December 2015

A world in need of mercy

Surely we can hope that by renewing our understanding and practice of mercy in this Year of Mercy, our often unmerciful world, our world of fatigued compassion will be transformed, writes Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Malone.

BY Margaret Malone SGS

Some weeks ago I was very struck by a phrase used in a commentary on the Gospel where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. The phrase was “fatigued compassion is already sleeping” and then the passage went on to use the image of the worst of nightmares stalking the light of day. We only have to open a newspaper or watch a news broadcast to find evidence of this, to hear of refugees driven from their own homes, suffering and at times drowning, callous murders and undying hatred, and to hear comments from those who should know better, that shock us to the core. Truly compassion does seem to be sleeping both in our world and often in our Church, and nightmares are indeed stalking in our world.

It is no wonder that Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy in a document called Misericordiae Vultus – the face of mercy. The year begins on December 8 and a week later the Pope will open the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Rome, St John Lateran. Then gradually Holy Doors will be opened in other churches in Rome and local cathedrals and other significant churches around the world; they will be called Doors of Mercy. The year will close on the feast of Christ the King, 2016. The Pope calls us to live this year as a time to grow stronger and be more effective, to reflect on Jesus as the face of God’s mercy and to show this mercy to all.

The symbol of the door is important. Walking through a door opens for us a new vista. If we are alert, we often see a familiar space with new eyes. As we walk into this jubilee year and through these holy doors, we will contemplate anew the face of God’s mercy and gain strength from the risen Lord to sustain us. This strength will support us as we try to show mercy ourselves and help, what Pope Francis called, “the balm of mercy” to reach every one.

It has been said that the message of mercy has been a key word of Pope Francis’ pontificate and the Pope himself says that the message of mercy stands at the centre of the Gospel. The idea of mercy includes many other words we use often – love, tenderness, compassion. The word itself derives from the Latin word misericordia, which means having a heart (cor) for the poor, (miseri) – the poor in the widest and most comprehensive sense.

Pope Francis speaks of mercy as the bridge that connects God and us (MV#2). It opens our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our failings or sinfulness. It is a concrete reality through which God reveals love for us, a love that is full of tenderness, compassion, indulgence and mercy. As we experience and understand something of this love of God for us, we can then show it to others, making God’s love visible and tangible.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, emphasises this. The title itself is powerful and arresting, and the contents speak eloquently about the depth of the experience of mercy, a gift of God’s grace which exceeds all human expectations, which is unexpected and unmerited. If we experience this, it takes our breath away. But this leads us even further into our responsibility to then show mercy to others. Our responsibility in relation to the needs of others, says Kasper, must include both physical tenderness and concrete care. We feel compassion and then are impelled to go out to help.

All of this speaks so well to me as a Sister of the Good Samaritan. In the opening of his Rule, Archbishop Polding lists the various ways we are to do “works of charity” – in schools, visiting and helping the sick in their own homes or in hospitals, instructing people in the faith, conducting orphanages, working with penitent women and finally applying ourselves “to every other charitable work”.

But most importantly of all, Polding tells us that as we “imitate the charity of the kind Samaritan who was moved with pity at the poor wounded man”, and then did all he could to help him, we are to use “all gentleness and compassion” for those we tend. There is here both tenderness and care. There is mercy.

Kasper writes beautifully about this Gospel of the Good Samaritan. He notes the shocking choice of a Samaritan as the one who is moved with compassion, unlike the priest and levite who ignore the victim. He notes that the Samaritan forgets his business, bends down in the dirt, provides first aid, tends the victim’s wounds, takes care of him at the inn, and before leaving the next day, pays the expenses in advance (Kasper p. 70). This is to be our way of responding to the concrete suffering of the needy person we meet on the way.

There are indeed serious challenges for the Church as a whole, and for all of us who are Church, as well as for all of us as world citizens. How do we measure up to this standard of mercy in our own lives? How does mercy affect our decisions regarding the marginalised? Those seeking asylum? All who are struggling?

The Pope speaks of the steps of our pilgrimage to and through these doors of mercy (MV#14). These steps are do not judge, do not speak ill, forgive and give, be generous, and ask for help in our weakness. He notes the power of the psalm phrase “O God come to my assistance” (Psalm 70) when we need help to do all of this. So even if we cannot seem to act on the larger world stage, we can all put these things into practice in our daily lives and immediate environment.

And once more to refer to Kasper: God’s mercy is God’s gift and simultaneously, our task as Christian. We have to enact mercy, live it in word and deed and give witness to it. Surely we can hope that by renewing our understanding and practice of mercy in this Year of Mercy, our often unmerciful world, our world of fatigued compassion will be transformed.

Margaret Malone

Good Samaritan Sister Margaret Malone trained as a teacher and taught at all levels; her last appointment was as a lecturer at Australian Catholic University where she taught sacraments, liturgy, and social justice. Since then, her main work has been in developing formation programs throughout her own order, and in giving retreats internationally and nationally.

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