By Msgr. Michael J. Cantley
Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin Dec. 8, 2015 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council), and to conclude on Nov. 20, 2016, the Feast of Christ the King.
The Holy Father entitled the papal document announcing this event “Miserecordiae Vultus” (MV). This is being translated the “Face of Mercy” in most of the print media, but more accurately it should be “The Countenance of Mercy.” In Latin, face is rendered by the word “facies,” a more generic term; where “vultus” is a more particular, graphic, person-revealing expression of the Holy Father’s meaning: the living face of Jesus in whom are all of the “riches of mercy” (Eph 20:4). Thus an essential aspect of God is definitively revealed.
All of Pope Francis’ writings on mercy point to the mystery of the Incarnation in which Jesus is the most “visible and tangible” mirror of God’s infinite love. His whole purpose is to invite us to look at the visage of Jesus, to discover mercy as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
This, in turn, suggests that we are looking, as though in a mirror, to measure our growth toward reflecting the mercy of Jesus in our lives. “Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him” (MV 1).
“We all have a deep need to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is the wellspring of joy, serenity and peace … the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us” (MV 2). In the Old Testament, the word we translate as mercy is the Hebrew “hesed” (in Greek “éleos”). The Hebrew is by far the richer in meaning, eliciting goodness and love not in a generic sense, but concretely with some person(s) or situation(s) in view. The principle and controlling text in Scripture that is the basis and energizing force behind the word “hesed” is God’s self revelation to Moses on Sinai, “So the LORD passed before him and proclaimed: The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love (hesed) and fidelity” (Exod 34:6).
In Hosea 11:8-9, the prophet offers mercy as the defining characteristic of God: “How could I give you up, Ephraim, or deliver you up, Israel? My heart is overwhelmed; my pity (hesed) is stirred… For I am God and not a man…”
Pope Francis makes reference to the rich doctrine of mercy as it is reflected in the Psalms 103:3-4; 146:7-9; 147:3,6; and the whole of Psalm 136, the “Great Hallel” that recalls the history of salvation with the refrain “his love (hesed) endures forever.” That refrain concludes every verse of the lengthy psalm.
Pope Francis comments: “Knowing that Jesus himself prayed this psalm makes it even more important for us as Christians, challenging us to take up the refrain in our daily lives” (MV 7). Add to these Psalms 51 (Miserere) and 130 (De profundis) to see that God’s mercy originates from his absolutely free and gratuitous love for his creatures. Mercy cannot be forced, it is never due to those to whom it is sown, and will never fail. (cf. MV 6, 7).
We can only offer a brief survey of the approximately 250 references to “hesed” in the Jewish Scriptures (over 70 in the Psalms alone).
1. Here we will attempt to summarize the significant elements present in this extraordinary word “hesed” (mercy) as reflected in the texts just referenced and the others Pope Francis utilizes in his Bull of Indiction on the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
First and most obvious is the fact that mercy is a unilateral virtue. The recipient is totally beneficiary of the unforced and undeserved benevolence of the one who extends mercy. Jonah’s protest to God’s acceptance of the repentance of the Ninevites (4:2) instead of the destruction he had hoped for, makes this point of gratuity very well: “Lord, is this not what I said in my own country? This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I know you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment.”
Neither Nineveh nor any of us has a right before God to forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s free bestowal of an unmerited gift to a person or to persons. Here we note the “hesed” (mercy) is always an engagement with persons and never with things; an engagement that is freely bestowed and can never be coerced.
Secondly, from the example of Jonah 4:2ff., it is clear that hesed is also conditional, i.e., it depends on the real acknowledgement of fault, conversion and the intention to amend the course of ones life. Moreover, the obligation of the one to whom mercy is shown is specific – return to obedience to God.
Mercy is always specific and addresses concrete needs that the beneficiary has no power to resolve on his or her own.
Divine mercy always exceeds the limited parameters of human mercy. God’s forgiveness involves not only forgiving our sins but also his adopting us as sons and daughters, sustaining us with his grace, and thereby establishing a radical commitment to establish an intimate, loving relationship he will never nullify if we remain faithful.
It is a freely offered gift from God, but a gift is a gift only when freely accepted by the intended beneficiary. Note that reciprocity is a gift. Even if we fail, God remains faithful as promised on Psalm 89:34: “I will not take back my mercy nor will I betray my bond of faithfulness.”
To understand this in Old Testament terms, it is important to remind ourselves that Hebrew is essentially a pictorial language. Hebraic thought is dynamic.
When, in Exodus 3:14, Moses asks God’s name, God responds, “I am who I am,” YHWH (Yahweh), usually rendered in our translations as LORD to respect sacredness of the Tetragrammaton. The Western interpretation sees this revelation of name as a description of the metaphysical essence – God is Pure Being. The Hebraic mind heard it more actively and presently: “I Am the one always present,” “always available,” “always there for you.” The attributes of God are identical with his Being. Technically, this is called aseity. This fits in well with Pope Francis quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence in this way” (S.T IIa-IIae g. 30, a.4).
“Throughout the history of humanity, God will always be the One who is present, close, provident, holy and merciful” (MV 6).
In the New Testament, the Greek word “éleos” = mercy translates the Hebrew “hesed.” It appears in the introductory prayers of our Mass as the Kyrie eleison … Christe eleison = “Lord (Christ) have mercy.” In various grammatical forms as noun, verb or adjective éleos occurs in the New Testament over 56 times.
2. In Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus chides “you hypocrites…. you neglect the weightier matters of the Law – justice, mercy (éleos) and good faith…” (Mt 23:23). Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 9:9) Jesus had already made his preference for mercy known “I desire mercy (éleos) and not sacrifice” (quoting Hosea 6:6).
At the beginning of his public ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ fifth Beatitude is “Blessed are the merciful (éleēmones) for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5: 7). Again in Matthew 18:33, in the parable of the unforgiving debtor, Jesus enlists the figure of the merciful master as surrogate for God to underscore the necessity of mercy: “Was it not necessary for you to have mercy (éleēsai) on your fellow servant as I also had mercy on you?” The reference is obvious: God’s forgiving mercy offered to us creates a reciprocal obligation to show mercy to one another.
In his epistle, James 2:13 raises the issue from a negative point of view, someone neglecting to show mercy: he writes “For judgment will be without mercy (anéleos) for anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” In 3:17 James points out “wisdom from heaven is peaceful, considerate, willing to yield, full of mercy (mestē éleos), fruitful, impartial, with no hypocrisy.” For Paul in Rom 12: 6-8 since mercy is a divinely given gift he urges that it should be accepted with reciprocal action: “do acts of mercy with cheerfulness (èleon en helarōtēti”).
Pope Francis clearly has all of this in mind as he teaches: “Love after all, can never be an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes and behaviors that are shown in daily living” (MV 9.4).
Luke 1: 58 offers another dimension for the word “éleos” (mercy). When John the Baptist was born to Elizabeth, her neighbors “having heard of God’s mercy to her rejoiced with her.” Mercy brings joy to the one benefited and to all of the participants involved. Here it reflects God’s creative purpose. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband and father of John, celebrates God’s mercy in his canticle the Benedictus: “because of the tender mercy of our God to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (1:78-79). The whole leitmotif of the infancy narrative in Luke reflects the Old Testament promise of “hesed” (“éleos”) as Mary had proclaimed in her canticle the Magnificat Lk 1: 54-55: “He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
St. Paul in the special section in Romans, chapters 9-11. discusses the special place for Israel in the story of the salvation of the Gentiles; he outlines the special place for mercy through an historico-eschatological prism which he sums up in 11:30-36 (the triumph of God’s mercy). “Just as you (Gentiles) once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their (Jews) disobedience, so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may [now] receive mercy. For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever, Amen.”
The first epistle of Peter 1:3 describes all of the Christian message as the result of God’s mercy: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy (éleos) gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” This blessing allows Paul to wish “peace and mercy on all who follow this rule” i.e., of making their new existence in Christ the fundamental rule” of life (Gal. 6:16). Peace (“eirēn) and mercy (“éleos”) belong together in the Christian life. “Eirēnē” translates “shalom,” the Hebrew word for ‘peace,’ which is one of the most comprehensive words denominating an harmonious relationship with God that yields inner harmony and flows to harmony with others. Here we discover the fundamental energy of mercy.
There is no pretense in this review of having given an exhaustive review of the richness of the Biblical concept of mercy; and by no means have we exhausted the Biblical texts that deserve review: e.g. the doctrine implicit in Jesus’ parables as Pope Francis offers in this document. All we can hope is that the reader is inspired to read the Holy Father’s text in full (see MV 9). Hear his conviction: “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy” (MV 10).
Beginning with paragraph MV 13 through to the end of the document, the Holy Father outlines a practical program that should be read in his own words for its wisdom, inspiration and very possible suggestions that even the busiest of us can implement if we so desire. He speaks in paragraph 22 of the indulgences possible for our taking this program seriously. Some media have already made light of this topic with complete misunderstanding of what indulgences are. They do not remit sin. Sins must already be forgiven through the use of the sacrament of penance. Rather, they implore the holiness of the whole Church through the saints in heaven, souls in purgatory and the saints in own midst to pray for us to overcome the temptations and weaknesses of our own lives that lead to sin.
Listen to his words, “In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger than even this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fallback into sin. The Church lives within the communion of saints…. Their holiness come to the aid of our weakness…” (MV 22).
May Mary, the Mother of Mercy accompany us on the Pilgrimage (see MV 14) of this adventure in spirituality that Pope Francis makes available to us.
Msgr. Cantley, now retired, is a former professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington.