The cry for mercy has filled the lungs of the Church since her birth from the pierce side of Christ on the Cross. This cry has received a renewed zeal under the pontificate of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. His desire to renew the hearts of all Christians through mercy that he himself demonstrates by his words and gestures, is truly a prophetic cry. I always write the term “prophetic” with hesitation because it is a term too easily bandied about, usually to justify one’s personal preferences. Yet, the term applies here because mercy is the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to the Apostles and their successors (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21).
The Gospel says that out of the heart of a person comes evil (Matthew 15:19). The human heart is prone to sin because we are a fallen people. I write fallen and not depraved because we still bear the image of God. St. Paul reminds us of our fallenness when he writes “… all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23b). When left to our own natural tendencies, we easily sin; yet, the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs offers us a ray of light: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beasts, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10). Such an insight offers us a key to understanding how the renewal of mercy under Pope Francis is being hollowed out for cruelty. Regarding the issue of hollowed-out and cruel mercy, we must see how Pope Francis’s definition of mercy is often distorted by others.
Pope Francis and Mercy
In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis offers the reader a four-part definition of mercy. He says “…mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive” (8-9). In the life of a Christian, mercy comes through an encounter with this divine attitude of God. It is in the merciful encounter that the four-part definition takes its form; namely, God is revealed through His embrace, gift of self, acceptance, and forgiveness.
The Gift of His Embrace
The first two movements of God’s mercy, His embrace and gift of self, are the rich soil in which our hearts are planted. The pilgrimage of salvation history can be understood through the desire of embrace. God’s gift of Moses and the prophets were a means for Him to extend His embrace to His people so they could sense His desire to safeguard and guide them. Then there is the poetic dance of the Bridegroom and Bride depicted in the Song of Songs, a movement of the two people, who are symbols of a larger reality. They search for each other, striving to find a way to embrace in true love. We see the struggle of God’s people through the Bride to return an embrace of love to the One who has loved her first. Finally, the gift of the Incarnation, the penultimate embrace, where God fully makes Himself known to those He loves via their own flesh. Also, within this gift He has made himself vulnerable to us out of and for the sake of love. The mercy of God, made known through an embrace, and the gift of Himself can now never leave His people. It remains among us through the Eucharist. I believe that the people of God are fully united about these first two aspects of God’s mercy that the Holy Father delineates.
Go and Sin No More: Acceptance and Forgiveness
It is in the last two parts of the Pope’s definition of mercy that we perceive a certain hollowing out of mercy in the life of the Church. One of the regular biblical images offered to us during the Year of Mercy was that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable, Christ is teaching us who is a true neighbor and how we are meant to be that true neighbor to others. The Good Samaritan was the only one who, after seeing the wounded man, stooped down to care for him. From that initial care, the Good Samaritan carried the man to an inn and provided for his needs.
The dramatic tension around this parable resides in the latter part of the Good Samaritan’s actions. He carries the wounded man to a place of security, peace, and healing. This parable shows us the work of God within salvation history. God, often seen as an enemy, comes to the person (us), cares for us, and takes us to where we need to be. We see first that God accepts us where we are, but He does not leave us there. Recall Romans 3:23 from earlier: We have all fallen short of the Glory of God, which was our state before Christ came to redeem us. God saw our misery and knew intimately of our inability to save ourselves. Yet, He accepted the reality we made for ourselves but did not wish us to remain in it. Continuing from the earlier verse, Paul wrote “… they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). We are the “they” in that Spirit-filled wisdom of Paul. The healing ointments the Good Samaritan used to care for the wounded man are the justification and redemption offered to us in Christ.
We Should Be Good Samaritans
As God did for us, so we are called to do for our neighbors, for we are His body in the world. We accept where they are (in sin) and by the grace of God take them to where they need to be (in Christ). It is not enough merely to accept where a person is. The desire to carry them to the inn, which is the Church, must always remain connected to that acceptance of the reality of the sinful human condition.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan should clarify the meaning of the expression, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” To merely accept a person as a sinner, while letting him remain in his sin, is the first twisting of the heart that leads to a cruel sense of mercy. We cannot force people to go where they do not want to go. Jesus let the rich young man walk away (Matthew 19:16-30). As much as people ponder the possibility of the return of the rich young man, the reality remains that Jesus let him walk away. We offer Jesus. We never force Jesus upon another. Like Jesus, we must be willing to let people walk away.
Forgiveness is Ours
Now, let us look at the forgiveness that is offered to us in mercy. Pope Francis speaks about this forgiveness in connection with the word “bowing”. God’s merciful forgiveness is never offered to us at a distance. The beauty of God’s forgiveness is seen in the sacrament of reconciliation. Within this sacrament, God’s forgiveness is expressed intimately to the sinner, through His nearness to the person via the priest.
This nearness or bowing of forgiveness is shown profoundly through the passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11). She is brought to Jesus while He is sitting down teaching the people in the Temple. He is at her level as a crowd brings her into His presence. Yet, Jesus bows down even further when He begins to write with His finger on the ground. Was Jesus writing the sins of her accusers? Maybe, but He reminds them, indirectly, that they are sinners too.
We must not forget that Pharisaism does not arise from the Law of Moses per se. The Law is only a means of actualizing the profane attitude of heart that Pharisaism produces. It is the attitude that subtly or overtly states: “I am better than you.” Jesus reminds all present that they are sinners and that no one person is better than any other among them. That is why the forgiveness offered freely to the woman can never be separated from His command to “go and sin no more.” Again, this is a truth we acknowledge in the Act of Contrition that we sinners make during confession.
Presumption and Licentiousness
The reality of the Lord’s forgiveness and the call to sin no more is not only contained within this passage from John but can also be found in Romans 6:1-2; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2; Hebrews 6:1-12, 12:12-29. God’s mercy and forgiveness, when divorced from the call to avoid sin, produces a presumptuous heart. Presumption is the second twisting of the heart that produces a cruel mercy. Presumption allows sin to increase within the heart, from which it flows freely into the world.
Twisted notions of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness have the effect of hollowing out the presence of His mercy within the human heart. This hollowness is not passive but active. It forms a cruel sense of mercy in the heart: it can lead to presumption about God’s mercy and allow one to leave his neighbor in sin.
These two works of cruel mercy lead the heart not to redemption but to licentiousness. Cruel mercy offers its practitioners a license; that is, a license for sin. This twisted version of mercy is a shadow within the Church that people easily hide in. Licentiousness allows people to justify their attachments, desires, and lifestyles. They may justify these to themselves, to other members of the Church, or to the world. It is this broken and dark desire to justify sin that allows the perpetuation of the cruel mercy of the wicked in both the Church and the world.
To these sinful human hearts the Holy Father offers a stern rebuttal. In responding to a question about mercy and the need to acknowledge one’s sins, Pope Francis said, “Mercy exists, but if you don’t want to receive it … If you don’t recognize yourself as a sinner, it means that you don’t feel the need for it” (The Name of God is Mercy, 57).
The above-mentioned abuses of mercy manifest only a few of the ways in which people may not feel they need the mercy of God. May our hearts continue to remain firm in the truth made known to us by God’s mercy, that even though “… we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Consider it the mercy of God that someone occasionally speaks a good word to you, for you deserve none. ~ St. John of the Cross (Sayings of Light and Love, #45)