The First Grace of Mercy is the Grace of Conversion

We must be convinced that we are sinners in need of mercy, in order to claim divine mercy. Then, having received that mercy, we must be ready and willing to impart it to others.

Just what is a jubilee year? Its roots are found in Jewish law and practice, with Leviticus 25:10 as the signal text calling for a remission of debts – spiritual and temporal – every fifty years. Boniface VIII introduced that tradition into the Church in 1300, with subsequent popes proclaiming such “ordinary” jubilees every fifty years; “extraordinary” jubilees have been declared for particular anniversaries (e.g., Pius XII did so to celebrate the 1900th anniversary of our redemption in 1933). Pope Paul VI modified the time-frame to intervals of twenty-five years, so that the average person could benefit from at least one jubilee in his lifetime.

With the bull of indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy), on Divine Mercy Sunday of the past year (April 11, 2015), Pope Francis proclaimed the present Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The document’s opening line sets the stage: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” In the next paragraph, the Pope notes that mercy “is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace.” But what is mercy? As Thomas à Kempis remarked that he would rather experience “compunction” than define it, let’s take a look at a few “experiences” of mercy before defining it:

– You fail the final exam miserably; you plead your cause to the teacher who then gives you a “D”;

– A police officer clocks you driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone; you duly admit your error in judgment and the officer lets you off with a warning.

– You miss a car payment due to travel; when you explain your situation to the finance company, they remit the late charge.

In all these instances, justice demanded a penalty. Your expression of sorrow and perhaps a presentation of extenuating circumstances moved the person in authority to extend mercy to you – a gratuitous gift, that is, something to which you had no right. We shall return to the delicate interplay of justice and mercy momentarily, but let us presently ask why we need mercy.

Jesus teaches us that “many are called but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14) and that the way to salvation is “narrow” and that only a precious few tread that path (Mt 7:14). These sayings of Our Lord seem to be quite forgotten or deliberately ignored in much of contemporary Christianity. They have been replaced in popular preaching and in the popular imagination by a Christ Who is a grand candy-man, handing out bon-bons to one and all, or a happy-go-lucky maitre d’, throwing open the banquet doors even to those who have no taste or appreciation for the fare which the banquet will offer. However, such images are distortions of some of the hard truths enshrined in the Gospel. Indeed, before one can claim the “good news” of the Gospel, one must first hear the “bad news” of the human condition without Christ.

John the Baptist, the Lord’s precursor, preached a message of repentance. St. Matthew tells us that vast crowds came out to hear him and to undergo his baptism. That phenomenon, however, did not impress John. On the contrary, he challenged them to “give evidence that you mean to reform” (3:1-12). In other words, a change of mind, heart and behavior is called for; in point of fact, we can say that the first grace of mercy is the grace of conversion.

Our Lord’s dialogue with the woman caught in adultery is programmatic: Christ’s mercy toward her includes the demand that she “sin no more” (Jn 8:11). Similarly, the charming story of the disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24) contains the admonition of the Risen Lord to return to Jerusalem to share the news of their encounter with Him with the apostolic community; simply put, they were headed in the wrong direction, had to change course, and follow the Master’s instructions.

Or, consider the oft-cited parable of the Prodigal Son. To be sure, as Pope John Paul II noted frequently, the forgiving father was awaiting with eager anticipation the return of his son, however, the son had already prepared his opening line for the moment of reconciliation with his father: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you!” Not only does he acknowledge his wrong-doing but he is prepared to do whatever it takes to be restored to a proper relationship with his father, even if that means tending to the swine (Lk 15:11-22). He hoped for the father’s merciful embrace but did not presume upon it; part of “coming to his senses” also entailed having a plan of action which gave “evidence that [he] meant to reform.”

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Now, back to mercy. Some people suggest that the very essence of God is mercy. However, as Father xxx Moloney of Boston and Father Raniero Cantalamessa (the papal preacher) have both convincingly demonstrated, mercy does not inhere in the Trinity because mercy only “kicks in” when an offense has been committed; the three divine Persons, existing from all eternity, never offended one another and loved one another in perfect love. Mercy, as a divine attribute, surfaces only once the original sin has been committed.

But once sin has entered the scene, we find the heart as a symbol with a rich biblical lineage. In Hebrew, both the heart and the bowels represent the very depths of a person – where the cognitive and the affective meet in unity and harmony. Hence, we find passages in the Bible which speak thus: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (Hos 11:8). Far more than an organ of the body, then, the heart suggests the source of compassion, tenderness, kindness – in short, what we call “mercy.” An interesting piece of biblical trivia: A quick survey of a biblical concordance reveals that the word “mercy” is used more than 200 times in the Sacred Scriptures, while the word “heart” appears over 600 times. No surprise, then, that St. Augustine, playing with the origins of the Latin word for mercy (misericordia), tells us that God’s grace moves us “a miseria ad misericordiam” (from misery to mercy). “Misericordia,” you see, comes from two words which combine to mean “having a heart for the miserable.”

And that’s where modern man loses focus. As I have listened to Pope Francis for nearly three years now talk about how much the man of today yearns for mercy, I find myself questioning that assertion. In reality, my experience of most people is that they don’t think they need mercy at all – because they think they are fine, just as they are! It’s the “I’m ok, you’re ok” philosophy of the 1960s all over again. The Venerable Pius XII, in an address to the United States Catechetical Congress in 1946, famously remarked: “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.”

Which is why confession lines are so short. On the other hand, when the great English writer and convert G. K. Chesterton was asked why he became a Catholic, he said very simply: “To get my sins forgiven!” And that remains a very powerful reason for being a part of the Catholic Church – to experience the compassion, the forgiveness, the mercy of Almighty God, available on-demand in the Sacrament of Penance. Our Eastern Orthodox brethren a long time ago gave a nick-name to the Sacrament of Penance, due to its lack of use in their communities – “the forgotten Sacrament.”

Regrettably, since Vatican II, that nomenclature could be applied to the Catholic scene as well.

Simply put, we must be convinced that we are sinners in need of mercy, in order to claim divine mercy. Then, having received that mercy, we must be ready and willing to impart it to others. Therefore, that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, which is so problematic for so many: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Extending mercy to others does not involve occasional acts of forgiveness when offended; it involves performing what the Church has traditionally called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In the context of this Jubilee of Mercy, I would like to hold out for particular attention three: instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; admonish the sinner.

Our culture abounds in those who are ignorant of the very basics of the Christian Faith; in those who have doubts about the existence of God and the true nature of the human person; in sinners who don’t even realize that they are sinners. Pope Paul VI, at the close of the Second Vatican Council, observed that “errors were condemned, indeed, because charity demanded this no less than did truth.” Often lost in the shuffle of mushy sentimentalism is the recollection that failing to share the truth with someone about his spiritual condition is not charitable; it is sinful. The physician who neglects to share a distressing diagnosis with a patient is not a good doctor; he is guilty of malpractice. In the same way, if we love someone, we present the truth about God, man and oneself – done with charity and prudence, of course, but certainly done.

You have probably heard that the Pope will be sending throughout the world on Ash Wednesday “missionaries of mercy” – priests with faculties to absolve from sins normally reserved to the Holy See. I would like to suggest that every Catholic take on the mantle of being a “missionary of mercy,” first of all, by submitting oneself to the ultimate tribunal of mercy, which is the confessional, and then by committing oneself to be agents of mercy through the regular practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

I am penning these thoughts within the Octave of Christmas, which reminds me that God became Mercy Incarnate within the spotless womb of the Virgin Mary. And she understood it all so well that she broke forth into her canticle of praise, the Magnificat: “Et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum” (And His mercy is from age to age on those who fear Him). Our Lady was not teaching theology from a textbook but from her own experience of life. God had touched her so profoundly by His mercy that she became what the Church’s lovely night prayer to her rightly calls her – “Mater misericordiae” (“Mother of Mercy”). God the Father sought the young maiden’s cooperation with His eternal plan of mercy; God the Holy Spirit overshadowed her with His merciful wings; she became the very seat of Mercy, the Mother of the One Who is “dives in misericordia” (rich in mercy), as the title of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical recalls for us.

The result of knowing mercy means being grabbed at the very core or heart of our own being – and that gives birth to the emotion (both divine and human) of joy. Once more, Our Lady leads the way as she sings out: “Exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo Salvatore meo” (My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior). When mercy spawns joy – melancholy, fear and death are definitively banished. And so, we ask the Mother of Mercy to show us the blessed fruit of her womb, that Child Who is none other than the compassionate face of God, Mercy in the flesh.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that “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” (Summa Theologica, II, II ae, 30, 4), at which point Aquinas cites a collect used in his day on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost and now prayed on the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: “O God, who make known your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy, bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us, and make those hastening to attain your promises heirs to the treasures of heaven.”

The Bard of Avon rhapsodized on the beauty and glory of mercy, in biblical and Thomistic terms alike, when he had Portia exclaim to Shylock:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: It is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God Himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

As beautiful as that soliloquy is, as one commentator has observed, “before Shakespeare wrote it, God was it!”

Indeed, and that realization should make us ready to see ourselves as sinners who can then throw ourselves on the mercy of God, encouraging others to do the same. If you do that, you will enter truly into the spirit of this Jubilee of Mercy and will duc in altum.

(This article appeared in slightly different form in the January-Feburary 2016 issue of The Catholic Response magazine.)

Related:

“The Measure of Mercy: Francis and the Extraordinary Jubilee Year” (April 06, 2015) by Dr. R. Jared Staudt


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 160 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.