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 MercyDr. R. Jared Staudt
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 succour 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 canonisation, 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 emphasised 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, Ph.D. is Coordinator of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. 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 as a Director of Religious Education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute in Denver for five years, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. His main interests are on the relation of faith and culture and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. He and his wife Anne have five children and he is a Benedictine oblate.
If there is any Christian saint who had the bad luck to be born in schism that has a claim to be declared "Doctor of the Church", it is St Isaac the Syrian, called sometimes "St Isaac of Nineveh". What makes the declaration so timely is that, first, he was Syrian, at a time when the Christians in Syria, so riven with schism, are being uniformly persecuted by a satanic form of Islam, becoming martyrs together for Christ; and, secondly, because, more than any other saint known to me, he applies to every aspect of Christian belief, the basic revelation that God is Love. He could be declared "Doctor of God's Mercy", because no one writes of God's love as he did. Here are a few examples:
What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of this creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn the world’s majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love.
In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. (II.38.1-2)
Let us consider then how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation; and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men. Then, once someone has stood amazed, and filled his intellect with the majesty of God, amazed at all these things He has done and is doing, then he wonders in astonishment at His mercifulness, how, after all these things, God has prepared for them another world that has no end, whose glory is not even revealed to the angels, even though they are involved in His activities insofar as is possible in the life of the spirit, in accordance with the gift with which their nature has been endowed. That person wonders too at how excelling is that glory, and how exalted is the manner of existence at that time; and how insignificant is the present life compared to what is reserved for creation in the New Life; and how, in order that the soul’s life will not be deprived of that blessed state because of misusing the freewill it has received, He has devised in His mercifulness a second gift, which is repentance, so that by it the soul’s life might acquire renewal every day and thereby every time be put aright. (II.10.19)
If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father? And why was he stretched out on the cross for the sake of sinners, handing over his sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason than to make known to the world the love that he has, his aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by his love when he provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power—which consists in love—by means of the death of his Son. (Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 52)
But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. … This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yeah, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. (I.71, p. 492)
Those, in whom the light of faith truly shines, never reach such unashamedness as to ask God: “Give us this,” or — “Remove from us this.”Because their spiritual eyes — with which they were blessed by that genuine Father, Who with His great love, countlessly transcends any fatherly love — continually view the Father’s Providence, they are not concerned in the slightest about themselves. God can do more than anyone else, and can assist us by a far greater measure than we could ever ask for, or even imagine.[…]
Not having distinctly experienced God’s patronage, the heart is in no condition to commune with Christ.A person cannot acquire a reliance on God if, prior to this, he hasn’t fulfilled His will according to one’s own strength.
Because hope in God and fortitude is born from witness of the conscience (in God): and only with genuine witness of our mind (in God) can we have trust in Him.
God demands not only the fulfillment of the commandments but also — more importantly — reformation of the soul, which is the reason why the commandments were given.
The body participates equally in good as well as bad deeds, and reason, by its behavior, becomes either righteous or sinful, judging by its disposition.
Life in this temporary world is akin to writing letters on a tablet. Everyone, when he wants to, can add or delete words on it or rearrange the letters.
But the future life is akin to a manuscript, written on a clean sheet, on which it is forbidden to add or delete and stamped with the king’s seal. That’s why while we are in this inconstant world, let us be attentive to ourselves.
And while we have authority over the earthly manuscript, on which we write with our own hand, let us endeavor to make good additions from a righteous life, and delete on it all the failings of our past actions.
This is because while we are in this world, God does not affix His stamp — neither to the virtuous nor to the evil — up to the hour of our leaving this life.
When in remembering his sins a person punishes himself, God looks upon him with affection. God is pleased that for turning away from His path, the individual has conferred punishment upon himself — this serves as a sign of genuine repentance.
And the harder the sinner compels himself, the greater the increase in God’s affection for him.
Isaac the Syrian (c. 630-c. 700): Selections from the Homilies @ Orthodox Photos
We however are renewed in our minds by a new knowledge which was not revealed [to previous generations]. That is why we understand now the Nature which has no beginning, nor limit, whereas those [previous generations] still had a childish thinking with regards to God, believing about Him that He is strict, that He is vengeful, that He repays, that He is just in repaying, that He is wrathful, that He becomes angry, that He remembers the sins of the parents in dealing with their children's children.
For we have a better understanding about God and a higher knowledge of Him: we know Him as One who forgives, Who is good, Who is humble; Who for a single good thing [in us, even] only in thought or even for mere compunction of heart, forgives the sins of [many] years. And not only does He not remember another's sins, but His mercy does away with the multitude of sins even of those who have perished in sin and have already died (III/11, 4-5).
The difference between childish thinking about God and mature thinking about God, for Isaac, concerns the nature of God's disposition towards those with whom he has his dealings: the childish and immature suppose that God is not fundamentally committed to the well-being of his creatures in everything, whereas the mature do.
In Ascetical Homilies II/39, we find even more impassioned language on this topic:The act of imagining that wrath, fury, jealousy, or other such things have anything to do with the divine Nature fills us with horror, because no one who has a sound mind and intelligence can come to such an insanity as to think such things about God. We cannot even say that He behaves Himself this way so as to pay back evil, even if at first glance the Scriptures appear to say this. Even merely to think such a thing about God and to say that He pays back evil is an abomination. To suppose that He uses so weighty and grave a thing [as Gehenna] as a payback [for evil] means attributing weakness to the divine Nature, because such a thing we believe cannot be found even in people who lead a virtuous and upright life, and who think in their minds in a godly way (II/39, 2).
If someone were to say that here on earth God wanted to show his patience towards [sinners] merely so that he could punish them without mercy on the other side, through his childish thinking this person utters against God an unspeakable blasphemy; he undoes His meekness, goodness, and mercy, for which He truly has patience with sinners and the wicked, and he makes Him a slave of passions, as if God didn't permit that they be punished here because His short patience here was preparing for them an even greater evil on the other side. Someone like this not only does not worship God; he calumniates him (II/39, 2)