At the beginning of Lent, it does us good to reflect together as priests on mercy. We all need it. Also the faithful, since as pastors we must extend great, great mercy!
The passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we heard makes us turn our gaze to Jesus as he goes about the cities and villages. And this is curious. Where was Jesus most often, where he could most easily be found? On the road. He might have seemed to be homeless, because he was always on the road.
Jesus’ life was on the road. He especially invites us to grasp the depths of his heart, what he feels for the crowds, for the people he encounters: that interior attitude of “compassion”; seeing the crowds, he felt compassion for them. For he saw the people were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. We have heard these words so many times that perhaps they do not strike us powerfully. But they are powerful! A little like the many people whom you meet today on the streets of your own neighborhoods....
Then the horizon broadens, and we see that these towns and villages are not only Rome and Italy; they are the world ... and those helpless crowds are the peoples of many nations who are suffering through even more difficult situations....
Thus we understand that we are not here to take part in a pleasant retreat at the beginning of Lent, but rather to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to the whole Church of our time, which is the time of mercy. I am sure of this. It is not only Lent; we are living in a time of mercy, and have been for 30 years or more, up to today.
In the Church, everything is the time of mercy. This was an intuition of Bl. John Paul II. He “sensed” that this was the time of mercy. We think of the Beatification and Canonization of Sr Faustina Kowalska; then he introduced the Feast of Divine Mercy. Little by little he advanced and went forward on this.
Pope Francis, Address to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, March 6, 2014
Reflection – This is another really beautiful talk from Pope Francis on his favorite theme of mercy, which he truly has come back to many times in the first year of his pontificate. I do find it fascinating that more than once he has linked it to Pope John Paul II and his promotion of the devotion to the Divine Mercy that came through St. Faustina Kowalska. And of course Blessed John Paul II (soon to be saint himself!) issued as (I believe) his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia, ‘Rich in Mercy’, which truly presents God the Father as the source and center of merciful love.
So of course the Pope here is talking to his own priests and calls them to be, primarily and principally men of mercy, men who in their spiritual fatherhood show forth the mercy of the Father. And for the priests reading this blog and for me writing it, this is always a great examination of conscience and a true call to ongoing conversion—let us be these merciful pastors of souls always, eh guys?
But of course the large majority of my blog readers are lay people, and so we can reflect together on this reality of the Church as merciful, the Church as showing forth the mercy of the Father. It’s not just for the priests and bishops, after all, to do this. All are called to be merciful, all called to be gentle and kind, according to the ability and gifts of each.
Mercy of course does not mean moral relativism or moral chaos or moral compromise. We each need to know exactly where the lines are that we ourselves cannot cross in our engagement with other people; we each need to pray for great wisdom and courage, justice and prudence, to know when or how to speak a hard truth, and for that matter when it may be that justice, prudence, and love require us to be silent. Mercy is not a matter of one or the other, but of a genuine compassion for the other person and a thoroughgoing concern for their good, and not our own selfish agendas.
Above all mercy means being quick to forgive, slow to judge, striving to believe the best of people and giving everyone every possible benefit of the doubt, living in deep humility as to the limits of our own knowledge and wisdom, knowing full well our own sinfulness and the blindness and folly it engenders in us, and above all constantly turning to God to lift up to him the world and its pains and anguish, so that he may heal us all. And this is the call that everyone is called to today.