Pope Francis delivered a video message to the Jubilee Year of Mercy meeting in Bogota this weekend. It is another one of his small encyclicals, encapsulating themes that are at the heart of his ministry and his magisterium. As his speech to the world meeting of social movements in Bolivia last summer was a distillation of the themes in Evangelii Gaudium, his video message this weekend captured the quintessence of Amoris Laetitia. I am not sure if it is summertime or if it is the Latin American audience, but either way, two years in a row now we have these powerful statements that reveal the profound depth of Pope Francis' Gospel readings in a shorter, more pithy form.
This video message also reveals what Pope Francis wants from the Church in the Americas. The framing is that articulated at Aparecida, where the Latin American bishops' conference (CELAM) had their last big meeting in 2007 and reiterated when he spoke to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew's Cathedral one year ago. The church can only find new life and new growth if she becomes a missionary church, and that is only possible if the church's mission is defined as proclaiming God's mercy.
The core of Pope Francis' message is found in this passage:
We start being scandalized -- and this happens to us all, it's almost automatic, no? -- we start being scandalized when spiritual Alzheimer's sets in: when we forget how the Lord has treated us, when we begin to judge and divide people up. We take on a separatist mindset that, without our realizing it, leads us to fragment our social and communal reality all the more. We fragment the present by creating "groups." Groups of good and bad, saints and sinners. This memory loss gradually makes us forget the richest reality we possess and the clearest teaching we have to defend. The richest reality and the clearest teaching. Though we are all sinners, the Lord has unfailingly treated us with mercy. Paul never forgot that he was on the other side, that he was chosen last, as one born out of time. Mercy is not a "theory to brandish:" "Ah! Now it is fashionable to talk about mercy for this Jubilee, so let's follow the fashion." No, it is not a theory to brandish so that our condescension can be applauded, but rather a history of sin to be remembered. Which sin? Ours, mine and yours. And a love to be praised. Which love? The love of God, who has shown me mercy.
I suppose it would take a dissertation or two to document just how many times the word "scandal" has been invoked to shut down any effort to build bridges to those who are not one hundred percent pristine. Need I recall, as recently as last month, Archbishop Charles Chaput explained in his "guidelines" for Amoris Laetitia that a divorced and remarried couple, even if they live chastely, when the priest is going to give them communion "they should do so in a manner that will avoid giving scandal or implying that Christ's teaching can be set aside."
Pope Francis confronts this idea that the exercise of mercy entails any suggestion that the teaching of Christ or the church is being set aside. "For my part, I think of the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel, and the Lord's constant betting on each one of us. That is what Paul calls 'sound teaching' -- think about it! -- sound teaching is this: that we received mercy. That is the heart of Paul's letter to Timothy." This passage is redolent of my favorite passage in Amoris Laetitia, paragraph 311: "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." The worst way. Indeed.
Other key passages include this:
Paul does not say: "The Lord spoke and told me" or "The Lord showed me or taught me." He says: "He treated me with mercy." For Paul, his relationship with Jesus was sealed by the way he treated him. Far from being an idea, a desire, a theory – much less an ideology –, mercy is a concrete way of "touching" weakness, of bonding with others, of drawing closer to others. It is a concrete way of meeting people where they are at. It is a way of acting that makes us give the best of ourselves so that others can feel "treated" in such a way that they feel that in their lives the last word has not yet been spoken. Treated in such a way that those who feel crushed by the burden of their sins can feel relieved at being given another chance. Far from a mere beautiful word, mercy is the concrete act by which God seeks to relate to his children.
To understand and accept what God does for us -- a God who does not think, love or act out of fear, but because he trusts us and expects us to change -- must perhaps be our hermeneutical criterion, our mode of operation: "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). Our way of treating others, in consequence, must never be based on fear but on the hope God has in our ability to change. Which will it be: hope for change, or fear? The only thing acting out of fear accomplishes is to separate, to divide, to attempt to distinguish with surgical precision one side from the other, to create false security and thus to build walls. Acting on the basis of hope for change, for conversion, encourages and incites, it looks to the future, it makes room for opportunity, and it keeps us moving forward. Acting on the basis of fear bespeaks guilt, punishment, "you were wrong." Acting on the basis of hope of transformation bespeaks trusting, learning, getting up, constantly trying to generate new opportunities.
Mercy is learned from experience -- in our own lives first -- as in the case of Paul, to whom God revealed all his mercy, all his merciful patience. It is learned from sensing that God continues to trust in us and to call us to be his missionaries, that he constantly sends us forth to treat our brothers and sisters in the same way that he has treated us. Each of us knows his or her own story and can draw from it. Mercy is learned, because our Father continues to forgive us. Our peoples already have enough suffering in their lives; they do not need us to add to it. To learn to show mercy is to learn from the Master how to become neighbors, unafraid of the outcast and those "tainted" and marked by sin. To learn to hold out our hand to those who have fallen, without being afraid of what people will say. Any treatment lacking mercy, however just it may seem, ends up turning into mistreatment. The challenge will be to empower paths of hope, paths that encourage good treatment and make mercy shine forth.
There are other wonderful passages. Be sure to read the whole thing, say a prayer, and read it again.
I believe it is part of the genius of Papa Bergoglio that we do not need to wait for the theologians to clarify any of this for us. Like the text of Amoris Laetitia itself, the Holy Father is as clear as day here. Anyone who says this pope is "confusing" is not really confused, they are resisting what the pope has to say and do not want to admit it. None of this is confusing. Nothing in Amoris Laetitia is confusing. Nothing in the two synods that led to Amoris Laetitia was confusing. It is different, a different point of departure, a different understanding of what constitutes a missionary church, indeed, a different set of priorities about the mission itself. And, apart from a few noisy media outlets and a few clergy terrified of having to do more than restate "the rules" as if there was no need for pastoral application, the people of God are greeting this unconfusing difference with widespread and overwhelming enthusiasm.
We watch this video message and it feels like we are in the synagogue on the day that Jesus announced his ministry, read from the prophet Isaiah, and pronounced the prophecy fulfilled. There is a whiff of a new Pentecost with Pope Francis. Instead of culture war bombs, the Holy Father, who is quite strident in his critique of the culture, hurls balm, the balm of God's mercy and love at this hurting world. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, in the Incarnation, Jesus brought God into the world. Pope Francis is showing us what it means to be a church that is faithful to that Incarnation.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]