Tag Archives: Pope Francis

Blessed Emperor Karl von Habsburg

October 21 is the memorial of Blessed Karl von Habsburg, the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Blessed Karl is not merely an historical figure of minimal importance or a curiosity of a past age. To the contrary, he remains exemplary in his marriage and fatherhood, in his tireless pursuit of peace in the midst of war, and in the socially responsible way that he governed his people. These are three key themes of the magisterium of Pope Francis and so we can look to Blessed Karl for an example of how to live out what the Pope is teaching us today.

I have explored these connections at greater length in the three-part blog post on the Emperor Karl website.

  1. A man of the family
  2. A man of peace
  3. A socially responsible civil leader

One of the keys to Blessed Karl’s holiness was all the prayer and sacrificed he received from those who dedicated themselves in a special way to this purpose through the Emperor Karl League of Prayer. The League of Prayer still exists today, both as an organ for promotion of the Cause of his Canonization of Blessed Karl but also as an organization dedicated to pray and live as he lived. Perhaps our civil authorities today would be more like Blessed Karl if we dedicated more attention to praying and suffering for them.

Blessed Karl von Habsburg, pray for us!

Introduction to Lectio Divina

Contemplating the Word

Contemplating the Word

Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading)

“…I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime. As a strong point of biblical ministry, Lectio divina should therefore be increasingly encouraged…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the 40th Anniversary of Dei Verbum)

Lectio divina is an ancient practice of praying with Sacred Scripture. It has been especially preserved and practiced by monks throughout the ages, but in recent decades has been promoted for the whole Church by Pope St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is not difficult to practice, it does not require large amounts of time nor special knowledge or education. It is simply a way of allowing God to speak to us personally through His Holy Word, as written in the Bible.

That brings us to the first important point: God really wants to speak to us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Furthermore, God wants to reveal His love for us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Before we even existed, God loved us. He created us out of love, He redeemed us out of love and by His love, He continues to call us back to Himself. Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), no matter how far we have wandered, there is a celebration and warm welcome awaiting us in the Father’s house, our true home. That is the “tone of voice” we can expect from God when we pray with Sacred Scripture through lectio divina. We can always ask the question, “How is God revealing His love to me through this passage of Scripture?”

Step 1: Reading

When practicing lectio divina, we start by opening our Bible to a page of Scripture and reading (the first step of lectio divina). There are many ways to choose what Scripture we begin with. I generally recommend the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, because it is easiest to encounter God through the Gospels. For those who are aware of the daily cycle of Gospel readings selected for Mass, I find that to be an easy starting place. We do not need to read a large amount of Scripture. The purpose of lectio is different than a bible study. With lectio, we are not trying to become Scripture scholars, we are simply trying to draw close to God and hear His voice speaking to us personally. So, a paragraph of Scripture from the Gospels is more than enough to start with.

After we have selected a passage of Scripture, we begin to read slowly. Let me emphasize: slowly. For prayer, it is very important to slow ourselves down, to quiet our minds and hearts, and to become more gentle in our approach to God. We know that God is almighty, but when He speaks, He does not try to dominate us or overwhelm us. This is because He really respects and reverences our freedom. He wants to be sure that we really really want to hear what He has to say. By becoming very quiet and very gentle inside ourselves, we show Him that we are really interested in listening to Him. It is as if He were a shy child and He clams up if we are loud and rough. One of the ways we can transition from the noisy harshness of the world to the gentle quiet needed for listening to God is by taking a phrase of Scripture and gently repeating it. As we read through the passage, we look for a phrase of Scripture that seems to stand out to us, that catches our attention. It is not magical and really any phrase will do, but if there is one that seems particularly attractive, we should take that one and begin to repeat it gently inside ourselves.

Step 2: Meditation

As we begin to repeat the phrase of Scripture, we have begun our meditation (the second step of lectio divina). At first it is just a gentle repetition. This repetition helps to slow down our interior and to make us more sensitive to God’s Presence. It is like a pebble that has been tossed into a rapidly moving river–the pebble heads down towards the riverbed, but then it gets tossed up by a current, moved about by the flow, but each time the phrase is repeated, it is like applying gravity to the pebble and it takes it closer and closer to the bottom where it can rest. That is how our interior becomes more settled and calm and open to the Presence of God. Though we might get distracted and have various unrelated thoughts, by just returning to the phrase we can refocus ourselves and become more settled and calm and open up again to the Lord’s Presence.

At the same time, as we are gently repeating the phrase, we are reflecting on its meaning. To take an example, perhaps as we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are struck by the phrase in Luke 15:20, “So he got up and went back to his father.” As we reflect on the meaning of this phrase, we might notice the courage of the son to get up and go back. We might feel his fear of rejection. We might begin to think about our own sins and remember an experience of being rejected by our own father. We might feel despair and wonder what the point of returning is. But we repeat, “So he got up and went back to his father.” We know that the son was not rejected, that he was received with love and rejoicing. We might ask ourselves, “What is keeping me from getting up and returning to God, my Father? Am I afraid? Am I despairing?” We can reflect on the loving way that our Father receives us, on the open arms He extends to us. And again we repeat the phrase, “So he got back up and went back to his father.”

Step 3: Prayer

At this point, we enter into the third movement of lectio divina which is prayer. In our meditation we asked ourselves, “What is God saying to me in this passage?” In prayer, we respond to God. We might begin to pray with something such as, “Thank you Father for always receiving me when I get up and return to you. Please forgive me for wandering away from you. Please help me never to wander from you again. Why do I continually fall back into sin? Please help me to be faithful. Please help me always to get up and return to you when I fall. Please help all those who fall into sin to get up and return to you.”  The important thing in prayer is that we speak from our hearts.  God loves to listen to us and He wants to hear what is in our hearts–our feelings, our fears, our hopes, all the people we love and care for, whatever is in our hearts.

Step 4: Contemplation

Through our meditation and prayer, our hearts are slowed down, quieted and gradually separated from the world. As we become aware of the loving Presence of God we can let go and rest in the fourth movement of lectio, which is contemplation. Contemplation is a loving awareness of God’s Presence. When we feel that God is close to us, words become pointless and we do better just to rest and enjoy His Presence, speaking and listening to Him in a simple, silent way, beyond words. This may last for a few moments or for a few minutes. Gradually, we move back to the Scripture and take up our phrase again, or perhaps we move on to another phrase.

Pope Francis on Lectio Divina

Let us conclude by reflecting on Pope Francis’s teaching on this form of prayer:

“There is one particular way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit. It is what we call lectio divina. It consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us. …

“In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: ‘Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?’ When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel #153-154)


St. Joseph, Master of Virginal Begetting

Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier, who founded the great seminary Sainte-Sulpice (and later the Sulpicians) as a response to the Council of Trent's call for a reform of the approach to training priests in seminaries, entrusted the seminarians of Sainte-Sulpice to the patronage of St. Joseph. The reason, he explained, was that St. Joseph, like priests, was involved in the “virginal begetting of Christ.” To understand this, one must recognize that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was necessary for the Annunciation to take place. In this sense St Joseph plays a real and important, although not biological, role in the begetting of Christ. St John Paul II wrote that “while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary's marriage to Joseph” (Redemptoris Custos #7).

Msgr Olier's concern that priests master the art of the virginal begetting is shared by Pope Francis who tied together unhappiness in a celibate vocation with a lack of spiritual fatherhood, “please: … never any priests with faces like 'chilis pickled in vinegar' — never! … But what is at the heart of this lack of joy? … when a priest is not a father to his community … he becomes sad. … the root of sadness in pastoral life is precisely in the absence of fatherhood…. It is impossible to imagine a priest … who [is] not fertile: this is not Catholic!… Joy, no sadness, pastoral fecundity.” (Pope Francis, Address to novices and seminarians, July 6, 2013)

Essentially, Pope Francis is emphasizing that the joy of the priesthood comes from fulfilling the spousal meaning of the body in making a sincere gift of oneself. This self-gift becomes mystically, virginally fruitful, begetting Christ in souls, and thus engenders a spiritual fatherhood in the priest. What can we learn from St. Joseph about how to live out this essential element of priesthood more fruitfully?

St Joseph models a culture of encounter and tenderness

The first point is the importance of cultivating encounters with certain qualities–encounters that are personal, tender, and open to human suffering. Pope Francis has taught us persistently about this as he has encouraged us to build a culture of encounter. When we have the courage to draw close to others, it forms a people, a family. “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG) #270)

St Joseph was tempted to distance himself from Mary, from her human suffering, but his openness to the Word of God and his courage to reverse his decision and draw close to Mary is an inspiration for priests who might likewise seek to distance themselves. His return to Mary with tenderness, rather than stoning, is likewise an example. And there is no doubt that his decision made his life “wonderfully complicated” and helped to form a people, truly to form the People of God.

Complementarity, the Holy Spirit and virginal fruitfulness

A second quality that is important for spiritual fecundity can be seen in the complementarity of Joseph and Mary and the role of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary could only enter into a marriage because they were male and female. Furthermore, the virginal begetting could only take place because Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. St Joseph clearly did not understand all that was taking place and yet he was willing to draw close to the mystery and discover God in a new way in his virgin bride. The priest opens himself to the same spiritual fruitfulness when he draws close to the mystery of the bridal Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He does this when he preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without this the seeds of faith cannot be planted in hearts, “and how can they believe…without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14) When the priest goes out of himself to plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of his people, watering them with baptism and nourishing them with the tenderness of personal encounter, the Church becomes pregnant with new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without the bridal Church and without the Holy Spirit there can be no virginal begetting. Pope Francis drew out this analogy in a Wednesday Audience on the Church, “First of all a mother generates life, she carries her child in her womb for 9 months and then delivers him to life, giving birth to him. The Church is like this: she bears us in the faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit who makes her fertile, like the Virgin Mary.” (Sept. 09, 2013) Pope Francis also described the fruitfulness that comes when we are willing to let ourselves be fascinated by the difference, by the complementarity of the other, “When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” (EG #271)

The mysterious nature of virginal fruitfulness

A final point that must be raised is that the pastoral fecundity is not always obvious; virginal begetting is also mysterious. Just as St. Joseph lived for many years in the hiddenness of Nazareth, the priest must often live in the uncertainty of the importance and fruitfulness of all his efforts. He can teach us what Pope Francis has called “a sense of mystery”. “'A sense of mystery' … involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others.” (EG #279)

St. Joseph is the best teacher for us in understanding the mystery of virginal begetting which he inaugurated in his willingness to encounter our Lady with tenderness, in embracing her difference with the power of the Holy Spirit and in rejoicing at the mysterious fruitfulness that burst forth in their lives.

Originally published in the Theology of the Body Institute email newsletter



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.”



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.


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.


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)