Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
— Luke 6:36
There is a well-known joke about a court jester who deeply offends his king and who is subsequently sentenced to death. The entire court lobbies the king for mercy and they are partially successful. The king refuses to commute the death sentence, but he allows the jester to decide how he will be put to death. Without skipping a beat the court jester says, “I’d like to die of old age, please!”
What, exactly, do we mean by mercy? When Pope Francis calls for a Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on the 8th of December and conclude on Nov. 20, 2016, what exactly will we be celebrating? The Oxford English dictionary provides a number of definitions for this, including the most used, which is the demonstration of forgiveness toward someone over whom we have power. Alternately, mercy is described as a relief from suffering. Ironically, phrases connected to mercy include mercy killing (the taking of a life) and a mercy dash (the saving of a life).
However we define it, we should know that an act of mercy is both a wonderfully selfish and an altruistic gift. After all, mercy is a gesture of forgiveness, hospitality, inclusion or help, but one that is never one-sided: we give to ourselves when we give to others. Mercy should never be about power over others. It should be understood as an opportunity to grow the soul through an exchange of grace. And surely that can be gifted by a child to an adult as much as from a doctor to a patient . . . or indeed, a jester to a king.
As Pope Francis himself has explained, “The church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” He goes on to say, “The call of Jesus pushes each of us to never stop at the surface of things.” And then again: “No one can be excluded from the mercy of God!” In Evangelii Gaudium, where he uses the word 32 times, he reminds us that “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”
So it’s hard to say what the year of mercy will entail, but I hope it includes this much: a deep reflection on our failures to forgive; an immediate but permanent undertaking to reach out to others; and a moment to understand our own need for mercy, even for self-forgiveness where it’s needed. Now that would be a tender mercy.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University, Calgary.