Mercy Is God’s Identity Card: Reflections on Francis’ The Name of God is Mercy
Today, Vox Nova is pleased to present a guest post by Alessandro Rovati, Ph.D., who is an adjunct professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College, NC.
We are almost two months into the Holy Year of Mercy and the greatest temptation we face is formalism. We are surrounded by words and gestures that remind us of mercy, but we risk letting the various events pass us by without changing anything in us. Even those of us who are either scholars or commentators of things theological are tempted to reduce the Jubilee to a theological fad that makes us write about mercy for a while but does not really bring about any newness in the way we think and act. This is not how the Jubilee is supposed to be, though. Francis has time and again expressed his deep desire for this time to be a moment when all the faithful can have an “actual experience of mercy.” Now he has given us a new gift by publishing a book, The Name of God is Mercy, that can accompany us in this season of the Church’s life and help us live this year as “a time to rediscover the presence of God and His fatherly tenderness.”
Those who were to look to this book for a methodical theological treatise that delves into the debates that surround the concept of mercy across the Christian tradition would be sorely disappointed. In his extended conversation with renowned Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli, instead, Francis has wanted to lead us into the mystery of the Father’s mercy. With his pastor’s heart, the Pope put us in front of mercy, “Jesus’ most important message,” by going back to the Gospels and by meditating on the many things the Lord has accomplished in Francis’ own life. The result is an intimate book in which every page reads like a heartfelt invitation for the reader to join the Pope in the discovery of the infinite love that God has for each one of His creatures.
“Mercy is God’s identity card.” Everything in Jesus’ life speaks of the Father’s mercy and paying attention to his words and deeds we can come to know the difference between our human logic and the logic of God who “welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good, transforming and redeeming my sin, transmuting condemnation into salvation.” While we are tempted to make ours the complaints of the older brother of the parable of the Prodigal Son against his father’s mercy (Lk 15:29-30), Christ shows us that God desires to save those who are lost, for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Lk 15:7) No human sin can limit God’s mercy. God never tires to forgive; it is we human beings who at times get tired of asking for forgiveness. Instead the Lord, like a father who awaits his children at the doorway, is patient and always waits for us “so that he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.” God is not an apathetic God who stands in his distant throne, instead he “let himself be moved by human wretchedness, by our need, by our suffering” and sought to get involved with human beings, suffering with and for us to make evident his visceral love.
The mercy of God is always available to us, but “in order to be filled with his gift of infinite mercy, we need to recognize our need, our emptiness, our wretchedness. We cannot be arrogant.” We too need to come to our senses (Lk 15:17) because without recognizing ourselves as sinners we will not be able to receive God’s mercy; as Augustine said beautifully, “the one who created us without us does not want to redeem us without us.” God takes our freedom so seriously that he does not force us to accept his love. He patiently waits for our response, never giving up and always renewing his merciful initiative toward us. Jesus came to redeem those who are sick and in need of healing (Mk 2:17), for the righteous think themselves self-sufficient and are not open to God’s embrace. Accordingly, we need to “take a small step toward God, or at least express the desire to take it. A tiny opening is enough. All we need to do is to take our condition seriously. We need to remember and remind ourselves where we come from, what we are, our nothingness.”
God goes to great lengths to enter the human heart, finding the smallest opening to grant us his saving grace. “Thinking back on my own life and my experiences,” says Francis, “to September 21, 1953, when God came to me and filled me with wonder, I have always said that the Lord precedes us, he anticipates us.” On that day, the 17 year-old Jorge Maria Bergoglio felt compelled to enter his parish church as he was passing close to it. Upon entering, he felt the need to go to confession and that moment marked his life. “I do not know what happened, but I came out different, changed. I returned home with the certainty of having to consecrate myself to the Lord.” By encouraging all the faithful to open their hearts to the mercy of God, Francis does not follow an abstract pastoral program. In fact, he has experienced first hand that “only one who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his mercy really knows the Lord” and that only “when you feel his merciful embrace, when you let yourself be embraced, when you are moved – that’s when life can change, because that’s when we try to respond to the immense and unexpected gift of grace.” As soon as Christians lose the awe for the salvation that has been granted to them, what prevails is “a formal adherence to rules and to mental schemes,” rather than the joyful and heartfelt answer to the surprising and unforeseeable grace of the encounter with Jesus that gives life a new direction and a new meaning. The Holy Year of Mercy is a special time that the Church is giving us to put Jesus once again at the center of our lives and of the life of our communities so that we might be renewed in our desire to be disciples and rekindled in our calling to be witnesses in front of the world.
To effect such a radical transformation in people’s lives, mercy cannot remain just a lofty idea. God in his love wanted to make present a human reality that touches the lives of human beings today in the same way Jesus touched the lives of those who met him. That is why the Church exists “to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.” The apostles and all their successors are instruments of the mercy of God (Jn 20:19-23), for we are social beings and “if you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can’t talk about them with God, either, and therefore you end up confessing into the mirror, to yourself.” Following in the footsteps of the Lord, the Church too pours out mercy over all those who recognize themselves as sinners, and thus she is always on the move, going outside to “look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope” so as to be like a field hospital, capable of providing immediate care to those who are wounded. As disciples, we are sent forth into the world to live in the logic of love and selflessness so that, by opening ourselves to the mercy of God, we might allow Jesus to come toward us and, filled by his presence, become bearers of mercy for all our fellow human beings. In fact, “the more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many wounded we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.” The Church condemns sin but embraces the sinner who recognizes herself as such. Indeed, the important thing in life is not to never fall, but to always get back up, for the Lord always offers the possibility of starting over. Accordingly, this is the task of the Church, “to help people perceive that there are no situations that they can not get out of.” Following Pope Francis and accompanied by the many gestures the Church will perform during this Holy Year of Mercy, may we grow in the awareness that “for as long as we are alive it is always possible to start over; all we have to do is to let Jesus embrace us and forgive us.”