TOWARD A NEW VISION
As we all know, Pope Francis has announced a year of Jubilee dedicated to the Divine Mercy beginning on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. He is inviting all Catholics under his watch, and the rest of mankind as well, to make special efforts to seek and discover the meaning of mercy in their lives with the UNKNOWN God.
The Pope has opened this exceptional Jubilee year, instead of waiting the usual 50 year interval, to urge us to concentrate on two essential aspects of God’s relationship with us, understanding the gift of mercy and making it part of our lives. The first, what does Francis think mercy should mean for us on our journey to God as he calls us in this Jubilee year to pray for and seek it with special insistence. The second consists of finding within ourselves the means to cultivate the most suitable response and live it to the best of our calling.
Answers in a recent retreat on “mercy” made it clear that in addition to linguistic problems neither the presenters nor the listeners had a clear notion of what Pope Francis might mean by the term mercy. The German Cardinal Kasper, sometimes called the Pope’s theologian has written an entire book on this difficult subject, MERCY THE ESSENCE OF THE GOSPEL AND THE KEY TO CHRISTIAN LIFE (Paulist Press, New York: German edition, 2012; English Kindle edition, 2014). He analyzes three very close word in meaning and connotation, compassion, love and forgiveness, all of which awaken sentiments similar to the word mercy. God is easily identified with all three in a close but not precise or comprehensive meaning. Distinguishing the three through their most common usage will help us understand the special significance I think Francis conveys when referring to God’s mercy.
Compassion refers to suffering with the sufferings of others, in one’s heart walking in their shoes even if the shoe is of a different size. Jesus calls on us to be “compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate,” to identify with the most abandoned as he showed us how to do. Love refers to perhaps the most powerful virtuous drive in human life in that it calls up a disposition to give of oneself, as exemplified in a mother or father, the demands of married life, and help to others as neighbors in need.. God has been frequently characterized as unconditional love. Finally, forgiveness refers to a common relationship that we seek in a loving God when we need to know and feel that we are no longer alienated from our creator after giving in to some type of disorder. We respond by asking and expecting God to overlook our transgressions for which we feel repentance even when we may know we will do them again.
Cardinal Kasper discusses a word in French that may come the closest to explaining a basic characteristic of mercy, because it corresponds to a foundational Christian belief. The French word mercí is translated into English as “thanks,” but etymologically it is a response to a completely gratuitous gift or invitation to a relationship offered and received without any previous service or merit on the receiver’s part. The gratuity of everything we have ever received from the Creator God is such, starting with our existence that is crowned with the most precious gift of all, our son/daughtership through Jesus the Christ.
Even though the gratuity of mercy connotes the how or quality of mercy, Francis boldly offers an understanding that takes us much farther, when he launched a special Jubilee year to enable the universal Church, and through it all humankind, to fathom the depths of the what of mercy.
An attempt to make theological sense of mercy in the context of Francis’ completely innovative papacy can give us an insight into how far his understanding of the great mystery of God’s mercy may take us. Through recourse to an extended interview (7 hours over three different days) with his fellow Jesuits (Link: Francis’ vision) the synergy of three formative influences, Vatican II, Jesuit contemplative spirituality in action are joined with his personal experiences of many years dedicated to the poor and afflicted in the slums of Buenos Aires to shape his own apostolic spirituality and consequently as Pope a new, creationist, vision of Church based on God’ mercy.
He found that God was operative, tendering mercy in everyone’s heart, irrespective of where the person was in his/her role in the Kingdom and unique path to God, a completely gratuitous gift of a relationship with the UNKNOWN. Commonly accepted notions of sin do not enter the picture that Francis paints for us. In the interview with his Jesuit confreres he burst out with emphasis: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.” To say God is in a person’s life means the person is in grace, being guided along his/her free unique, up-down, stormy, zig-zag, or pampered path, all with something to contribute to the kingdom of the UNKNOWN OTHER.
Francis recognized in all men God’s working presence in many instances probably unbeknownst to themselves journeying on apparently wayward paths. This is a giant step, opening up to the Church a recognition of a deeper relationship between God and humankind. This was subtly cached in the Vatican Council II (Link: new church) view of the Church’s mission in the world.
In his interview with the Jesuit editors supported by two and a half years of living example it is also possible to detect the second aspect of mercy to be sought after in this Jubilee year. In the dramatic global diversity of the human family how can all human persons respond to a creator working within them, UNKNOWN, yet wanting to be acknowledged as a father to his/her children? A different approach to one’s spiritual life will be needed to grasp and shape one’s life to this new vision.
Francis mixes together views on synodality, the role of supremacy and infallibility in the context of hierarchy and laity together, the contemplative life of the active Jesuit, guidance of and trust in the Holy Spirit, the importance of the process of discernment, mysticism, and openended thinking. These views in conjunction with his many other interviews and off-the-cuff remarks, official announcements, an extraordinary innovative direct papal apostolate, the expressed expectations for an unusual organization of a single ecclesial synod in two separate years, help us see God’s mercy, as described above shine through as the leitmotif and strategic centerpiece of his vision of a pilgrim people, laity and hierarchy, and all humankind marching, interacting and praying together on a journey toward the UNKNOWN.
Reflecting within this context Francis’ recent salute before the US Congress to four American models to look up to and imitate, including Thomas Merton the most famous contemplative author of the 20th century, can be construed as an indirect invitation for busy and active persons of all or no persuasion to look to a deeper type of prayer to situate God’s abiding working presence, the depths of mercy, within their lives.
In this construction of his intentions three innovations immediately stand out. 1) Francis hopes to set the stage for and launch a Universal Church as a component for a new paradigm of the modern world. 2) He is just as passionate about the spiritual welfare of individuals as he is of the global institution he heads. 3) It is possible that the Vatican II Council fathers were able only to glimpse and long for these objectives from afar , but Francis could test them out in practice.
In subsequent post, we will attempt to integrate the key role of a deeper prayer into Francis’ formula for our spiritual life in the realization of God’s kingdom.