By Father John Cush
Today’s Gospel reminds me very much of the cross worn with the habit of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. As a seminarian in Rome, and now, as a doctoral student in Rome, I am truly blessed to count as friends the wonderful Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, who, in addition to their own graduate studies in theology, philosophy and other ecclesial disciplines, staff the Infirmary and the U.S. Bishops Office for Visitors to the Vatican at the Casa Santa Maria of the Pontifical North American College.
I first became familiar with the Sisters of Mercy when I was a young boy because my mother was an alumna of Catherine McAuley H.S. in Flatbush, as was my oldest sister. I was blessed as a seminarian in the summers of 1996 and 1997 to serve at St. Agatha’s in Sunset Park and got to know the Sisters of Mercy of Americas who were such a large part of my first experiences of pastoral life.
Mercy and Misery
The Mercy Cross is a simple cross of black wood on a black cord. In the center of the cross, in the midst of the black, is a smaller white cross. When I asked one of the Sisters to explain it to me, she mentioned that the white represents God’s mercy in the midst of the black, which signifies the misery of humanity. The Sisters take four vows, the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a fourth vow of service to the poor, the sick and the ignorant.
As one who has often been poor (at least in spirit), sick (and with the Sister Nurses taking good care of the priests and seminarians in Rome) and ignorant (and the Lord knows I’ve been too often, especially to the movements of the Lord in my life), I am grateful to these fine Religious Sisters who have shown me the mercy of the Lord time and again.
The mercy of God in the midst of humanity’s misery – that is the place that the Lord Jesus, who is mercy made flesh, is at the start of His public ministry.
Remember the basic set-up of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus has been baptized by John, then been tempted in the desert by Satan and then He begins to call His first disciples. Jesus has come for one reason and for one reason only – to announce that “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). And what is the Kingdom of God? It is not a place, it is not a concept; it is a Person, a Divine Person, with two natures, human and divine. It is Jesus Christ the Lord.
Jesus is the Kingdom of God Incarnate. He is truth, goodness, love and mercy made concrete. He who is mercy walks in the midst of His people and He knows the misery of mankind. The Lord Jesus encounters misery in the sickness of Simon’s mother- in-law. Mercy touches her and, with the gentleness that comes only from the healing power of God, she is cured. Mercy walks further along and heals those who are desperately crying out to Him for help. He drives out demons, and even these evil spirits can recognize Him for who He is, the Holy One of God.
“Everyone is looking for you,” He’s told, and this is correct, for everyone is looking for mercy.
As Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, once wrote: “Thus we go on … flourishing in the very midst of the Cross, more than a common share of which has latterly fallen to my lot, thanks be to God. I humbly trust it is the cross of Christ. I endeavor to make it in some way like his by silence.”
What is mercy? Mercy is the ability to see all with the eyes of Christ. It is recognizing all of us are creatures in the loving hand of the Creator; it is recognizing the need in each and every one of us for the loving embrace of God.
In Hebrew, a word that corresponds to mercy is “hesed,” which means God’s loving kindness, His faithfulness. It’s part of God’s nature and it’s the foundation of the covenant. When we show mercy to others, we participate in the life of God. Seeing with the eyes of mercy means to give practical assistance to all those in need.
The Venerable Catherine McAuley writes: “The simplest and most practical lesson I know … is to resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow. Let us take one day only in hands, at a time, merely making a resolve for tomorrow, thus we may hope to get on taking short, careful steps, not great strides.”
Continue to take those short, careful steps, practically seeing Christ and then being Christ to one another. This is the way of mercy.
In this Year of Consecrated Life, may these words of Mother McAuley be applied to all those in consecrated life, all those in holy orders, and to all of the baptized: “May God bless the poor Sisters of Mercy and make them very humble that they may not be unworthy of the distinguished blessings God has bestowed upon them.”
Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Job 7: 1-4, 6-7
Psalm 147: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23
Mark 1: 29-39
Father John P. Cush is a doctoral candidate in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. He also serves as censor librorum for the Brooklyn.