Mercy is love’s second name

It is time to come to terms with mercy! Recent popes insist on it. On the surface, Christian mercy appears easy enough to understand.

Apr 06, 2015

By David Gibson
It is time to come to terms with mercy! Recent popes insist on it. On the surface, Christian mercy appears easy enough to understand. Still, it frequently is misunderstood in ways that are a concern. Moreover, mercy often is viewed in ways that diminish its scope and empty it of essential qualities. Is divine mercy sometimes viewed only as God’s decision to look the other way when confronted by human weaknesses? Is the mercy that Christians extend to others sometimes viewed simply as a willingness to wipe the slate clean in the face of an offense?

On a Christian’s part, looking the other way or wiping the slate clean may seem like generous ways to treat others. But doing so does not require any ongoing relationship with the person who is forgiven. It is possible to turn a blind eye to someone’s offense and at the same time to turn a blind eye to the person himself, forgetting him for the future.
In the mind of Pope Francis, the demands of Christian mercy extend beyond that. Rather than shoring up the walls that divide people and keep their lives separate, mercy closes up the distance between them and creates a new closeness.

“True mercy takes the person into one’s care, listens to him attentively,” Pope Francis told the priests of Rome in March 2014.

It shortchanges God’s mercy to consider it only a divine decree in our regard, the pope has suggested. Mercy, he repeats, is God’s “caress” of love.

Mercy “is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus,” Pope Francis wrote in a March 3, 2015, letter to the Catholic University of Argentina. Five days later he announced in a homily in a suburban Rome parish that Jesus does not cleanse hearts with a whip, as he cleansed the temple. The pope asked: “Do you know what the whip is that Jesus uses to cleanse our soul? Mercy.”

St. John Paul II very much wanted “the whole message” on mercy to be heard in contemporary times. He said so during a Mass in Rome April 30, 2000, for the canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska. The Polish nun, who died in 1938, “made her life a hymn to mercy,” the pope commented. During the canonization, St. John Paul declared that the Second Sunday of Easter henceforth would be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday. He recalled that in her diary St. Faustina wrote: “I feel tremendous pain when I see the sufferings of my neighbors. All my neighbors’ sufferings reverberate in my own heart.”

Divine mercy involves the mercy of God that human beings receive. Yet mercy involves something more, St. John Paul explained. “The path of mercy … creates new relations of fraternal solidarity among human beings.”

Highlighting the rich scope of mercy in the Christian vision of life, St. John Paul told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the canonization that “it is not easy to love with a deep love,” the kind of love that reflects an “authentic gift of self.” But, the pope advised, in becoming one with God’s “fatherly heart” it becomes possible “to look with new eyes at our brothers and sisters with an attitude of unselfishness and solidarity, of generosity and forgiveness. All this is mercy!”

In his canonization homily, St. John Paul repeated words from the encyclical on mercy that he issued 20 years earlier. “Mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name,” he wrote in that encyclical, titled “Rich in Mercy.” The encyclical cautioned against a scaled-down understanding of mercy that distorts its fuller meaning. Sometimes, appraising experiences of mercy “only from the outside” looking in, so to speak, people conclude that mercy is “above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it.”
As a result, it added, people quickly may “deduce that mercy belittles the receiver,” that it offends human dignity.

However, “mercy that is truly Christian is also, in a certain sense, the most perfect incarnation of ‘equality’ between people,” according to the encyclical. Viewed in this context, “mercy becomes an indispensable element for shaping mutual relationships between people in a spirit of deepest respect for what is human and in a spirit of mutual brotherhood.”

Pope Francis often shares his description of the church as a field hospital. For him, this description connects directly with the very meaning of Christian mercy.

Speaking to the priests of Rome, he observed that so many people today are wounded by material problems, by scandals or “by the world’s illusions.” Their wounds, he insisted, must “be treated.” The first step is to treat the “open wounds.” Mercy, for Pope Francis, “first means treating the wounds.” Commenting on the importance of mercy, he said: “We forget everything far too quickly,” but it is essential not to forget “the great content, the great intuitions and gifts that have been left to the people of God. And divine mercy is one of these.”

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