Year of Mercy | The Meaning of Mercy

“Jesus is passing by. How often have I marveled at this simple way of describing divine mercy! Jesus is headed somewhere, yet he is not too busy to spot human suffering.”

St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By
, no. 67

As a seminarian in Rome during the last ordinary Jubilee I remember browsing one afternoon in one of the articoli religiosi shops around the Vatican, picking out a few devotional articles for friends back home. A conversation between an American couple who were doing the same for their daughter in the States caught my attention. In looking for just the right thing, wondering aloud to each other what the young lady would like, their dialogue ran something like this:

“How about a picture of the Divine Mercy?”

“No. She’s not really into Divine Mercy.”

I always thought that sounded funny—and ironic. While the parents were just shopping for a devotional souvenir and not intending to make sweeping theological statements in the process, their remark made me smile, and think. “We don’t really have a choice,” I thought. We’re constantly surrounded by God’s mercy. We survive on mercy. We’re saved by mercy, judged on the mercy we extend to others.

This is Pope Francis’ unambiguous message at the outset of Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction for the Holy Year. “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy,” he reflects, underscoring how no Christian can think or speak about God’s mercy in a purely detached way:

“It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (2).

Woven throughout the entirety of our lives is this love that can’t be reduced to an ad hoc, as-needed remedy for when we’ve really messed up things. It anticipates our steps, accommodates our errors, removes obstacles or permits them for our good, so that the final goal of our lives might be realized: salvation. St Josemaria would reflect on occasion that his whole life was like the return of the prodigal son to his father. Mercy is indeed an ongoing, lifelong return, and even more: it is God’s continual outreach to draw us to Himself. He takes the active role.

Mercy misunderstood as softhearted indulgence, an easygoing ‘live and let live’ attitude, makes it hardly worth celebrating for a year, much less forever: “Forever will I sing the mercies of the Lord” (Ps 89:1). A solemn fact refutes this mistake: God thought it worth His life’s blood to demonstrate how we don’t know how to live rightly without Him. We needed to be “ransomed from futile ways … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (cf. 1 Peter 1:18-19).

A God who sheds His blood in mercy is not a ‘detached’ God. He doesn’t let the lost sheep stray nor the vagrant prodigal forever think that he knows what good living is. He doesn’t let things go. The purpose of the divine bloodshed isn’t letting us off the hook, but making us the objects of an intense, pursuing love that involves itself in the details of our lives. More than a feeling or an attitude, divine mercy is God’s hand reaching out to us along our journey, whether we wander in a dark valley or stride upright in the sun.

St Thomas Aquinas, whom the Pope cites further on, distinguishes between mercy as the feeling of compassion and as the power to dispel another’s misery. Feelings of mercy or compassion arise in the heart at the misery of another, as though it were our own, ‘weeping with those who weep.’ It is sorrow shared upon another’s misfortune.

This is not what divine mercy is, says St Thomas, since there is “no sorrow in God.” He is “infinitely perfect and blessed in himself,” and so cannot be moved as humans are through their emotions (CCC 1). Christ’s humanity, of course, displayed the full range of human emotion, not excluding sorrow and anguish. The gospels frequently attest to the Lord’s heartfelt compassion for the multitudes that followed Him, most especially the sick and troubled among them.

But even the human misery that moved the Lord’s heart signaled a deeper distress in us that He wants to alleviate. God looks into the human heart, into that oft shadowy place whence all of our worst miseries come. Mercy that is truly divine is all about root-and-branch removal of the deepest causes of man’s deepest unhappiness.

The enemies most destructive of our happiness are sin and its aftermath, guilt: “For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me” (Ps 38:4). This unbearable weight is what God wants to bear for us, what He wants to remove from our lives—even at the cost of leaving other ‘corrective’ miseries behind to counterbalance our moral weaknesses. Sometimes it is mercy for the Lord to leave us with an ongoing struggle, especially if we prize our independence. Sometimes mercy means accepting humbling failures, when we would otherwise be proud and complacent. It took dire poverty and hunger to rouse the prodigal son to seek the mercy of his father. The misery of poverty and hunger turned out to be mercies that would lead to still greater mercies.

The goal of our union with God is to let Him decide what needs to stay, what to go, and to strive sincerely to overcome our defects with trust in the Lord. Mercy—beyond pardon, forgiveness—means letting God take this active role. Allowing Him to remove obstacles or to permit them, letting go of our self-image, our perfectionism, and recognizing that God knows best how to save fallen people in a fallen world.

St Josemaria characterizes human expressions of mercy in just this way. More than a feeling of pity, it takes an active role in seeking out the miseries of others to relieve them—just as God, in the person of the father of the prodigal son, goes out to meet the runaway.

“Mercy is more than simply being compassionate. Mercy is the overflow of charity…. Mercy means keeping one’s heart totally alive, throbbing in a way that is both human and divine, with a love that is strong, self-sacrificing and generous” (Friends of God, no. 232).

Mercy depicted here as love ever-ready for service helps illustrate St Thomas’ summary of the Church’s global mission: “The sum total of the Christian religion,” he states, “consists in mercy, as regards external works.” In other words, the Church imitates her Lord who, ‘headed somewhere, yet is not too busy to spot human suffering.’ This is what mercy does.

But even works of mercy—spiritual or corporal—are not the final goal. “The inward love of charity whereby we are united to God,” continues St Thomas, “predominates over both love and mercy for our neighbor.” This means that whatever mercy we receive, and whatever mercy we show, is supposed to lead to a deeper love of God. The sense of relief, of freedom, that fills us when our sins are forgiven, should deepen our surrender to the Lord. Whatever spiritual or bodily form loving our neighbor may take, we should reflect the careful and constant mercy with which God surrounds us.

We tend to notice only those divine interventions when we are aware of a need for forgiveness, for help, and those milestones can change the course of our lives. But of God’s mercy there can be no complete accounting—not only because we can’t fathom its far-reaching influence from cradle to grave, but because “His mercy endures forever” (Ps 118). The eternity of mercy reminds us that it isn’t a feeling that comes and goes, but that it is regularly (and permanently) how God loves fallen people.

So limitless is divine mercy that even in heaven, says St Augustine in The City of God, the remembrance of our past, earthly miseries will fuel our eternal praise and thanksgiving:

“For if [the blessed in heaven] were not to know that they had been miserable, how could they, as the Psalmist says, forever sing the mercies of God? Certainly that city shall have no greater joy than the celebration of the grace of Christ, who redeemed us by His blood.”

A concluding thought on Christ’s blood not only returns us to the wellspring of divine mercy but points us to its definitive achievement: the purchase of souls for endless beatitude, eternal celebration and praise, of the unfailing mercy that drew us by steps and stages to possess the Lamb who laid down His life that we might live in love everlasting.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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