How Will You Practice Mercy?

Tuesday began the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. In the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy issued in April, Pope Francis spoke of our need to “gaze ever more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives,” and expressed his desire that “the witness of believers might grow stronger.”

The invitation for each of us to think about how we might make extra efforts to practice mercy during this Jubilee Year.

Loyola Press published some Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. Their suggestions for practicing the corporal work of mercy of feeding the hungry, for example, include

see to the proper nutrition of your loved ones,
support and volunteer for food pantries, soup kitchens, and agencies that feed the
hungry;
make a few sandwiches to hand out as you walk through areas where you might
encounter people in need;
educate yourself about world hunger;
avoid wasting food;
share your meals with others.

You can also find a list of 56 Ways to be merciful during the Jubilee Year on the Aleteia website. They include, for example,

Resist sarcasm; it is the antithesis of mercy: “Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch, O Lord, at the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).

Pare down possessions: share your things with the needy.

Call someone who you know is lonely, even if you understand why they’re lonely. Especially if you do.

Write a letter of forgiveness to someone. If you cannot send it, sprinkle it with holy water, ask Christ Jesus to have mercy on you both and then burn or bury it.

Learn to say this prayer: “Dear Lord, bless [annoying person’s name] and have mercy on me!”

You can probably think of others on your own. The point is to be intentional – to take the Pope’s invitation and make it your own. Think about how you might use this year to make the practice a mercy a priority.

Humility, Disinterestedness, Blessedness

Pope Francis just gave a powerful address to Italian Catholics in Florence. (You can find a summary here.)

In it, he described what he termed a “new humanism,” mentioning three sentiments of Jesus that describe that humanism. They are:

Humility: “The obsession with preserving one’s glory, one’s “dignity”, one’s influence, must not form part of our sentiments. We must pursue God’s glory and this does not coincide with ours.”

Disinterest: “[T]he happiness of those by our side. A Chriastian’s humanity is always outgoing. It is not narcissistic or self-referential…. “Our duty is to work to make this world a better place and to fight. Our faith is revolutionary due to an impulse that comes from the Holy Spirit.”

Blessedness: To live a live of blessedness is to live in accordance with the Beatitudes.

These three sentiments “tell us we must not be obsessed with “power”, even when this may appear useful and functional to the social image of the Church. If the Church does not adopt Jesus’ sentiments, it becomes disoriented, it loses the sense. Jesus’ sentiments tell us that a Church that thinks of itself and its own interests is a sad Church.”

There is much more in the sermon, but these three seem to offer great fruit for our daily examen. To what extent do I reflect these three sentiments of Jesus?

Francis and the Family

We kicked off the new year of Adult Faith Formation at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes with a program on Pope Francis. Our goal was to have some discussion both of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. and of the themes of the first two and a half years of his papacy.

Family was one of the themes that generated a lot of discussion in our gathering. The family has been a frequent theme in Pope Francis’ talks. He has repeatedly said that the family as an institution needs to be protected. Speaking in Bolivian he said,
“I would like to mention in particular the family, which is everywhere threatened by domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest, the abandonment of the elderly, and children left to the streets.” In his address to Congress on Thursday morning, he said

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and beauty of family life.

And in his talk during yesterday’s Celebration of Families, he called family “the most beautiful thing God has made”, calling it a “fundamental pillar of social life.

Pope Francis has resisted efforts by both the left and right to pigeonhole him into limiting family discussion to controversial topics like same-sex marriage, divorce, or contraception (and in his speech to Congress he did not mention any of those by name). Rather, he wants to focus on the range of challenges affecting the family, and he has called on the bishops to find concrete solutions to the difficult and significant challenges facing families. In his speech to Congress, the particular family issue he called attention to are (in his words) “those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young.” He said that while many of them look forward to a future of countless possibilities, “so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”

During our discussion, someone raised the question of what we, as Catholic parishes, are doing to support families, especially families with young children and single mothers. It is an important question. As our discussion of this question suggested, there are a range of issues, including young couples who don’t feel they have the wherewithal to start a family, to those who do not have an extended family to help support in times of difficulty.

There are a range of things we might do to support that family. A start is asking ourselves what we are doing now and what are the needs of our communities. These are questions all of our church communities should be asking themselves.

The Pope Speaks to Congress

I watched the livestream of Pope Francis’ address to Congress this morning and hope many of you did as well. You can read the text of his talk in its entirety here, and I encourage you to do so.

Many people will be parsing, summarizing and analyzing the speech and I do not plan to do so here. Let me just mention a couple of things that struck me.

First, the Pope picked named four Americans in our history who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.” The four were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He identified these “sons and daughters of America as embodying four dreams: liberty (Lincoln), equality (King), social justice (Day) and capacity for dialogue and openness to growth (Merton).

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

I confess I was particularly thrilled with the inclusion of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both heroes of mine. My hope is that their mention by the Pope will create a broader interest in the lives, works and writing of both Day and Merton.

Second, there was a great emphasis on dialogue in Pope Francis’ address and a warning against the kind of divisiveness that has characterized American politics and encouragement of the renewal of a spirit of cooperation. He warned of the need to guard against the temptation of “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” Rather, he suggested that “[t]he contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” Our goals should not be “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers: but rather to reject violence and hatred in favor of “hope and healing, of peace and justice.” The Pope’s words on dialogue, cooperation and avoidance of divisiveness are as important for each of us as they are for members of Congress.

There were a number of important issues mentioned by the Pope, such as capital punishment (he repeated his call for global abolition of the death penalty), the family (which he suggested is now “threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without”) the environment (he made reference to his recent Encyclical and our need to protect our home). If you missed the live coverage of the address, I encourage you to read it.

A Papal Visit

By now it has escaped no one’s notice that Pope Francis arrived in the United States yesterday. Perhaps you’ve seen the video of his arrival and greeting by President Obama on the tarmac. (You can find it here.)

The Pope’s six-day visit is packed, with activities ranging from an address to Congress (the first time a Pope has given a speech to Congress), the canonization Mass of Junipero Serra, a multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, and a visit to a correctional facility. (You can find the full schedule here.)

First and foremost, the Pope is a spiritual leader, and this visit is an exciting one for Catholics. But it will be worthwhile for everyone to listen to what the Pope says during his visit. As has been the case from the beginning of his papacy, this is a Pope who challenges all of us – left or right, Republican or Democrat, Catholics of all stripes, all Christians, indeed, all “people of good will.”

Some will be ready to criticize whatever the Pope says – whether it is about climate change, the economy, or anything else. Others will criticize things he doesn’t say, such as those who think he should change the Church’s position on issues like contraception or women’s ordination.

My encouragement is to listen and reflect on his words, whether they are spoken at a Mass homily or before Congress. And find a forum for discussion of his message. For example the Church closest to where I live will host a Thursday evening gathering where people listen to a tape of the address before Congress and then discuss. The Church at which I direct RCIA will have a program between Masses on Sunday to discuss the themes of Pope Francis’ papacy. Whatever the venue you find – let the first step be listening and reflecting.

Dominion Is Not Exploitation

I’ve finally had a chance to dig into Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment that came out while I was on retreat. Others have already written much on the document and provided helpful distillations of the major points (e.g., here), so I will not offer any major summary here, but limit myself to a single observation.

The account of creation in the Book of Genesis (written, as Francis observes in “symbolic and narrative language”) speaks of humans being granted “dominion” over the earth.  Some have always misinterpreted that language as justifying “unbridled exploitation of nature.”  In the encyclical, Francis

forcefully reject[s] the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.  The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world…”Tilling: refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.  This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.  Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

The earth is not ours to do with as we will.  We are stewards of an earth that belongs to God.

There is much having to do with care of the environment we can argue over – what are the best means go address pollution or climate change, and so forth.  Much that is in the realm of prudential judgment.

But what is not open to debate is our obligation to till and keep – to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”  And that is an obligation imposed on us collectively and on each of us individually.

Pentecost Astonishment

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ, and the day that ends our celebration of the Easter season.

In his book Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, Pope Francis writes that a “fundamental element” of Pentecost is astonishment.  He writes

Our God is a God of astonishment; this we know. No one expected anything more from the disciples: after Jesus’ death they were a small, insignificant group of defeated orphans of their Master. There occurred instead an unexpected event that astounded: the people were astonished because each of them heard the disciples speaking in their own tongues, telling of the great works of God (cf. Acts 2:6–7, 11). The Church born at Pentecost is an astounding community because, with the force of her arrival from God, a new message is proclaimed—the resurrection of Christ—with a new language, the universal one of love. A new proclamation: Christ lives, he is risen. A new language: the language of love. The disciples are adorned with power from above and speak with courage. Only minutes before, they all were cowardly, but now they speak with courage and candor, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the Church is called into being forever, capable of astounding while proclaiming to all that Jesus Christ has conquered death, that God’s arms are always open, that his patience is always there awaiting us in order to heal us, to forgive us. The risen Jesus bestowed his Spirit on the Church for this very mission.

Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise. It is incumbent upon the living Church to astound. A Church that is unable to astound is a Church that is weak, sick, dying, and that needs admission to the intensive care unit as soon as possible!

Happy Feast of Pentecost!

Anticipating the Holy Year of Mercy

As many people have doubtless already heard, during a penance service this past Friday afternoon, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary Jubilee dedicated to Divine Mercy.  In his homily during that service, he explained

Dear brothers and sisters, I have often thought about how the Church might make clear its mission of being a witness to mercy. It is journey that begins with a spiritual conversion. For this reason, I have decided to call anextraordinary Jubilee that is to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord’s words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (cf. Lk 6:36)”

This Holy Year will begin on this coming Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will end on November 20, 2016, the Sunday dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – and living face of the Father’s mercy. I entrust the organization of this Jubilee to the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization, that [the dicastery] might animate it as a new stage in the journey of the Church on its mission to bring to every person the Gospel of mercy.

I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this Jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. From this moment, we entrust this Holy Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she might turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey.

He also stressed in his homily that “no one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.  Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness.  The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.”

Although the Year of Mercy will not begin for many months, there are already plenty of people commenting on what it might mean – or what it should mean given the commentator’s particular leanings.  E.g., mercy must mean more widespread annulments or dispensations for divorced and remarried Catholics. Or mercy can’t mean a change in the Church’s position on homosexuality.  Etc, etc.

My own view is that the best use of our time in these months leading up the Year of Mercy, as well is during it, is to reflect on the role of mercy in our own lives, considering such questions as:

Where have I not shown mercy?  What are the debts/wrongs I have not forgiven – financial, emotional or otherwise?

In what areas of my life have I not availed myself of God’s mercy or not trusted in God’s mercy?

How does the abundant mercy God has shown to me affect the mercy I show to others?

We might also remind ourselves that God’s abundant mercy does not mean we are not sinners, but that we are loved sinners.  It doesn’t mean we need not seek forgiveness, but that God is always standing (like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son) ready to welcome us home.

Everything Flows from Charity

In his address to the College of Cardinals on the occasion of the Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals on Saturday morning over which he presided, Pope Francis spoke about charity.  It is not the first time he spoke of the words of St. Paul’s “hymn to charity” in 1 Corinthians, but I think his words are worth reflecting on by all of us, not just the new cardinals.

Here is an excerpt, although I encourage you to read the entirety.

Saint Paul tells us that charity is, above all, “patient” and “kind”.  … “Patience” – “forbearance” – is in some sense synonymous with catholicity.  It means being able to love without limits, but also to be faithful in particular situations and with practical gestures.  It means loving what is great without neglecting what is small; loving the little things within the horizon of the great things, since “non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo divinum est”.  To know how to love through acts of kindness.  “Kindness” – benevolence –means the firm and persevering intention to always will the good of others, even those unfriendly to us….

[C]harity “is not jealous or boastful, it is not puffed up with pride”.  This is surely a miracle of love, since we humans – all of us, at every stage of our lives – are inclined to jealousy and pride, since our nature is wounded by sin.  …

[C]harity “is not arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way”.  These two characteristics show that those who abide in charity are not self-centred.  The self-centred inevitably become disrespectful; very often they do not even notice this, since “respect” is precisely the ability to acknowledge others, to acknowledge their dignity, their condition, their needs.  The self-centred person inevitably seeks his own interests; he thinks this is normal, even necessary.  Those “interests” can even be cloaked in noble appearances, but underlying them all is always “self-interest”.  Charity, however, makes us draw back from the centre in order to set ourselves in the real centre, which is Christ alone. …

Charity… “is not irritable, it is not resentful”.  …[Charity] frees us from the risk of reacting impulsively, of saying or doing the wrong thing; above all it frees us from the mortal danger of pent-up anger, of that smouldering anger which makes us brood over wrongs we have received.  …

Finally, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”.  Here, in four words, is a spiritual and pastoral programme of life.  The love of Christ, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, enables us to live like this, to be like this: as persons always ready to forgive; always ready to trust, because we are full of faith in God; always ready to inspire hope, because we ourselves are full of hope in God; persons ready to bear patiently every situation and each of our brothers and sisters, in union with Christ, who bore with love the burden of our sins…

With thanks to my friend Richard, who forwarded the address to me.