The Year of Mercy Begins

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tomorrow, the Holy Father opens the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica and the universal Church officially begins the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Non-Catholics -- and some Catholics, too -- might wonder how this ancient idea of a Jubilee Year remains relevant to our troubled times. They might wonder what Pope Francis is up to. They might well ask themselves: Isn’t every day for a Christian, let alone every year, supposed to be about mercy?

Alas, the need of the Church and the world for mercy could scarcely be more evident. To the question -- why do we need a year for mercy? -- I am reminded of the inscription on the grave of the architect Christopher Wren in the middle of his greatest achievement, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: Si Monumentum requiris circumspice. If it is a monument you seek, look around you.* Everywhere we look, there is poverty and war and brokenness. The divisions within our societies have their counterparts within the Church. Original sin remains the one doctrine of the Church that requires no faith to be believed, as the evidence is all around us. If we are honest, sin is not merely "out there," perpetrated by others, but inside our own lives and hearts, in our cogitatione, verbo, opere et omissione. Yes, we need a Jubilee of Mercy.

The Catholic Church needs this year for its own reasons. The Holy Father, at his first Angelus address after his election in 2013, noted that he had read Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life during the conclave. Pope Francis said the book did him “much good.” During all the controversies surrounding the twin synods on the family, the issue of mercy came to be viewed narrowly, in the context of how the Church ministers to those whose marriages fall short of the Christian ideal, but the thesis of Kasper’s book is more foundational. He argues that mercy has been "criminally neglected" by Catholic theology and that, whatever other benefits we have reaped from applying the concept of Being derived from Greek philosophy, the metaphysical understanding of God has been a pastoral “catastrophe” in our time. In earlier centuries, when the metaphysics of Aristotle were widely accepted, it may have been different. Today, most college graduates gain their diplomas without ever having to read Aristotle or Plato. That may be a shame, or it may not, but it should not be the hinge upon which the proposal of the Christian faith succeeds or fails.

The Gospel readings we hear proclaimed at Mass on Sunday often relate Jesus acting in a merciful way to those whom He encounters. Jesus shows mercy to the woman caught in the act of adultery. He shows mercy to Matthew, an encounter that produced the Holy Father’s episcopal motto: Miserando atque eligendo. Jesus shows mercy to the good thief crucified alongside Him. Some of Jesus’ parables also call us to mercy, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. We are called to follow Jesus, and His example of mercy, to be sure. But, the Year of Mercy is not primarily a call to an ethic, even an ethic of mercy. If we reduce mercy to an ethical proposition, a tendency to which we on the left are especially prone, we miss the point. The Jubilee Year of Mercy calls us to something deeper.

The God of the Bible is a God of mercy. Pagan philosophers could devise ethics and attribute to the gods they worshipped the attributes of justice. Many non-believers today have acute and deeply seated commitments to justice. But, we could only discover that God is merciful if He revealed Himself to be so. And, throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that is how God reveals Himself. God’s mercy is what most defines Him, and what must, therefore, most define the Church that serves as His Body.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is not fundamentally about how we treat one another, but about how God treats us. The parable presents a radical vision and, in the past few years, those who have questioned Pope Francis, those who have belittled him, those who say he is confusing, all have behaved like no one so much as the Older Son in that parable. Charles Peguy wrote of this parable in his epic poem “Portal of the Mystery of Hope”:

Innumerable men, from its first telling, innumerable Christians have

            cried over it.

(Unless they had a heart of stone.)

Have cried because of it.

Through the centuries men will cry.

Just by thinking about it, just by seeing it, who could,

Who would be capable of holding back their tears.

Through the centuries, through eternity men will cry over it; because

            of it.

Whether they be believers or unbelievers.

Through eternity, until judgment day.

Up to the judgment itself, through the judgment. And,

It’s the word of Jesus that has carried the farthest, my child.

It’s the one that’s had the greatest luck.

Temporal luck. Eternal luck.

It has awakened in the heart a certain point of resonance

A special resonance.

It has also been especially fortunate.

It’s famous even among the impious.

It has found, even with them, a point of entry.

Alone perhaps it has remained driven into the heart of the impious

Like a nail of tenderness.

Then he said: A man had two sons. And he who hears it for the hundredth time,

It’s as if it were the first time.

That he heard it.

A man had two sons. It is beautiful in Luke. It is beautiful everywhere.

It’s not only in Luke, it’s everywhere.

It’s beautiful on earth and in heaven. It’s beautiful everywhere.

Just by thinking about it, a sob rises in your throat.

The “certain point of resonance” that is “awakened” speaks to our whole understanding of redemption: Fallen though we are, we were created in the image and likeness of Him who is merciful and so when we hear those words, they touch something that is already inside us, no matter how hidden it may be.

+Kasper not only examines the many parables of mercy in the New Testament, he also rightly claims that God reveals Himself most especially as merciful in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus:

With the idea of substitutionary atonement, it is not – as a prevalent misunderstanding suggests – a matter of a vengeful God needing a victim so that his wrath can be assuaged. On the contrary, by willing the death of his son on account of his mercy, God takes back his wrath and provides space for his mercy and thereby also for life. By taking our place in and through his son, he takes the life-destroying effects of sin upon himself in order to bestow upon us life anew. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: see everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). It is not we who can reconcile God with us. He is the one who has reconciled himself with us (2 Cor 5:18).

Substitutionary atonement is, of course, not an act of replacement, in which God in Jesus Christ affects our salvation without our involvement. God reconciles us with himself to such an extent that he reestablishes the covenantal relationship. Augustine says very clearly: the one who created us without us does not want to redeem us without us…..

…God actually enters into the opposite of himself, he takes death upon himself and subjects himself to the power of death. God himself is dead. But death could not hold God, who is immortal. Death itself, so to speak, petered out on the cross.

During the synods, and in the discussions before and after, many contrasted the doctrinal teaching of the Church about marriage with the pastoral need to show mercy. But, in the parable of the Prodigal and in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, we see that mercy is not merely a pastoral method. It is itself a doctrine of the Church, indeed, it is the essence of what precedes and governs all the doctrines of the Church, the kerygma, the proclamation of the Gospel itself. We can and should act mercifully to one another, but not because this is more likely to stem the tide of those leaving the Church. We are called to mercy because we are called to know and to love the God who is Mercy. If we act without mercy to one another, we not only act badly, we act faithlessly.

Mercy cannot be left in the realm of the spiritual. It must become incarnate in our lives, individually and as a people. The initial biblical idea of Jubilee was that the debts of the poor would be forgiven, and the poor of the world still have need of a Jubilee. Tomorrow, at the United Nations, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico will participate in a roundtable discussion of the pressing need to alleviate the debt of his island, and of other nations too.  The neo-liberal “laws of the economy” should not be permitted to force millions of poor people into yet deeper poverty because the bond markets demand austerity measures. Debt-forgiveness is a palpable example of what it means to incarnate mercy. This is not a reduction of mercy to ethics but, instead, an instance of ethics flowing from our existential and doctrinal belief in mercy, and taking concrete form. (And, it should not surprise that this call for the incarnation of mercy comes in response to the cries of the poor! Theologians need to study the intimate link between mercy and the poor.) We who have experienced mercy know that we must be merciful ourselves. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy commend themselves to all Catholics during this year, not so that we will be good little boys and girls and earn our way to heaven, but because we know that to call ourselves Christians is to describe ourselves as bearers of mercy in a broken and sinful world.

No one needs to contemplate the need to place mercy in a central place in the life of the Church, just as it holds a pivotal place in the canon of Sacred Scripture, more than the leaders of the Church. This is true especially here in the United States where the historic legacy of Jansenistic tendencies latent in Irish-American Catholicism remain astonishingly strong. I have said before, but will say again: A key to understanding Pope Francis is that he is an old Jesuit and old Jesuits confront Jansenists. In the first year of his papacy, Francis canonized St. Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits, who wrote these words in his Memoriale:

With great devotion and new depth of feeling, I also hoped and begged for this, that it finally be given to me to be  the servant and minister of Christ the consoler, the minister of Christ the helper, the minister of Christ the redeemer, the minister of Christ the healer, the liberator, the enricher, the stengthener. Thus it would happen that even I might be able through him to help many – to console, liberate, and give them courage; to bring to them light not only for their spirit, but also (if one may presume in the Lord) for their bodies, and bring as well other helps to the soul and body of each and every one of my neighbors whomsoever.

This is what mercy looks like in action: It consoles, it liberates, it gives courage, it brings light, it offers help. (And, its exercise will arouse Jansenists!) Mercy is more than an ethic, more than a dogma. Jesus Christ is mercy, the mercy of the Father incarnate in the world. Those who minister in His name must end the “criminal neglect” of mercy. And all of us who follow Him this year, and beyond, must walk with Pope Francis through that holy door, the door in our hearts and in our consciences, the door that is opened when we cry at the words, “Then he said: A man had two sons.” 

*An earlier version rendered the Latin inscription incorrectly. I thank a reader for pointing this out. 

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