Arts and Culture

Mercy is Much More Than Forgiveness

First in a series

I have the feeling that everything I have written in several columns about Pope Francis has been summed up in the new book by Pope Francis: “The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli” (New York: Random House. Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, 2016, pp.176).

In his introduction, Tornielli summarizes Pope Francis’ view of mercy. He points out that for Pope Francis, mercy is the Lord’s strongest message, which is what the Holy Father said in a homily about a week after his election. Certainly, his pontificate seems to be centered around the concept of mercy as shown by Jesus’ teaching and healing, and especially by His death and resurrection. The image of God that Pope Francis presents again and again is that God is so in love with us that God cannot say “No” to us.

Tornielli comments on the difference between forgiveness and mercy in Pope Francis’ teaching. With forgiveness, our sins are removed. Mercy is more than forgiveness. It represents the infinite love of God for us. It summarizes God’s entire presence in our lives. Tornielli sees it as central to Pope Francis’ first few years as the leader of the Catholic Church. In reflecting on the Holy Father’s message, Tornielli makes an key point about responsibilities. A special fault of our time seems to be the readiness to blame others, instead of ourselves.

Actions and Intentions

I found especially interesting Tornielli’s report of a change that the pontiff wanted in the first draft of the text. In discussing ourselves as sinners, Tornielli reported Pope Francis as saying: “The medicine is there, the healing is there – if only we take a small step toward God.” The pope called him and asked him to add “or even just the desire to take that step.”

I think that suggests Pope Francis’ idea of mercy is more than forgiveness. God’s mercy meets us more than halfway. It is represented in the father’s running to meet the Prodigal Son even before the son expresses that he has sinned against his father.

In trying to convey how mercy is a sign of God’s infinite love of us, Pope Francis refers to a novel by Bruce Marshall, “To Every Man a Penny.” In the novel, a young priest has to hear the confession of a German soldier who is to be executed. The soldier confesses many sins against chastity, and because he received great pleasure from those actions, he confesses that he cannot repent. He cannot say that he is sorry. The priest asks him if he can at least be sorry that he cannot repent. When the soldier says that he is sorry that he can’t be sorry for his sins, the priest absolves him.

When I was a newly ordained priest serving in a parish, I heard confessions every week. I loved the experience and had a very strong feeling that in the confessional I was being a priest in a special way. I never found hearing confessions discouraging, and I don’t think I ever became angry with a penitent. Rather, I found hearing confessions inspiring and encouraging. So many people trying to live morally and to grow closer to Christ!

Recalling those hours in the confessional, I think the courses I took in moral theology in the seminary helped a great deal. Still, I wish that I had received the emphasis on mercy that Pope Francis has frequently proclaimed. I believe that Pope Francis’ view of God’s mercy comes from the Holy Father’s profound personalism, which springs from his deep awareness of God’s personal loving presence in the life of everyone and the dignity and importance of every human being.

There are several qualities that make Pope Francis so attractive to people, both Catholics and others. His compassion is as obvious as his humility. His sense of humor and joy seem to spring from a profound peace, which in turn, comes from his awareness of God’s love for him, even though he readily admits he is a sinner.

After I first read “The Name of God Is Mercy,” I knew that I had to return to it. I sensed that I had missed some profound thoughts. My gut feeling was right. The book presents a very deep vision of God that – if embraced – could color one’s whole relationship with God.