for us to accept forgiveness because it means having to accept that we are sinners. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not about the pain of going away; it is about the joy of homecoming. It is that personal encounter with Christ when we are welcomed with open arms. That is what this Jubilee of Mercy is all about and I hope that we can each receive that mercy and be instrumental in helping others to receive it also.
5. Community of Mercy
In Saint Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6). “Merciful like the Father” is the theme chosen by Pope Francis for this Jubilee year of Mercy”. It is a theme which crops up again and again in the Gospels. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall have mercy shown them” (Mt. 5). We even pray in the words of Jesus: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. One of the most powerful parables of Jesus is the one about the last judgement, when the King will separate his people just as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Then he will turn to the just and say:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Mt. 25)
I think there are a number of things that we can learn from this teaching of Jesus.
Our attitude to our brothers and sisters is the measure of our relationship with God. It is the yardstick by which our discipleship will be measured.
– Mercy is not a vague spiritual concept; it is a very practical down to earth way of responding to those who are vulnerable or in any kind of need, material, spiritual or emotional
– Mercy, according to Pope Francis, is the “very foundation of the Church’s life”. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are drawn into the mystery of a God who gives himself for us; Jesus Christ who, as Saint Paul says, died for us while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8).
People sometimes seem to miss the point that the moral teaching of the Church is directly connected into two sources of truth. One is what we know about God from Scripture and especially from Jesus who is the human face of God. The other is what human reason teaches us about ourselves and the world we live in. The mercy of God is what motivates the whole moral life of the Church. If we are the people of a God who is full of mercy, then that mercy has to be reflected in our own lives too. This is not about right or left, liberal or conservative. It is about the truth.
6. Corporal Works of Mercy
In his letter to proclaim the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis makes particular reference to something which older people may have forgotten and younger people may never have heard. The Corporal Works of Mercy are a series of practical actions, by means of which we reach out to those in need in the world around us. They include:
– feeding the hungry
– giving drink to the thirsty
– clothing the naked
– providing shelter to the homeless
– visiting the sick
– visiting those in prison
– burying the dead
Solidarity, as Saint Pope John Paul II said, on more than one occasion, is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.
It is through the corporal works of mercy that we express our belief in a God of mercy. Of their very nature the corporal works of mercy are challenging.
It is quite natural that we should have a particular sense of responsibility towards out fellow Christians in the middle-east and a desire to help them. Reason tells us, however, that refugees, whatever their faith or culture, have the same needs. If we are moved to action by the plight of the refugees, that flows both from recognition of our common humanity and from our own experience of the mercy of God”. How we respond to them, in the final analysis, is not because of who they are. It is because of who we are.
Our commitment to respect and defend the life of the unborn goes hand in hand with our care for women in crisis pregnancy. This is partly because reason tells us that each one is a unique human individual, but also because we believe that God, in his mercy, loves each of them beyond measure. Their own experience of the Mercy of God is what inspired people like the Sisters of Mercy and many other religious congregations to dedicate their lives to the care of the sick, the education of the poor and many of the other corporal works of mercy. I welcome them all here today in this Year of Consecrated Life.
Our care for the environment is another way in which we are called to pass on to the generations coming after us the mercy we ourselves have received. As Pope Francis has so beautifully pointed out to us: “The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.…. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” (Laudato Si, 67)
7. Spiritual Works of Mercy
Pope Francis also reminds us that our responsibilities do not end with responding to the material needs of people. Through the Spiritual Works of Mercy we help our neighbours with their emotional and spiritual needs. These Spiritual Works of Mercy include:
– counselling the doubtful
– instructing the ignorant
– admonishing sinners
– comforting the afflicted
– forgiving offenses
– bearing wrongs patiently
– praying for the living and the dead
Mercy takes up our valuable time. It is often easier to keep going than to stop and listen to a neighbour or a stranger. It takes courage as well. In a world which prides itself on being liberal and non-judgemental, it is often easier to keep one’s head down and one’s mouth shut. People don’t always take kindly to advice, let alone correction. That said, it is often the honest word, spoken out of love and with deep respect, which prevents us from making fools of ourselves or worse.
8. The Jubilee Year of Mercy
So what will happen during the Jubilee Year of Mercy? The Pope, as the bishop of Rome, wants to extend the Jubilee out to the whole world, so that those who cannot come to Rome can still be part of this great pilgrimage of Mercy. He has asked that there would be a Holy Door in every diocese, either in the Cathedral or in some other designated Church. The Holy Door is a symbol of coming in or coming home, and all who come will be welcomed. Pope Francis has expressed the wish that every Catholic would feel able to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to experience God’s Mercy. The ready availability of Confession will be a feature of those Churches where there is a Holy Door.
My own experience would suggest that many people think that if the bishop really wants something to happen, then he can surely make it happen. The reality is quite different. Like everything worthwhile that happens in our parishes, it depends on the commitment of all the people of God. The same is true of the Year of Mercy. It will be what we make of it.
The Pope has also made it clear that nothing is beyond the Mercy of God and no person is excluded. One example of this, which Pope Francis has chosen to emphasise during the Jubilee Year, is the welcome and the forgiveness that is there for any person who has procured an abortion and who, with a sincere heart, seeks forgiveness. This is not to say that the Church’s teaching has changed. In fact it is simply to restate the essence of the Church’s teaching down through the ages, that “The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father”. (Letter of Pope Francis to Archbishop Fisichella, 1st. Sept., 2015)
This is the first time that a Jubilee Year of Mercy has been celebrated in the digital age. As a result, there are a great many resources available on the internet, for parish communities who want to walk that path of mercy together. The Vatican itself has a web-site dedicated to the Jubilee of Mercy. www.im.va . There are even opportunities to volunteer for a week of service to pilgrims in Rome.
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that there is More Joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine who had no need of repentance. My prayer is that some of that Joy will be experienced here on earth as we share with one another the mercy that we ourselves have received from God. Thank you for listening.
Notes for Editors
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference is hosting the National Eucharistic Congress which takes place today and tomorrow at the National Marian Shrine in Knock, Co Mayo. The Congress comprises: prayer; daily celebration of the Eucharist at 3.00pm (Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, will be the chief celebrant today, and Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, will be the chief celebrant tomorrow and His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, will preach the homily) in the recently refurbished and beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Knock; the opportunity to receive the sacraments; a youth and children’s programme; and, interesting and topical workshops and talks delivered by experts in their field. Please see the full programme: http://nec2015.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NEC2015-programme-flier-Sept-04-Update.pdf
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678