A Year of God’s Favour: Living Mercy
A few weeks ago, I spoke in a nearby parish on the subject of the family; in particular about the need for parishes to create support groups for families that are hurting and in need of mercy.
After the event, while everyone was milling about with a cup of coffee, a lady came up to me and commented that although, in principle, the idea of support groups for families in difficulty was good, it would cause more damage than good.
Her statement really surprised me, so I asked her to explain what she meant. “Well you see,” she said, “people talk.” She said that all too soon, everyone would know who was having difficulties in their marriage or with their children, and they would be the subject of gossip and be judged for their failings.
Surely, I said, such a group is a sacred space where those who participate can speak freely, and know that their problem was being kept in confidence within the group. She laughed cynically: “You are young; you don’t know people. People talk. What will happen is that those poor people will end up more broken than before they joined the group.”
Her words stuck with me. I recognise that there was a truth to what she was saying. She may have been speaking from personal experience or from a lifetime of observing what happens within parish communities. It made me sad to think that if our local Church communities cannot be sacred spaces of mercy, then where do we go to find healing and make peace with the situations of our lives?
The sacrament of reconciliation can go a long way in making Christ’s mercy tangible, but that requires good and humble confessors. I am fortunate to know many priests who are gifted confessors, and they are gold. They have the art of listening to the heart, speaking the words of the Holy Spirit and in the absolution, their hands truly impart the love, compassion and mercy of Jesus.
But I also know that I spent many years away from the confessional because of the heavy judgement I encountered in the confessional. Despite the absolution I received, I found myself less at peace than I had been before going to confession.
I have been told that my imperfections that keep me from God are not “real sins” and that I was holding up the queue of real penitents outside. I have been told that I should stop teaching catechism when I confessed that I was struggling with one of the teachings of our faith.
These experiences, both those related by a stranger and my own, are evidence enough that although we speak regularly about a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2), we don’t always experience this as we walk through the journey of life in the Church.
This is perhaps why Pope Francis has declared a Year of Mercy which will begin in a few days on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. For the next year, we are called to reflect and enact mercy.
It begins on the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, a time of radical transformation in the Church.
Vatican II sought to build a bridge between the Church and the world. One of the most famous expressions to have come out of the Council is that it was meant to “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air in”. In other words, Vatican II was a call to the Holy Spirit to come upon the Church and heal it. Healing is mercy.
Those of us born after Vatican II grew up in a Church that was less given to graphic sermons of eternal hellfire and condemnation. We were raised in a Church that depicted the forgiving and compassionate Jesus. We have become less rigid and increasingly are invited to be “fully alive” (Jn 10:10) in our participation of every aspect of Church life.
But yet, many Catholics still experience condemnation. Many Catholics still feel excluded from the life of the Church, many feel judged for past choices and the knocks of life along their journey of faith.
This is why, I think, Pope Francis has called the Year of Mercy. He is not calling the Church to engage in theoretical mercy, but to actually live it. He is calling each one of us to eradicate the limits of our mercy. He is inviting us to experience mercy and to be merciful to those we encounter.
A year of God’s favour
Advent is the perfect time to practice mercy, because we are presented with so many opportunities to reach out to those who often experience society’s mercilessness. After all, Christ’s birth was God’s gift of mercy for all people, irrespective of creed or life choices. A child is the gift of new beginnings and of continuing the journey of our lives by a different path.
Mercy is praying for our friends and colleagues, even if they do not share our faith.
Mercy is refraining from taking advantage of others, especially when someone stands in our debt.
Mercy is acting justly, but acknowledging that justice is more than equality; rather it is responding to each person as an individual with their own unique story.
Mercy is a calling to live a lifestyle of mercy each day.
Mercy is to look out at the world through the eyes of the Christ Child.