It barely seems possible, but we have now reached the halfway point of the season of Lent. Within this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis challenged us to live the season of Lent “more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus 17). Recently I had the opportunity to spend a little extra time reflecting on the Popes and their words on mercy. In a particular way, mercy is a common theme of two Popes: St. John Paul II and our current Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Three points that were repeated frequently in the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis are:
- This Lent is a particular time to rediscover the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
- Mercy will always be greater than any sin.
- We are called not only to receive God’s mercy, but also to forgive and give mercy to others.
Each morning after Mass, children carry items from the Lenten giving tree outside Church to the school foyer. This procession of gifts being donated to those in need of material resources demonstrates the corporal works of mercy and is one example of our children learning to live in a spirit of mercy. Toy drives, candy drives, clothes drives…all are learning opportunities for our young people.
The spiritual works of mercy are no less important, although more difficult to grasp at times. It is a lot easier to grasp corporal works of mercy when you are holding physical things like a pillow or household goods donated to the Lenten giving tree. However, our children pray for the living and the dead each day. Hopefully they practice the other spiritual works of mercy, including bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving offenses willingly. This is especially important as children learn to practice social skills with their peers.
God’s mercy will always be greater than any sin we can commit. One of the most common lies we can be tempted to believe in the spiritual life is that God surely cannot forgive this sin I have committed. We hold on to guilt and shame long after God has cast our sins to the bottom of the sea (Micah 7:19) after we have sincerely confessed the sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Pope Francis reflects on the call of St. Matthew in these words:
It was a look full of mercy that forgave the sins of that man, a sinner and a tax collector, whom Jesus chose – against the hesitation of the disciples – to become one of the Twelve. Saint Bede the Venerable, commenting on this Gospel passage, wrote that Jesus looked upon Matthew with merciful love and chose him: miserando atque eligendo. (Misericordiae Vultus 8)
Pope Francis was so touched by the look of mercy that Jesus shows to St. Matthew that he chose the words of St. Bede, looking upon him with merciful love, he chose him, for his motto as a bishop. Do we allow ourselves to experience the look of mercy with which Jesus Christ gazes at us? Everything in him speaks of compassion and in him is the fullness of mercy and love. What have we to fear?
Finally, as we are recipients of God’s mercy, we must also be channels of this mercy to others. We are called to forgive others and to give them mercy. The difficulty of forgiveness is not minimized by either Pope Francis or St. John Paul II. However, I am struck by the example of forgiveness that John Paul II showed to the man who attempted to assassinate him in 1981. Would I have the courage to offer forgiveness to someone who had wounded me so deeply? Am I willing to ask God’s help to forgive the one who has offended me in a much less serious way through a careless word?
We are unable to give mercy to others if we rely on our own strength. St. John Paul II reminds us that the power of forgiveness, “flows continually from the marvelous value of the sacrifice of the Son. No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it.” (Dives in Misericordia, 13)
Lord, help us to receive your mercy with hearts wide open. Help us to share that mercy with hearts and hands wide open!