When Pope Francis announced his Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, now underway, he accompanied it with a beautiful papal bull, Misericordiae Vultus, which disappeared almost as soon as it was issued.
Fortunately, in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, co-authored with Andrea Tornielli, Francis not only republishes the letter, but complements it with a hundred pages of fresh reflections on Christian mercy—restoring words like “mercy, “love” and “compassion” to their authentic meaning, and also defending his own statements on mercy from exploitation and misuse.
Many have tried to drive a wedge between Francis and Catholic Tradition, and especially between Francis and his predecessors, but the pope will have none of that here. Francis quickly dispels the idea—suggested by certain commentators—that he has highlighted Christian mercy as a major theme of his pontificate because it’s been suppressed, forgotten or ignored by the Church. The exact opposite is the case: Christian mercy began with the Incarnation, is central to the Gospels, and has been a fundamental part of Catholic life for centuries.
To underscore these facts, Francis mentions many merciful pastors he knew, as a youngster, in the (supposedly harsh and repressive) pre-Conciliar Church. He also quotes Scripture, the saints and his last six predecessors, especially St. John Paul, who championed Christian mercy against a cruel and cynical world.
In his bull, Francis writes:
Let us not forget the great teaching offered by Saint John Paul II in his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia . . . John Paul II highlighted the fact that we had forgotten the theme of mercy in today’s cultural milieu: ‘The present -day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. . . . ’
Francis then urges us to listen “once more” to John Paul II’s powerful words:
The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy—the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer—and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser.
Having established the Church’s historic witness of Christian mercy, Francis then explains what it actually is.
In his extended conversation with Tornielli, Francis lays out four essential stages for experiencing Christian mercy, addressed to religious and laity alike.
The first step is to humble oneself before God, and acknowledge one’s sins: “Jesus comes for us, when we recognize we are sinners,” says Francis. But if we act proud and self-righteous, and thank God for not being sinners “like other men,” we will deceive ourselves about our own faults, increase our guilt before God, corrupt our consciences, and “never have the joy of feeling this mercy.”
Second, we should recognize that “shame”—which has such negative connotations in the modern world— is really a grace, properly understood. For “when one feels the mercy of God, he feels a great shame for himself and for his sin. There is a beautiful essay by a great scholar of spirituality, Father Gaston Fessard, on the subject of shame in his book, The Dialectic of the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of St. Ignatius. Shame is one of the graces that St. Ignatius asks for during his confession of his sins before Christ crucified.”
Third, we should frequent the Confessional, and appreciate it as a gift, for it has spiritual, emotional and psychological benefits which are all part of divine mercy, designed by Christ. Francis comments:
Jesus said to his apostles: ‘Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained…. Therefore, the apostles and all their successors . . . become instruments of the mercy of God. They act in persona Christi. This is very beautiful. It has deep significance because we are social beings. . . .
I have always been moved by the gesture in the tradition of Eastern churches, where the confessor welcomes the penitent by putting his stole over the penitent’s head and an arm around his shoulder, as if embracing him. It is the physical representation of acceptance and mercy.
In this connection, the Pope addresses his famous “Who am I to Judge?” comment about people with same-sex desires, and now expands upon them: “I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
Of course, confessing one’s sexual sins, and living a chaste life, is not what many people want to hear, but it is the path of true Christian holiness, and it is encouraging to see Francis highlighting that fact.
Lastly, and to expand upon the latter, after one experiences the forgiveness of God, one should do everything possible to reform and purify one’s life, and not to squander God’s grace by returning to a life of sin. Of course, as Francis stresses, God’s mercy is infinite, and he will forgive us, even if we do fall again, in our human frailties. But the pope doesn’t want us to view confession as some kind of back-up spiritual insurance policy—nor desire that we confess our sins merely to fulfill a Church duty. He wants us to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation so we can transform our lives, and become true disciples for Christ and His Church: “May the message of mercy reach everyone, and may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy. I direct this invitation to conversion even more fervently to those whose behavior distances them from the grace of God. . . . For their own good, I beg them to change their lives.” (emphasis added)
If there are several enduring messages of this powerful book, they are that the Church should never close the door on anyone’s life, never give up on saving them, seek them out wherever they are, and never tire of bringing them the Good News of Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of Christian mercy.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.