Pope Francis initiated the Year of Mercy by opening the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8.
He wants the Year of Mercy to usher in a “revolution of tenderness.” It’s not just a church door he wants to open; it’s the door of tenderness in our hearts.
The pope explained that he is highlighting God’s mercy because the world “needs to discover that God is father, that there is mercy, that cruelty is not the path, that condemnation is not the path. . . . Because the church herself sometimes follows a hard line, she falls into the temptation of following a hard line, into the temptation of underlining only moral norms, but so many people remain on the outside.”
Any meditation for the Year of Mercy could well begin with a reflection on the message of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. He says: “You will remember your past behaviour and all the actions by which you have defiled yourselves, and you will loathe yourselves for all the wrongs which you have committed. And you will know that I am Yahweh, when I treat you as respect for my own name requires, and not as your wicked behaviour and corrupt actions deserve” (Jerusalem Bible, 20:44).
This scriptural message challenges our usual human reaction and our need to get even for any hurt done to us. “An eye for an eye . . .”
Pre-Christian philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics tended to regard mercy, pity and compassion as useless sentimentalism. Mercy for Aristotle was not a virtue, but a weakness of the elderly and children. For the Stoics, it was a mental aberration. By way of contrast, Cicero rejected the Stoic conception of mercy as absurd; for him mercy was an index of wisdom, morality and goodness.
The Old Testament portrays God’s anger as short-lived, but his mercy as everlasting. For example, Psalm 103 says: “God does not treat us as our sins deserve, nor repay us as befits our offences.” The prophet Isaiah, proclaimed repeatedly in our Advent liturgies, says, “For the sake of my name I shall defer my anger, for the sake of my honour I shall be patient with you, rather than destroy you” (Is 48:9).
This picture of a God merciful beyond our comprehension is best portrayed in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son expected nothing on returning home, not even his father’s love. But his father threw a feast. We are flabbergasted, as was the elder son.
The Second Letter to Timothy reflects Ezekiel’s insight: “If we are faithless, God remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).
Spiritual author Rev. Richard Rohr captures how difficult it is for humans to switch to an “economy of grace.” He writes: “We base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, an equal exchange value, or some kind of worthiness gauge.” He says we need to “experience a dramatic and personal breaking of the rules of merit (forgiveness or undeserved goodness)” to operate outside the rigid logic of our human culture.
Mercy is more than a gift. It is also a personal challenge to a new way of acting.