On April 11, 2015, Pope Francis declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy in Misericordiae vultus. When one thinks of mercy, particularly in the context of our Catholic faith, forgiveness and the Sacrament of Confession come to mind. Something deeper, however, is going on. At its core, this Jubilee Year of Mercy focuses us on restoring our dignity as sons and daughters of God; it is intimately connected with the Gospel of Life and its call for a greater respect and defense of human dignity.
In declaring the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis stated, “This Holy Year will bring to the fore the richness of Jesus’ mission echoed in the words of the prophet: to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from who it has been robbed” (Misericordiae vultus, no. 16). Yet, how does a focus on mercy restore human dignity?
Human Dignity and Mercy
Perhaps the clearest connection between the Gospel of Life and the concept of mercy can be found in St. John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia, promulgated in 1980. In reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son, he focuses on the interior disposition of the son who realizes that the greater loss he has suffered was the loss of his status as a son in his father’s house. The loss of the son’s dignity would certainly be warranted under the order of justice for not only squandering his father’s material goods but also by offending his father in his actions. The father, however, is faithful to the love he has in his fatherhood. Love is the well-spring from which the mercy of the father springs. This love causes the father to be concerned about the dignity of his son. Despite the material loss caused by the son, the father sees the greater good to be saved: the son’s humanity. The father is able to rejoice because his greatest concern is of the dignity of the son; he cannot help but continually await his son’s return.
From this reflection, we see that, fundamentally, mercy, rooted in love, restores human dignity. St. John Paul II puts it this way: “Mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man” (Dives in Misericordia, no. 6). This type of mercy, rather than humiliating or causing uneasiness, restores one to his or her proper dignity. We see the attitude of the father not as one seeking to judge or condemn the prodigal son, however much he may have deserved it; rather, the father is filled with joy. The son is able to appreciate who he is and his actions in the light of truth.
A Divine Dignity
This dignity is also what lies at the center of the Gospel of Life, that is, a profound relationship between human beings and God. The Gospel of Life is about proclaiming the desire of God to be in an everlasting communion with us, granting us a dignity “little less than a god, crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:6). As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Man, as a being, is of no account; he is dust, grass, vanity. But once he is adopted by the God of the universe as a son, he becomes part of the family of that Being, whose excellence and greatness no one can see, hear, or understand. What words, thoughts, or flight of the spirit can praise the superabundance of this grace? Man surpasses his nature: mortal, he becomes immortal; perishable, he becomes imperishable; fleeting, he becomes eternal; human, he becomes divine” (De Beatitudinibus, Oratio VII).
Merciful Like the Father
This call to share in the very life of God is the source of the incomparable dignity and worth of each human person. It is this dignity which we seek to uphold and defend in working to end abortion, prevent euthanasia, and in serving the poor. Every person is created for and designed to exist in an eternal relationship with God. Violations of a person’s dignity inhibit one’s ability to freely live in that communion.
In Evangelium vitae, St. John Paul II points out that, even after Cain slays his brother, God is still merciful to him, protecting and defending him from others wishing to kill him, even those seeking to avenge the death of Abel. He says that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this” showing for “the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God” (Evangelium vitae, no. 9). Even in the face of grave sin which ripped away another’s dignity, God remains merciful.
There is a reason why feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and so forth are called works of mercy: they restore dignity to those from whom it has been taken. As Pope Francis states, “Mercy is a key word that indicates God’s action towards us. He does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible.” (Misericordiae vultus, no. 9) These acts, in imitation of Christ, speak of the mercy of the Father and make visible the great love the Father has for each and every one of his children.
Building a Culture of Life is therefore intimately tied with being heralds of mercy. We bring mercy to the unborn child at risk of abortion for they are on “the outermost fringes of society” with no voice. We bring mercy to those impacted by abortion by speaking of the peace and forgiveness found in Christ Jesus. We bring mercy to those sentenced to death, recalling the mercy God had on Cain in Genesis. We bring mercy to those seeking physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia or those who are at risk of being victims by confirming their dignity as sons and daughters of God and sharing in their suffering.
Thus, as Pope Francis calls for the Church to “announce the mercy of God,” it is truly a command to recognize the God-given dignity of every human person and to help them realize it in themselves. To do so may require stepping outside of our comfort zones or breaking down our lens of indifference to see situations from a different perspective. By being “merciful like the Father” in charitable acts towards others, invitations to return to the Sacraments, prayers, and evangelization, may we reveal the love of God for every person.