We have just celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday during the season of Easter, which can rightly be viewed as a season of mercy. Pope Francis has declared that the Church will celebrate a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning December 8, 2015. Through both the rhythm of the liturgical calendar and the guidance of our Holy Father we are prompted to reflect on the nature of mercy.
In many ways, mercy is often misunderstood. Mercy is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that excuses us from suffering or enduring the consequences of our failings. Instead, mercy is a salve of hope applied to our suffering. Peter failed miserably when he denied Christ three times. He felt guilt and self-loathing and suffered a painful separation from Christ. Jesus could have given up on Peter and said, “What a loser!” Who would blame him if he looked for someone more worthy to lead His Church? It was an outpouring of Christ’s mercy that allowed Peter to profess his love three times (John 21:15-19) and fully reconcile with Him.
This is the message of mercy we should take away from Easter. Christ lovingly took all past, present, and future sins upon his shoulders as he stretched out his arms on the Cross. Our sins, no matter how large or small, made the wounds in his hands and feet and pierced his Sacred Heart. Through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection Christ poured out his Divine Mercy so that no matter what, we are never beyond redemption. There is always hope for our salvation.
Which brings us to the hard part. Christ told us to “Love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). That could also be phrased, “Be merciful to one another as I am merciful to you.” Do we offer mercy to one another as Christ offers mercy to us? Or do we nurse our grudges and offenses and refuse to forgive and love? Do we put our self-interests first and avoid the sacrifice that would be required to show love and mercy?
This is a challenging road to walk because our fallen nature is very quick to cry out, “That’s not fair!” Our self-righteous indignation obstructs the path to mercy. Instead of mercy, we are on a quest for justice.
At the other end of the spectrum, mercy can be misconstrued to mean avoiding making others uncomfortable or avoiding confrontation. There is no talk of right and wrong or good and evil. There is no fraternal correction of destructive behavior. Such misguided approaches to mercy often ignore the root causes of suffering and just try to smooth the surface in the name of being “pastoral” or “non-judgmental”.
This is a false dichotomy. Justice and mercy are complementary, not antagonistic to each other. Seeking justice without mercy yields vengeance, not justice. Mercy without a sense of justice foments the tolerance of evil. There is nothing just about demeaning another human being and defiantly allowing him to go hungry because his hunger is the result of his own poor choices. There is also nothing merciful about enabling or encouraging this person to continue making the same poor choices so that he is perpetually hungry.
Fortunately, as is so often the case, the Church has already wrestled with this balance and developed guidelines to help us be authentically merciful. These teachings are commonly known as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and address mercy aimed at both physical and spiritual needs (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447). We are urged to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and bury the dead. But we are equally charged to admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, bear wrongs patiently, be willing to forgive, comfort the afflicted, and pray for both the living and the dead. We are called to alleviate bodily suffering but not at the expense of our eternal souls.
The upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy is the perfect time to explore the wisdom of both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Just as the agony of Christ was unavoidable to atone for our sins, each of us will have to carry our own crosses as we journey through this world. There will be times when we will need help carrying our cross, and times when we are able to help others carry their crosses. Our challenge will be to artfully blend justice and mercy, to foster repentance and conversion yet promote human dignity, and always convey hope.