On this, the closing of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis released his latest encyclical letter, Misericordia et Misera. It is a relatively short letter (around 15 pages printed) and gets straight to the theme of Francis’ pontificate: mercy is not a one-time thing.
“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.” (1)
He begins by telling a story of mercy through Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress in John 8:1-11, the one where Jesus says “let the one without sin cast the first stone!” Jesus’ mercy, Francis preaches, cannot be separated from human forgiveness and love…all of which lead to joy.
“We need witnesses to hope and true joy if we are to dispel the illusions that promise quick and easy happiness through artificial paradises. The profound sense of emptiness felt by so many people can be overcome by the hope we bear in our hearts and by the joy that it gives. We need to acknowledge the joy that rises up in a heart touched by mercy.” (4)
After this introduction, Francis moves into concrete ways that the Church must “continue, with joy, fidelity and enthusiasm, experiencing the richness of God’s mercy.” (5) He names three central places for experiencing the mercy of the Church: liturgy, sacraments, and the Bible. Liturgies are already acts of mercy, present through a multitude of prayers and reflections on mercy. The Sacraments grant mercy “in abundance,” especially within the two sacraments of healing: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. The sacraments give us a tangible connection to God’s mercy, transforming us in their connection of mercy, faith, and practical life.
In discussing the Bible, Francis talks about two forms of mercy: hearing of the Word of God is a particularly strong way to preach mercy every day. As such, Francis returns to a common call throughout his papacy: “I strongly encourage that great care be given to preparing the homily and to preaching in general.”(6) He connects this encouragement with the importance of personal holiness on the part of priests:
Communicating the certainty that God loves us is not an exercise in rhetoric, but a condition for the credibility of one’s priesthood. The personal experience of mercy is the best way to make it a true message of consolation and conversion in the pastoral ministry. (6)
I find the phrase, “a condition for the credibility of one’s priesthood,” quite powerful and relatable to all in ministry…including parenting! “Communicating the certainty that God loves us” is a poignant summation of the call to all who want to bring others to God. It reminds me of the passage from Paul, that I’m sure Francis had in mind:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
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Francis also really wants people to know the Bible better. I mean, how could he not after hanging out with protestants over the last few weeks? Amiright? He even gives a practical suggestion for parish workers, so listen up!
I greatly desire that God’s word be increasingly celebrated, known and disseminated, so that the mystery of love streaming from this font of mercy may be ever better understood….It would be beneficial if every Christian community, on one Sunday of the liturgical year, could renew its efforts to make the Sacred Scriptures better known and more widely diffused. It would be a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God, so as to appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people. (7)
The next few sections focus on love and mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation, where he especially urges priests to prepare carefully in patience, generosity, and attentiveness. Here he makes two significant statements that practically extend the year of mercy indefinitely. First, he permanently allows all priests to “absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion.” Such an absolution was typically reserved for bishops and certain priests that were trained in these matters, but Francis is clear:
I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. (12)
Second, Francis also states that “those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X [the anti-Vatican II schismatic group], can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins” from any priest. (12) Mercy, argues Pope Francis, must extend indefinitely through the life of the Church.
The letter continues with Francis reflecting upon mercy in the life of solidarity (13), in marriage (14), and in our time where death has become increasingly trivialized (15). The life of the Church is a life of mercy, Francis argues, that does not end but continues forever.
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Francis concludes the letter with a reflection on social issues and political concerns. Now that the year of mercy is done, he declares, we must boldly “unleash the creativity of mercy, to bring about new undertakings, the fruit of grace.” (18) We must, in other words, be ever more practical in implementing the call of mercy to the world.
Whole peoples suffer hunger and thirst, and we are haunted by pictures of children with nothing to eat. Throngs of people continue to migrate from one country to another in search of food, work, shelter and peace. Disease in its various forms is a constant cause of suffering that cries out for assistance, comfort and support. Prisons are often places where confinement is accompanied by serious hardships due to inhumane living conditions. Illiteracy remains widespread, preventing children from developing their potential and exposing them to new forms of slavery. The culture of extreme individualism, especially in the West, has led to a loss of a sense of solidarity with and responsibility for others. Today many people have no experience of God himself, and this represents the greatest poverty and the major obstacle to recognition of the inviolable dignity of human life. (18)
Mercy is not just a theological virtue, but “a social value.” In perhaps his most memorable line of the letter, Francis writes that “Mercy impels us to roll up our sleeves and set about restoring dignity to millions of people; they are our brothers and sisters who, with us, are called to build a “city which is reliable.””(18) This city refers back to Francis’ encyclical, Lumen Fidei, where he exhorts the faithful not just to build up an “interior firmness,” but to realize how their faith “sheds light on every human relationship because it is born of love and reflects God’s own love. The God who is himself reliable gives us a city which is reliable.” (LF, 50)
Francis continues Misericordia et Misera by pushing the Church further in its realization of the “social character of mercy” that “demands we not simply stand by and do nothing.” We have already done much, he says, “But this is not enough. Our world continues to create new forms of spiritual and material poverty that assault human dignity…The Church must always be vigilant and ready to identify new works of mercy and to practise them with generosity and enthusiasm.” (19)
Being unemployed or not receiving a sufficient salary; not being able to have a home or a land in which to live; experiencing discrimination on account of one’s faith, race or social status: these are just a few of the many examples of situations that attack the dignity of the person. In the face of such attacks, Christian mercy responds above all with vigilance and solidarity. How many situations exist today where we can restore dignity to individuals and make possible a truly humane life! (19)
Turning on the well-know Catholic phrase, “creating a culture of life,” Francis pleads that we must “promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of encounter with others, a culture in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters.” (20) This is not the time for reticence, for hopelessness, for individualism, for hatred:
This is the time of mercy. Each day of our journey is marked by God’s presence. He guides our steps with the power of the grace that the Spirit pours into our hearts to make them capable of loving. It is the time of mercy for each and all, since no one can think that he or she is cut off from God’s closeness and the power of his tender love. It is the time of mercy because those who are weak and vulnerable, distant and alone, ought to feel the presence of brothers and sisters who can help them in their need. It is the time of mercy because the poor should feel that they are regarded with respect and concern by others who have overcome indifference and discovered what is essential in life. It is the time of mercy because no sinner can ever tire of asking forgiveness and all can feel the welcoming embrace of the Father. (21)
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In closing, Francis gives a gift to the worldwide Church. “I had the idea” he very non-Pope-ishly writes, that “as yet another tangible sign of this Extraordinary Holy Year, the entire Church might celebrate, on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, the World Day of the Poor.” This “would be a day to help communities and each of the baptized to reflect on how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel and that, as long as Lazarus lies at the door of our homes, there can be no justice or social peace.” (21)
Preach, Francis. Preach.
The Extraordinary Year of Mercy has ended; may it continue forever throughout the world.