Misericordiae Vultus is the best papal bull ever. And that is no bull.
At Commonweal, Fr. Robert P. Imbelli has already called attention to the Christocentric focus of the text, which we discern in its opening sentence,: "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy." This is who Jesus Christ is. The essence of His relationship from the Father and to ourselves is mercy. Contra the many obnoxious attacks on Cardinal Walter Kasper's book Mercy that have appeared, Pope Francis states that +Kasper nailed it: A Church in which the proclamation of God's mercy is not foundational, operational and obvious is not being true to its founder.
The second paragraph of the text spells this out:
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.
It is hard to imagine a more countercultural cluster of sentences. At the end of a century in which humankind's mastery over the atom was illustrative of a thorough-going dominance, after the Shoah and Hiroshima, after we became aware of mass starvation while the rich want for nothing, after all the wars and all the terrorism and all the other horrors our "mastery" has called forth, Pope Francis invites us to look to the "wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace" that is God's mercy, not just as individuals but as a Church.
Mercy, for the Holy Father, is not some abstract conception. It is real, and it makes demands on us. Consider these words from the 15th paragraph:
In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!
If there is any clearer rebuttal to the libertarianism that has afflicted our political culture, I do not know it. Ayn Rand celebrated indifference to others and thought altruism a great deceit. Her followers, even those who are Catholic, may not be so aggressively insistent about altruism being a bad thing, but they still worship at the god of the unregulated market, the laws of which are indifferent. Father Sirico: Call your office!
It is often said that Pope Francis is the world's parish priest on account of his morning sermons each day and the way he stood outside the door at St. Anne's Church in the Vatican his first Sunday as pope, greeting the people as they left. In this new bull, we see more evidences of his designation as the world's parish priest. After recalling the parable of the "ruthless servant," Pope Francis says: "This parable contains a profound teaching for all of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are." Those may be fighting words at the next synod, but the lesson drawn for everyday life from the parable is the kind of preaching one expects from a good parish priest.
Another example of Pope Francis' deep immersion in the pastoral life of the Church is found in his discussion of confession. He instructs the clergy:
Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgment is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father's boundless mercy. May confessors not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy gushing from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what.
If every confessor really did behave in this way, would more people avail themselves of the sacrament? If every confessor really did behave in this way, would more people be committed to spreading mercy throughout their lives and their relationships? If every confessor really did rush out to greet the prodigals in their parish, would those parishioners be more deeply rooted in what really matters in the life of the Church?
It is hard to believe that a papal bull that is in some ways so deeply conservative, drawing on the deepest traditions and practices of the Church like confession, can be spoken in such a way that the message is fresh. This is because the Holy Father is reminding us that our faith is less about what we do and more about what God does, or better to say, it is about us only insofar as it is about Him.
Last week, I spent time discussing important issues of the day, such as Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but religious freedom is not the heart of the matter. No particular requirement of the moral law is the heart of the matter. No act of justice, however noble or effective, is the heart of the matter. Mercy is the heart of the matter. It is so simple and, yet, so very non-modern. The pope's bull does not draw on anything modern, but on the one thing that is always new, the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. There is nothing the social sciences can tell us about mercy. There is no lawyer, nor analyst, nor medical doctor whose expertise enlightens us about God's mercy. And, sadly, for too long the Church itself has failed to give mercy the centrality of focus it deserves and which Jesus Christ requires. This is the core of the Pope Francis Revolution. It is exhilarating to witness.