As the Catholic Church begins its commemoration of the Year of Mercy, which extends from Dec. 8 to Nov. 22, 2016, a friar explains how “we are sharers in God’s mercy” and reminds us that it is our responsibility “to live it, not just in the Church, but in the world.”
“Holy Mother Church in her infinite wisdom and somewhat limited mercy…” Years ago, these words of a droll friar elicited a laugh and a wince. It certainly was not the Church we wanted or believed in, but it was the way the Church was often perceived. Pope Francis is determined that such an image of the Church has to go and we Franciscans are on board. We may, in fact, think that we have always done our best to bring forth the merciful Church, but the Holy Year of Mercy begs us to renew our efforts. (1 Thes 4:1) It is all about drawing people into the love of Christ, of extending an invitation that speaks to people’s hearts.
There were times when a president of Siena College would eye his staff and proclaim, “No obstacles!” Those responsible then got the job done. For God’s mercy, the imperative is far greater. For God’s mercy, there should be no obstacles. Like latter day John the Baptists, we have to clear the way for people to experience God’s mercy. For Pope Francis, this is at the heart of the Gospel. We all are responsible for getting the job done.
Of course, removing the obstacles for mercy demands our own conversion, removing the obstacles within. This Holy Year of Mercy is, first of all, a moment we experience for ourselves. We Franciscans understand God’s mercy to be incarnational and experiential. “The mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality.” (Misericordiae Vultus, par. 6)
To be genuine instruments of God’s mercy, it is crucial for us to understand our own need for mercy, to have sought it and to have experienced it. When Br. Masseo pointedly questioned St. Francis why the whole world flocked to him, Francis responded that God could not find a greater sinner or anyone less qualified or more vile to use for his purpose. According to the legend, Francis knelt on the ground to answer Masseo, but I picture him doubled over, laughing for joy. Francis had experienced God’s mercy. The mercy shown to Francis was not an easy gift and we should not expect it to be easy for us, either. But with God’s mercy comes peace.
Recognizing All People as Sisters and Brothers
To experience God’s mercy, I pray to maintain a sense of compunction in my heart. Compunction goes along with poverty of spirit. I do not reach out to God from a neutral place on level ground. I reach out from the hole I have dug by sinning. When the Lord reaches into the hole to haul me out by the wrist, I know mercy. (A confessor who can take the time to listen deeply is a big help in this regard.) If God is merciful to me, I know that God will be the same for others.
When St. Francis taught us to recognize all people as brothers and sisters, he showed us how to bring God’s mercy to them. Pope Francis speaks of the “lifestyle” of mercy and, intuitively, we know what he means. There are so many people in need that sheer numbers may push us to become mechanical or bureaucratic as we “deliver service.” That would make mercy rather shabby and we sense it immediately. I may or may not be able to meet someone’s material needs, but I can always offer them dignity and perhaps some healing by listening deeply and by sharing time and space with them. With humble hospitality, I can share my own touched-by-mercy humanity with another human being who hungers for mercy.
We may think we are dispensers, but actually we are simply sharers in God’s mercy. (MV, par.13) The traditional Franciscan Peace Prayer, Lord, make me an instrument…, recognizes God as the source of peace, joy, hope, etc. It asks God to show divine mercy to us by letting us serve as instruments of grace. When I recognize God’s gifts growing in others, I know that God has shown mercy to me.
Each of us, when we have experienced the mercy of God or have been humbled to be an instrument of mercy, is moved to prayer in gratitude. Pope Francis urges us to rediscover “the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word that comes to us. In this way it will be possible to contemplate God’s mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle.” (MV, par. 13) We may have action plans for implementing mercy, but the pope reminds us that mercy is first a way of being with God and living the Gospel. Our prayer makes us capable of mercy.
Waiting in Contemplative Silence
I am certain of God’s will for mercy for all of us. It is an alloy of justice, truth, wisdom and love. Just how God doses it out to us is both mystery and surprise. The proof of the divine will for mercy is the incarnation of the Word. It cannot be rescinded. But we must wait for it. Waiting is active and often grueling.
Pope Francis asks us to contemplate mercy. That means waiting in contemplative silence and darkness, usually while nothing seems to happen. Our prayerful waiting is a sign to ourselves of our commitment to living mercifully and an opportunity for grace to do its unfelt work in us. In the silent waiting, we are stripped of ourselves and our pride. Our emptiness, though incomplete, is like the Virgin Mary’s as she realized that the Lord’s promise of mercy was being fulfilled. As with Mary, in silence it dawns on us in the most intimate way that the Lord’s promise of mercy is fulfilled. That realization fills us with joy. Mercy is like an incredible sunset whose beauty makes us desire to share it with a companion. Mercy grows. It begs to be shared.
Our Holy Year of Mercy begins against the backdrop of slaughter in Paris, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs and Charleston, not to mention the war with ISIS. The world cannot be blamed for questioning God’s mercy. Those who have experienced it, however, know that the promise has not been taken away. We are committed to it. We carry it with us. It is our responsibility to live it, not just in the Church, but in the world. The Church celebrates a Year of Mercy, but for those who know God’s mercy and have mercy as a lifestyle, the year is only a beginning.
A year of Mercy. A year of Favor. A year of Joy. Not just a year, but always.
— Fr. John is parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish on Long Beach Island, N.J., where he has been stationed for nearly two years. He professed his final vows as a Franciscan 41 years ago.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a current event, holiday, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. The most recent seasonal reflection was written by Ross Chamberland, OFM, for Thanksgiving.
- “Wake Up the World” reflection by Jim McIntosh, OFM — Nov. 29, 2014, HNP Today
- “LBI’s St. Francis of Assisi Church Reopens Following Hurricane Sandy” — June 2, 2013, HNP Today