Pope Francis' fourth anniversary: the centrality of mercy

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the window of his private apartment as he leads his first Angelus in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 17, 2013. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
This article appears in the Four Years of Francis feature series. View the full series.

For the next few days, I will be looking at key themes of the pontificate of Pope Francis as we get ready to celebrate his fourth anniversary as pope next Monday. I propose to take a quote of his and explain why it is even more important than it appears at first sight.

In his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 311, Pope Francis wrote:

At times we find it hard to make room for God's unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its con­crete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.

If there is a single quote that defines the reforms that Pope Francis seeks for the church, it is found in these sentences.

Pope Francis is certainly building on solid theological and magisterial tradition, but he is also doing something new here. St. Pope John Paul II wrote his second encyclical, Dives in misericordia, published way back in 1980, on the subject of mercy, and his devotion to Sr. Faustina and placing Divine Mercy Sunday on the liturgical calendar evidenced his concern. Pope Benedict XVI wrote beautifully about mercy too.

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Still, there is no denying that for centuries, mercy has been obscured in Catholic theology from its central place not only as an moral attribute to which we are called, but as the primary essence of the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. As Cardinal Walter Kasper ably, and convincingly, demonstrated in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life the early encounter of Christian witness with Hellenic thought placed the emphasis on the concept of being as key to understanding the Godhead, but the Scriptural witness places greater emphasis on the relational attribute of mercy. Pope Francis, in his first Sunday Angelus address, said he had read Kasper's book and commended it.

That said, Francis' way of speaking about mercy clearly has deeper roots than reading a single book. His repeated focus on placing mercy at the heart of the church's proclamation of the Gospel is the fruit of a lifetime as a pastor of souls. He knows the walking wounded who have need of the church as a field hospital. He knows of the poor who have need of bread and dignity and work. He knows of the couples in irregular marital situations whose love doesn't align with the neat categories of the catechism. Pope Francis speaks of mercy from experience as well as from a deep theological awareness.

It is this commitment to placing mercy at the center of the church's ministry that is the real source of tension with so many of the pope's critics. When Amoris Laetitia was issued, and I published an initial commentary after a first reading of that document, I began with Paragraph 311 as I did today and commented:

Here, and throughout the text, Pope Francis confronts the charge that any kind of change amounts to a capitulation to the culture, a watering down of Catholic doctrine, and turns the charge on its head. He reminds the whole Church that this great enterprise of evangelization and theology and pastoral accompaniment must flow from the root of the Christian Gospel, and not let any theological or cultural or canonical encrustations frustrate the Church from its primary mission of announcing that Gospel, most especially to the poor and the marginalized, the Gospel of Mercy. 

I see no reason to alter those words and, in fact, the opposition to Amoris Laetitia that has emerged since I wrote them only underline their accuracy. The opponents of Amoris Laetitia cling to the canons and to theological or cultural encrustations, and miss the core, they venerate the chaff and miss the wheat.

In his focus on mercy, Pope Francis is not merely calling attention to a theological virtue we should practice. This is not about ethics only. It goes deeper. It is a quintessential example of ressourcement theology, which proposed a return to the sources, that was so central to the Second Vatican Council. The aggiornamento, or bringing up to date, that the Council took as its mission was not a mere indulgence of modernity, but an engagement with modernity, and an engagement based on a retrieval of the sources of Christian life rooted in the Scriptures and the early Church Fathers. It specifically aimed to question the cultural encrustations that had once revealed and explicated those sources, but now stood in the way.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Donald Wuerl pointed to Pope Francis' achievement in reconnecting the church today with the work of Vatican II. He said:

I think his [Pope Francis'] great contribution to date has been the reconnecting of the church with the energy of the Second Vatican Council, the energy coming out of that council. I was a student, studying theology when that council was going on and we were all caught up in the excitement of aggiornamento — renewal.

Mercy is the heart of this reconnection first with the Council, and secondly, as the Council instructed, with the essence of the Gospel. Mercy calls us Catholics to live in the world in a certain way, to be forgiving in an unforgiving world, to witness to God's mercy with our own mercy, not just to act mercifully but to incarnate it in our lives. And, he calls on the church to become known by the mercy we show, not just teach, but show. It is deeper than ethics; it is Christian anthropology and ecclesiology too.

Last Sunday, we heard St. Paul writing to the Romans about how sin and salvation entered into human history. One line caught my attention especially: "But the gift is not like the transgression." For too long, too many Catholics have acted as if the gift of grace was like the transgression of sin, as if our task in life was to prove ourselves worthy to receive the sacraments, as if the economy of grace was like the economy of money in which we barter and trade for God's favor. Pope Francis is reminding us of what St. Paul reminded the Romans: The gift is not like the transgression. The gift of God's mercy is superabundant. It comes to us especially in our moments of vulnerability, not in our moments of moral accomplishment. It beckons us to share the gift with others, and share as it has been given to us, freely and without measure. It is radical, requiring a conversion of heart from our normal, human desires for payback or self-promotion. It gives rise to a true evangelical Catholicism, one that is less concerned with some ethical checklist of norms to be followed and more concerned with announcing that the reign of God is at hand whenever we receive and offer mercy. It is this kind of radical conversion, and only this, which will renew the church.

Pope Francis' vibrant witness to mercy not only grasps us, but he is inviting the rest of us to grasp it. It is the heart of the revolution of tenderness he seeks and the world so sorely needs. So far, it is one of his three most distinctive contributions to the life of the Church and is intimately linked to them. Tomorrow, I shall pick up the second contribution, his shining a light on the Church's social doctrine.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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