“Be not afraid, just have faith.” – Jesus (Mark 5:36)
At the beginning of his papacy the late John Paul II said these words: Be not afraid. He later said he could not anticipate what the Holy Spirit was saying in that moment, and what a profound message it would turn out to be for our times. The pope told a world in uncertain times to have no fear: “Why should we have no fear? Because man has been redeemed by God… The power of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection is greater than any evil which man could or should fear.” At the summons of a new Pope, Francis, we stand now at the threshold of the Jubilee of Mercy, and we are in uncertain times still. The heart of the world has been broken, it seems. Many are afraid. But the answer is still a poignant one, driving us into an uncertain future on the merits of a certain past: That the risen Lord of yesterday is the same risen Lord of tomorrow, and he comes to us on pinions of Mercy.
The Character of Fear
It is fear that is the antithesis of hope. St. Thomas Aquinas assures us of that fact. Where the object of hope is some future good, it is some future evil that is the object of fear (Summa, Question 41). This concern was undoubtedly on the mind of the new young Pope John Paul as he looked out on the horizon of an as yet undefined future. His knowledge on the matter was informed by another certitude – that “if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” (1 Cor. 15: 14) Empty, too, then is the papacy; empty too, then, the hearts of God’s people. The only reason to hope is because God has given us one, in Christ, whom he called up from the dead. It is the resurrection of Christ that is the substance of hope, and it is this substantive hope that is the antithesis of fear.
The Unification of Hope and Mercy
What is hope, then, if it is not a response to mercy? God, through Christ, pierces humanity with love and undeserved kindness, and this says something about the character of mercy. Mercy is God come in the flesh. Mercy is the sacrifice of the Son. Mercy is the resurrection and the splendor of his triumph. “All my hope is naught save in Thy great mercy,” says St. Augustine. It is hope that unites us to mercy. We are called beyond a fear that evil might triumph and into the licit hope that mercy might triumph. This is the hope of Pope Francis, who in his letter on the Jubilee of Mercy has said,
“It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to it be ever more effective.”
The Holy Father envisions a time when mercy, and not condemnation, will ever be on the lips of his people. This is a year when all of humanity is called to the Father’s embrace. Pilgrims will be called from the world over to enter through the Holy Door, or any other church designated by the bishops, and to experience confession and the Eucharist in a deep meditation on God’s mercy. This mercy is to be a sign of hope to the world, that any sin can be forgiven, that shame, even in its deepest roots, can be crushed by the victory of Jesus.
The Essence of Faith
“It is because of faith that we exchange the present for the future,” said St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen. And we know it was the writer of Hebrews who said that, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Our newest mission is to combat the fear of unknown evils with the hope of mercy – the hope that forgiveness will come to the sinner. The hope that the lost will be found, that the lonely will find consolation, that fault lines will be healed by the tender embrace of the Father “who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness.”
Faith, in its way, animates hope. It is looking to a future that is uncertain and seeing what God has done, and will do, based upon the merits of what has already been done. Faith is action, and when our faith is active, we are all pilgrims to the doorway of mercy. That is what the coming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is all about – our hope coming alive, and the people of God re-invigorated in their faith by the mercy of Christ. And this will be an invitation to the world to experience that same mercy.
The Polish pope who said the words, almost forty years ago, “Be not afraid”, had a profound commitment and devotion to the Divine Mercy. In the year 2002, John Paul II entrusted the whole world to Divine Mercy. Almost fifteen years later, we are still experiencing the fruits of that entrustment. It is a new pope that is heeding the call now, all these years later to march onward. In a new way, Pope Francis has asked us to “Be not afraid”. In the era of mass media consumption, carelessness for God’s poor, and hearts that fear any openness to religion, we are asked to “be not afraid”, to go to confession, to experience the Eucharist, and to share the Divine Mercy message with others. This message is an uncertain solution, as we do not know what the outcome will be. But it is an act of faith that is oriented toward hope, and hope is the surest Christian call-sign.