Category Archives: Mercy

Mercy

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The Merciful Chair of St. Peter

The Second Vatican Council taught clearly about the authority of the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. It is easy to misinterpret this power, given to one man, in purely secular terms, and to fear the damage he could do. With the help of Sacred Scripture and the reflections of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) , G.K. Chesterton, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Pope Francis, however, we will see that papal primacy and the celebration of this mystery on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, are truly mysteries of God's boundless mercy.

Petrine primacy

In the Second Vatican Council's great teaching on the Church, with the Latin title Lumen Gentium, we get a clear presentation of the power entrusted to the Pope:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium #22)

Scriptural witnesses

The language of the Church in the Second Vatican Council including “primacy” and “full, supreme and universal power” developed its precision over time as it was elaborated throughout the history of the Church, but it finds its origin in the words spoken by Jesus to Peter in Sacred Scripture, “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15,16,17) and “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) We can look also to the affirmations of St. Paul who went specifically to Peter (Cephas) to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2) It is also Peter who is identified by St. Paul as the first witness of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7) and in lists which vary in many details, Peter is named first in every listing of the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13). Finally, the most well known passage, which is also the Gospel for the Mass for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, states persuasively, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Peter's weakness

In reflecting on all these texts, however, we cannot take a triumphalist approach to Petrine primacy, because another point emerges more strongly–the mercy of God. Each scriptural affirmation of Jesus's choice of St. Peter to lead the Apostles and the Church is accompanied by an acknowledgement of Peter's weakness and failure. The commission from John 21 is interspersed with a threefold recognition of Peter's threefold betrayal. The call that Jesus gives to Peter in Luke 22 will take effect after Peter's recovery from his denial. When St. Paul affirms the role of Peter as a criterion for the authenticity of the Gospel in Galatians 1, he also recognizes the personal failure of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Finally, in the context of the power entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16, we find Peter chastised by Jesus immediately afterwards for being a stumbling block and failing to think as God does (Matthew 18:23).

Observations of Ratzinger, Chesterton, Sheen and Pope Francis

In light of these Scriptures, which Cardinal Ratzinger interpreted more carefully and thoroughly in the book Called to Communion, he concluded that Petrine primacy is really a doctrine of mercy. The choice of Peter, in the face of his profound weakness, shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God's power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)

Saint Paul expresses this principle clearly, sharing it from his own experience and relating the words of Jesus to him, “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) He firmly embraces the same mystery that is manifested in Peter, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” As Cardinal Ratzinger identified, the “Church is founded on forgiveness…she is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness.”

G.K. Chesterton expressed the same truth in his own unique way, touched with humor, pointing out that by founding the Church on the weakness of Peter, Jesus subverted the wisdom of the world and according to the mystery of divine wisdom thus prevented the Church from suffering the ultimate collapse that worldly wisdom is subject to:

The thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. —G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

The great televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen expressed it similarly, but in his own characteristic, poetic simplicity, “No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail.” (Quoted in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen)

Pope Francis reiterated this theme on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter in 2016 as he celebrated the Jubilee for the Roman Curia. He reminded those who support him in exercising St Peter's merciful power, that that power was originally and is still entrusted to weak and fallen men who are, therefore, in an even better position to seek out the lost, heal the sick and raise up their brothers from their sins:

Pastors, above all, are required to have as their model God Himself, who cares for His flock. The Prophet Ezekiel described God’s way of acting: He goes out in search of the lost sheep; He leads back the lost to the fold; He bandages the wounded and cares for the sick (34:16). A behavior that is a sign of a love that knows no bounds. It is a faithful, constant, unconditional dedication, that His mercy might reach all those who are weakest. And nevertheless, we must not forget that the prophecy of Ezekiel starts from the observation of the failures of the shepherds of Israel. (Pope Francis, homily, Chair of St Peter, translation by WAOB®)

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

From this vantage point we can revisit the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and see how the weakest man is placed in the center so that he can be a point of unity for all. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium #24) After all, one thing that we all share is weakness and sin. Few are strong and none are sinless, so it makes divine sense that the principle of unity and cornerstone of the Church should be one who is deeply aware of his need for mercy so that the mercy of God can shine brightly through him. “Power is made perfect in weakness.”

 

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Birthdays, Celebration and Mercy

In our culture, birthdays have become days of celebration for the individual who was born. Pope Francis taught us that celebration is the “invention of God” and comes after hard work. “God himself teaches us the importance of dedicating time to contemplate and enjoy what has been done well in work. I speak of work, naturally, not only in the sense of employment and profession, but in the broader sense: every action by which we as men and women cooperate in God’s creative work.” Francis, Audience, 12 August 2015 Pope Francis explains that in the light of Genesis 1: all celebration originates in God's “celebration” on the seventh day when He looked back on all He had done and saw that it was very good.

Birthdays

In light of this, what is a birthday celebration? Clearly a birth, which comes, more or less, nine months after the conception of a new human life in the womb of the mother, is an example of when “men and women cooperate in God's creative work.” Furthermore, a birth comes immediately after the work that we even call “labor.” A mother labors to bring a child into the world. In fact, she has already been laboring in various ways over the previous nine months, from morning sickness in the first months, to the discomfort of the changes in her body, changes in her eating, changes in her routine, changes in what she is able to accomplish, preparations for welcoming the new baby, changes in her future plans, perhaps, anticipation of the work that is forthcoming and the many years of committed loving service that lie ahead. We are focusing on the mother here, but, of course, a good father is also involved in many of these labors as he supports his wife in her child bearing.

Often we celebrate events after many, many years–a silver jubilee or a golden jubilee, for example. In the case of a child birth, we celebrate after only nine months. That teaches us how important a child is and how great the labor has been to care for that child in the first months of his or her life and to prepare to parent that child for the rest of life, with particular intensity for a couple of decades. Furthermore, God blesses that celebration with a significant feature, also indicating His intention that we celebrate the great moment of child birth: the moment of child birth can be seen as a special analogue to God's experience of looking back on creation. He looked back each day and saw that it was “good,” but on the seventh day, the great day of celebration, He saw that it was “very good.” The joy of God and the joy of parents, that makes them say it is “very good,” is the sight of a human face and the sound of a human voice. A baby's birthday is the first time we are able to see his or her face and hear his or her voice.

Mercy

Another special quality of the nine months of labor that precede birth, is the place where the baby is being formed–the mother's womb. Let us reflect on the significance of this choice of God–that each of us would spend nine months in a mother's womb before our face and our voice would be revealed to the world. We can reflect on the qualities of the womb at length, but let us consider just a couple of those qualities. In the womb, a baby is entirely enfolded in the body of a mother. It is like a hug that is so total and so tight that the one being embraced is taken entirely into the other. That's a very loving embrace! Furthermore, in the womb, the baby rests constantly beneath the heart of the mother. In the womb, the baby's oxygen passes first through the lungs of the mother. The baby's food is first digested by the mother. Everything the baby receives is chosen, consumed and prepared by the mother. In this way, a good mother filters, by her choice and her body, anything that would harm the baby. Likewise, a good mother thoughtfully and intentionally lives her life as a constant act of love for her baby, with every breath, every decision, every action now impacting another human life that is radically vulnerable and subject to her care.

In this human reality of a mother's womb, God teaches us about His own essence–mercy. “In the prophetic tradition, mercy is strictly related – even on the etymological level – to the maternal womb (rahamim).” Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016. In other words, in God's design, every human being is intended to spend nine months in mercy before being revealed to the world. Furthermore, as described earlier, this mercy that a baby receives, is a labor, involving both mother and father. Lastly, the joy of birth, perhaps the greatest natural joy–to behold the face of a new human life–is the joy that comes after months of mercy. This is expressed on the supernatural level in the Gospel. Jesus exclaims about the joy and celebration that comes through mercy, “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10). To summarize, we can say that in God's design, mercy is the labor that gives birth to new life and brings us to the joyful celebration of beholding a new human face and hearing a new human voice.

Perhaps these reflections will enhance our celebration of birthdays in a few ways. Namely, let us remember the important labor of parents, especially mothers, whose labor cooperated with God to conceive new life and nurture that new life and bring it to birth. Their cooperation with God gave us the joy of beholding that new, adorable, little human face and hearing that human voice for the first time. Furthermore, let us take note that the joy of a birthday is the joy of mercy. By receiving the Father's mercy, we can have a birthday every day. Every time we turn our hearts back to the Lord, we are reborn through the labor of Jesus on the Cross who has carried us in His Heart before giving birth to us again through His pierced side.

 

Jesus washes the feet of Jesus - wood carving in the cloister of Heiligenkreuz Abtei near Vienna

The Popes Call Us to Mercy

Pope Francis does not speak of mercy as a passing fad or a personal devotion, but as the movement of the Holy Spirit in our time. In speaking to all the priests of Rome he said, “we are…here…to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to the whole Church of our time, which is the time of mercy. I am sure of this. …we are living in a time of mercy, and have been for 30 years or more, up to today. In the Church, everything is the time of mercy. This was an intuition of Bl. John Paul II. He 'sensed' that this was the time of mercy.” (Pope Francis, Address to the priests of Rome, March 6, 2014) These were words spoken in a somewhat informal setting, but on later reflection, in his official inauguration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asserted that this time of mercy goes back more than 30 years and really stems from the Second Vatican Council. He quoted Pope St John XXIII's Opening Address of the Council as proof of this, “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity … The Catholic Church, as she holds high the torch of Catholic truth at this Ecumenical Council, wants to show herself a loving mother to all; patient, kind, moved by compassion and goodness toward her separated children.” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus #3)

What is mercy?

Pope Francis explained mercy by saying, ” 'misericordia' [mercy], a Latin word whose etymological meaning is 'miseris cor dare', to 'give the heart to the wretched', those in need, those who are suffering. … love freely given for the suffering and the weak. From the Gospel narratives we are able to understand the closeness, the goodness, the tenderness with which Jesus drew in the suffering people and consoled them, comforted them, and often healed them.” (Address to the Misericordiae Society of Italy, June 14, 2014) For the one who has mercy, suffering and weakness are not repulsive, but attractive. The one who has mercy seeks out misery in order to give his heart to the wretched.

Mercy transforms our culture of waste into a culture of encounter and solidarity

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42:3) The mindset of Christ, who is “the face of mercy”, is radically different from the mindset of worldly power. Worldly power despises what is weak. Worldly power exploits weakness or seeks to ignore it, and if it becomes a burden it simply eliminates it. The insidious extreme of this attitude was lived out in Nazi Regime through the T4 program. A questionnaire was sent to medical institutions to ascertain patients' abilities to work, and also whether they suffered from various chronic neurological disorders including schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, and encephalitis, in addition to those who were institutionalized because they had committed crimes. Throughout World War II, some 200,000 of those who “burdened” society with their weaknesses were systematically identified and eliminated. This is what Pope Francis has called a “culture of waste”.

Mercy, on the other hand, seeks out the lost sheep and welcomes home the repentant sinner (Luke 15). Mercy, as Pope Francis repeatedly explains it, fosters a “culture of encounter.” Rather than keeping weakness at arm's length, or even throwing it away, mercy seeks out and personally encounters those who are weak. Pope Francis has often asked the question, “When you give alms, do you touch the poor man's hand? Do you look him in the eye?” Pope Francis has taught us that the poor and the weak are not a “sociological” category, but a “theological” category. They are the very flesh of Christ. Pope Francis has often said, Jesus has begun a “revolution of tenderness” by coming among us in the flesh. In Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has come close to us to encounter us, to be able to touch us and look into our eyes.

Mercy is also the foundation of a “culture of solidarity.” Rather than seeing misery and weakness as someone else's problem or something foreign to me, mercy identifies itself with weakness, bending down to embrace weakness, to share in suffering, to see each person as a brother or sister. In answer to Cain's question, “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:10), Pope Francis responds with an emphatic “Yes!” This is the basis of a culture of solidarity, which was begun by Christ Himself when He made us all brothers and sisters and taught us to pray with Him, “Our Father.”

Mercy is a “field hospital after battle.” Rather than focusing on who is right and who is wrong, mercy draws close and shows tenderness and understanding. Like a field hospital after battle, mercy stops the bleeding before checking for high cholesterol or blood sugar levels. Mercy focuses on healing the wounds. Pope Francis has asked us to make the Church a ” 'field hospital' with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation” (Homily for the Opening Mass of the 14th Ordinary Synod of Bishops)

Receiving mercy

The mindset of worldly power–the exploitation and destruction of weakness–has an inherent contradiction in that every human being has weakness. Even those who hold worldly power and for a time can avoid or despise the weakness of others, eventually have to face their own powerlessness. Perhaps it is in the face of their own sickness or the sickness of a loved one. Perhaps it is in some failure at work or at home. Perhaps it is in some habitual personal sin that they cannot overcome. Those who refuse to give mercy will also seek to live without mercy and their mercilessness will turn in on themselves.

When we open our hearts to mercy, however, by admitting our weaknesses and accepting the unearned, unconditional, freely given love of God, our hearts also grow tender for the weaknesses of others. Likewise, when we allow ourselves to see with the eyes of Jesus and allow ourselves to be attracted to the weaknesses of others, we will be more willing to humbly open our hearts to the mercy of God. “The more deeply stirred we are by the Lord's mercy, the greater the solidarity we feel with his suffering – and we become willing to complete in our own flesh 'what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ' (Col 1: 24).” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Homily for the Election of the Pontiff, April 18, 2005) Unlike the path of worldly power, the path of mercy has no internal contradictions. It is built on the gratuitous and unending love of God. It is a force that can change our hearts and can change our culture. The path of mercy is truly the path to inner peace.

All of us, as members of the Church can heed this call of Pope Francis, a call that brings us hope: “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” (Pope Francis, Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy #10)