The Jubilee Year of Mercy is coming, and while it is still some months off, I find myself thinking about it quite a bit, actually. ‘Mercy’ has been the word of Pope Francis’ papacy. Sometimes misused, sometimes abused, it is nonetheless the word we are being asked to contemplate and consider by our Holy Father at this time.
Incidentally, it is sadly typical of our unreflective era that, because some in the Church have misused ‘mercy’ to mean cheap grace or moral relativism, others in the Church have reflexively rejected the word and recoil away from its use. This is the great unwisdom of our era, the endless swinging back and forth of mindless pendulums, the mechanical ricocheting between seemingly opposing positions. This kind of senseless automatism is unworthy of rational minds and grace-filled hearts.
Meanwhile, God’s mercy is indeed at the very heart of our Catholic faith. To correct a misuse of a word requires using it properly, don’t you think, not rejecting it out of hand? In the service of that, may I recommend my book Going Home: Reflecting on the Mercy of God With Catherine de Hueck Doherty? It is all about the parable of the prodigal son, and the depths of God’s mercy that it reveals to us, drawing amply on the insights of Catherine Doherty in service of that. It would be good reading in preparation for the year.
Here is a brief excerpt from the chapter “God’s Panhandlers”, which deals with our struggle to receive and live by the mercy of God:
The trouble with mercy, you know, is that it gets out of hand. I mean, we start by accepting that God is merciful to us. That’s a stretch, but most people can get there at least. Then we manage (barely) being merciful to those who we like or sympathize with, those whose situations are pitiable or who are obviously victims themselves of life’s tragedies.
But God asks more of us. Mercy grows, or it dies. Mercy expands, or contracts. To be merciful to the one we don’t like, to the ones whose situations inspire no pity at all in us. To be merciful to the evil-doers, the perpetrators, the blackest villains, whoever we may consider them to be. To be merciful to the ones who have no mercy themselves. To be merciful towards the ones who hate us or hurt us and don’t seem to care, much, what harm they do. To be merciful in the face of horrific injustice and oppression and wickedness, to everyone involved.
No, we cry! We want justice, not mercy. We want revenge, payback, we want to see them suffer—whoever ‘they’ are. In the tumultuous year of 1968, Catherine was deeply stirred by the protests and violence around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and what she and many at the time saw as the brutal response of the city authorities [whether or not you agree with her assessment of that event, her point remains, and is a deep one]:
And then there is the terrible word, mercy. Did you ever stop to think what price mercy? Justice and mercy. Put them together. All of you cries out for justice, so that justice may be made to take place. But is there somebody who is merciful to Mayor Daley, to the police of Chicago? And yet the terrible words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.”
Justice tempered with mercy is Christian. But it just tears your guts apart and throws our intestines out on the floor because it is awfully difficult to be merciful. To the whites when you’re black or Indian. To the Mayor Daleys and the police brutality. To Hitler and Stalin. In our Mandate it says identify with the poor, identify with Me [Christ], which poor may be Stalin or Daley. They’re the acme of poverty. In the slums they are richer than them. 
Oh, how we resist this, we in the hyper-polarized world of the 21st century. We who align into camps so readily, who spew hatred and venom at our opponents so freely, we who have raised factionalism and partisan division virtually to the level of neo-tribalism. We who are so quick to deride, despise, hate those who we disagree with.
Mercy calls us to cleanse our hearts from hatred, to allow God to remove from us anything that prevents us from loving anyone. Receiving and living by the mercy of God calls us to a totality of forgiveness, a surrender of all anger and violence that is nothing short of crucifying. No wonder we resist it, instinctively. We know we will have to lay down everything, every grievance, every hurt we hug to ourselves, even to the most mortal wounds we have borne.
Here too, in this very struggle, this very hesitation, mercy meets us. Here too we are God’s panhandlers, begging for the coin of his grace to help us. Here too, the Father comes out to us, when we are filled with rage and bitterness, when we are quaking with fear, when we are paralyzed with indecision, when we cannot quite go in. With infinite gentleness, with boundless tenderness, He looks upon us and says, “My son (or daughter), do you not know that everything I have is yours? Give me your sickness and sorrow. Give me your hatred, your fear, your bitterness of spirit. I will give blessing.”
“Enter into my joy.”