Now is the time of mercy. This is the message Pope Francis pronounced in closing the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy at the end of November. The Year of Mercy was called as a way to recognize the challenge to make God's mercy real in our world, rather than reduce it to a subjective salve or promise of the afterlife. Pope Francis insisted that we learn to "put mercy before judgment" and "abandon all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved." To forgive, Francis explained, "means to cover the sinner with the robe of mercy so that they are not ashamed anymore and may recover the joy of their filial dignity." Thus, forgiveness restores dignity. It is a call to love beyond justice or what is right or reasonable; it is a call to make justice and mercy work together.
In 2015, before the start of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis accepted an invitation to address the U.S. Congress. He reminded us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development, and he took the opportunity to support his brother bishops in calling for abolition of the death penalty in the United States and to "encourage all of those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."
Next month, Virginians will face an immediate and undeniable test whether we truly are vessels that will make God's mercy real in our world. On Jan. 18, the Virginia Department of Corrections plans to execute Ricky Javon Gray for killing Ruby and Stella Harvey, ages 4 and 9. He also killed their parents. The execution challenges our collective commitment to making God's mercy real in the world.
The murder of the Harvey family struck at the heart of Richmond's future; it is a crime as notorious as it is heart-wrenching. The crime was part of a PCP-fueled spree, brutal and senseless. Ricky Gray was about to finish vocational training as an electrician when Ray Dandridge was released from prison and tracked him down. Dandridge's arrival brought on a binge of alcohol, PCP, and other drugs, that left seven people dead.
When confronted by police about the crimes, Gray couldn't believe what had happened: "I really don't know how I was able to do that. ... I don't believe sorry is strong enough." The psychiatrist at the Richmond jail was so concerned about Gray's mental health that he ordered Gray be kept naked in a barren strip cell for weeks while they treated him with anti-psychotics typically used to treat schizophrenics.
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Gray went to trial where he put up no defense to the crimes. Gray's sister spoke briefly about the sexual abuse she and Gray suffered as young children in the control of an older brother; she escaped the abuse when she moved to live with her mother. Gray was left behind, and turned to drugs to make his own escape. Jurors refused to find that Gray presented a future danger to society, but they determined he should be sentenced to death for the killings of young Stella and Ruby.
Drug-free in prison, Gray has confirmed jurors' findings that he is not a danger and has been an exemplary inmate. He has become a regular advisor and mentor to his youngest sister, who just entered a college-curriculum high school. She is just about the age Ruby Harvey would be today.
The church's Jubilee Year of Mercy confronts us with Ricky Gray who stands in need of God's mercy made real in the world. Many would refuse to show Gray mercy of any kind. Most would say he does not deserve mercy. But the Year of Mercy has reminded us that it is God's mercy — not ours — that we must make real in our world. It is not enough to negotiate mercy we feel is just or comfortable.
Forgiving Ricky Gray and letting the cup of execution pass, is an opportunity to make God's mercy real in the world. We will know it is God's mercy because it will be difficult and beyond us. But make no mistake, Rick Gray's execution confronts us with a fundamental question of faith: Will we allow God's mercy to work through us to restore the dignity of God's gift of life, or will we suppress or temper God's mercy to something that is easier for us to swallow? The answer called forth through the Year of Mercy is clear.
[Fr. Jim Griffin is a priest in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He has ministered to death row inmate off-and-on throughout his priesthood.]
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