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Analysis
April 06, 2015
The horrors of the 20th century and the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II form the backdrop to the Holy Father's recent announcement of a Holy Year of Mercy

Pope Francis hears confessions during a Lenten penance service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 13. During the service the pope announced an extraordinary jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, to be celebrated from Dec. 8, 2015, until Nov. 20, 2016. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)

“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (2 Cor 6:2-3).

“This is the time of mercy. It is important that the lay faithful live it and bring it into different social environments. Go forth!” – From Pope Francis’s Announcement of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, March 13, 2015

Pope St. John Paul II has been called the pope of mercy for his support of the Divine Mercy devotion and his establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday, but Pope Francis has also been making mercy a hallmark of his papacy. Even his motto references the Lord’s mercy in calling each of us to follow Christ. The Vatican Radio in explaining the Jubilee Year described the significance of his motto:

Miserando atque eligendo. This citation is taken from the homily of Saint Bede the Venerable during which he commented on the Gospel passage of the calling of Saint Matthew: “Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy [miserando] and by choosing [eligendo], he says to him, ‘follow me.’”

In addition to this piece from the Vatican Radio, which sought to situate the Jubilee Year of Mercy within Francis’s teaching—noting that his first angelus addressed mercy and the theme appeared 32 times in Evangelii Gaudium (EG)—other articles have highlighted the importance of mercy within Francis’s pontificate as the “real face” of Francis’ revolution and also within his life more broadly.

Is mercy the way in which Pope Francis wants us to read his papacy? Could his oft quoted and criticized line, “who I am to judge?” be read in terms of mercy triumphing over judgment (James 2:13)? Could it explain his criticism of an “economy of exclusion” (EG, 53) as not prioritizing mercy toward neighbor? Even the controversy of the two synods could be seen in light of mercy in his closing speech to the extraordinary synod last fall. He specifically refers to his role as Pope as uniting and reminding pastors of their need for mercy in regards to their lost sheep:

So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep.

Pope Francis sees this as a time of mercy and wants all of us to receive this mercy right now and to show it to others in the context of the Jubilee that he has called.

Mercy as a personal encounter with God

Pope Francis related that he had a profound experience of mercy in his teenage years through the sacrament of Confession. “After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call.” This was the definitive moment of mercy in his life, which fuels his desire to share this mercy with others. He describes the Church as a “community [that] has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy” (EG,24).

I also felt the Lord’s mercy very directly in my life when I was a young teen. I had actually just gotten expelled from the public school system (because I foolishly had brought a Boy Scout knife to school) and only the Catholic school would take me in. I was a non-practicing Catholic, but my pastor invited me to serve Mass on the anniversary of his ordination. When I received Communion that morning I knew that everything was suddenly different—I was home; I had found what I was looking for. Although I was young, I knew what it was like to live apart from God and to have found him.

This experience of mercy was reinforced by an eighth-grade project on the Divine Mercy devotion. We had to produce a short paper, but my mother purchased for me the entire Divine Mercy Diary of St. Faustina. At the age of fourteen, it was the first Catholic book I had ever read and it has fundamentally shaped my life.

Jesus’ message to St. Faustina shows the essence of mercy as a personal encounter with the merciful God, who draws us to himself and his love:

My Heart was moved by great mercy towards you, My dearest child, when I saw you torn to shreds because of the great pain you suffered in repenting for your sins. . . . I lift up the humble even to my very throne, because I want it so (282).

In an age of individualism, secularism, and despair, the Lord has chosen to reveal the greatness of his mercy, which he offers to each one of us as a gift and a call to share this mercy with others. “Take these graces not only for yourself, but also for others; that is, encourage the souls with whom you come in contact to trust in My infinite mercy. Oh, how I love those souls who have complete confidence in Me” (294). Mercy is a spirituality and a mission.

The greatness of mercy

St. Thomas is regularly quoted as stating that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. Aquinas does not state it in this fashion in the Summa, but he does imply that in relation to his creation, God’s actions essentially are merciful. First, in the prima pars, Aquinas states that since creatures are owed nothing by God, every work of creation proceeds only from God’s good will: “So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy” (ST I, q. 21, ad 4). In the secunda secundae he asks if mercy is the greatest virtue and says that for us, the greatest virtue is charity, which unites us to God (though mercy does have priority toward neighbor). Mercy belongs most properly to those who stand above and thus pertains more to God than to us:

On itself, mercy takes precedence of other virtues, for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested. . . . On the other hand, with regard to its subject, mercy is not the greatest virtue, unless that subject be greater than all others, surpassed by none and excelling all: since for him that has anyone above him it is better to be united to that which is above than to supply the defect of that which is beneath. 

Because God needs no mercy from others and finds his good in himself, he is the source of good for all others and thus our relation to him is defined primarily by mercy. All that he gives us is mercy and he shows his great to us by mercy.

The private revelation received by St. Faustina, however, clearly proclaims the primacy of mercy: “Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of My hands are crowned with mercy” (301). Pope St. John Paul II affirmed this point in his encyclical on mercy, Dives in Misericordia: “Some theologians affirm that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God, and the Bible, Tradition and the whole faith life of the People of God provide particular proofs of this” (13). God shows us his greatness and love precisely through his mercy.

Mercy is not an attribute which should belong solely to God, however. Pope Francis assures us that “the way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Mt 7:2). It corresponds to the mercy which God has shown us: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (EG, 179). He also quotes the article on whether mercy is the greatest virtue, reference above, in Aquinas:

Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree” (37, quoting S. Th., II-II, q. 30, a. 4).

The greatness of mercy, not only in our reception of God’s goodness and forgiveness but also in our relation to our neighbor, is the motivation for Francis’ emphasis. It shapes his vision of Church as “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (EG, 114).

The twentieth century and God’s plan of mercy

The twentieth century was one of the bloodiest and most godless time in all of human history. Bl. John Henry Newman noted in 1873 that “the special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity” (“The Infidelity of the Future”). His insight was that the approaching age would become more secular and less marked by faith. It is interesting that as this prophetic insight has unfolded, the Lord has only increased the proclamation of mercy, rather than justice. Looking closely, we can see a key moment of the proclamation of God’s mercy.

Right in the middle of the First World War (aptly called “Europe’s suicide attempt” by some) came one of the boldest proclamations of mercy the world has seen. Mary’s apparition at Fatima—with its three secrets focusing on the world wars, Russia, and the persecution of the Church, later linked to the assassination attempt on St. John Paul II—signals to us the nature of God’s response to the atrocities of the twentieth century. When the angel of peace first spoke to the visionaries, he announced: “The Hearts of Jesus and Mary have designs of mercy for you.” The angel also annunciated the path to peace and mercy that Our Lady would bring: “Offer unceasingly to the Most High prayer and sacrifices.” The battle of the twentieth century was at its core a spiritual battle.

On the eve of World War II St. Faustina died, completing a series of revelations of divine mercy from 1931-38. At her canonization John Paul spoke of the providential timing of her life and the revelation of mercy:

By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century, the century we have just left behind. In fact, it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her. Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people, know well how necessary was the message of mercy. Jesus told Sr. Faustina:  “Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy” (Diary, p. 132).

At the conclusion of the Cold War it was the Polish Pope, devoted to mercy, who led the Church into the new millennium. After surviving a Soviet-backed assassination attempt and inspiring a peaceful and successful resistance to Communist rule in Poland, John Paul II instituted Divine Mercy Sunday on the Octave day of Easter. The establishment of the feast, which he announced at St. Faustina’s canonization, occurred at the opening of the new millennium, a clear sign that John Paul saw mercy as the hinge of our history as we enter a new age. Looking into the future, he said:

What will the years ahead bring us? What will man's future on earth be like? We are not given to know. However, it is certain that in addition to new progress there will unfortunately be no lack of painful experiences. But the light of divine mercy, which the Lord in a way wished to return to the world through Sr. Faustina's charism, will illumine the way for the men and women of the third millennium.

Pointing again to God's mercy

Pope Francis is emphatically pointing the Church to God’s mercy. When viewed from a broader perspective, we see that God has been leading the Church consistently for a hundred years now to reflect more and more on his mercy. The more the world has turned from God, the more he has emphasized his mercy. St. John Paul, through the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday, brought divine mercy to the forefront of the Church’s life in the liturgy, a move which has only been strengthened by the new Jubilee.

Beginning with the Divine Mercy novena that commenced on Good Friday, we have an opportunity to turn to God’s mercy (and receive a plenary indulgence) and to prepare for the upcoming Jubilee Year. This year we have much to bring to the Lord for mercy—for example, our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, the end of abortion, the restoration of the family—and we should do so with confidence. The Lord wants us to know that in the midst of the chaos of this world, even in the darkest moments, he is ready to shower his mercy upon us and to lighten our path through this new millennium.

 
About the Author
Dr. R. Jared Staudt 

R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.
 

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