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Christ, the Model of Mercy

Presentation by Fr. David Pignato at the Diocese of Arlington Men's Conference, Jubilee Year of Mercy, March 5, 2016.

1. Focus on God's Mercy

During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are all encouraged to contemplate the mystery of God's mercy (cf. Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 1). Pope Francis hopes that the Church will experience a spiritual renewal by focusing on the infinite mercy of God. He wants us to have a renewed appreciation for God's mercy, which "endures forever" (Ps 136) and which "knows no bounds" (MV, 22). God's mercy, Pope Francis says, "will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive" (MV, 3).

The mercy of God is like a spring of water that rises up from the depths of God's being. "From the heart of the Trinity, from the depths of the mystery of God, the great river of mercy wells up and overflows unceasingly. It is a spring that will never run dry, no matter how many people draw from it. Every time someone is in need, he or she can approach it, because the mercy of God never ends" (MV, 25). God, St. Paul says, is "rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4), and His mercy is inexhaustible - it is always there in abundance, and it is always offered to those who need it.

One of the reasons for focusing on God's mercy is the sad fact that in many places in the world today, mercy is a forgotten virtue, and sometimes it's even disdained or scorned. Pope Francis has observed with sorrow that "the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. "In some cases," he says, "the word seems to have dropped out of use" (MV, 10). Pope St. John Paul II made the same sad observation years ago. He said, "The present-day mentality … 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. The word and the concept of 'mercy' seem to cause uneasiness in man …" (MV, 11, quoting Dives in Misericordia (1980), 2).

So, modern man is uncomfortable, or uneasy, with the idea of mercy. But, why? Why is modern man so uneasy about the idea of mercy? Is this uneasiness a sign of a guilty conscience? Are men troubled about mercy, because it reminds them of their sins? Because they know that they need mercy, but don't want to ask for it? Or, perhaps mercy is seen as a sign of weakness? Perhaps the idea of mercy from God reminds us that we should show mercy to others. And, then, we become afraid that if we are merciful to others, we might become vulnerable and be taken advantage of - that others will somehow gain or benefit, while we suffer or lose.

Whatever the reason, it does seem that people don't value mercy anymore. They don't think it's important or necessary. They don't think they need it, and they don't think they need to give it. In fact, many look down on mercy as a quality of the weak. They think it's impractical and too risky, maybe even dangerous.

I'm sorry to say that there are even some in the Church who have lost their appreciation of God's mercy. During the discussions at the synod in Rome last fall, even an archbishop told a reporter, "Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with [the] prevailing culture."1 Even in the Church, the modern day mentality has begun to make some think that mercy is somehow insulting, that it somehow fails to respect our enlightened notions of freedom.

At the same time, some modern men think that they are even more merciful, because they are so tolerant. But, I hope I don't have to convince you that the modern trend of relativism and tolerance is not mercy. Our modern culture brags about being tolerant of many things, including some things that are objectively evil, but this is not mercy. Societal acceptance of sin and evil is a very different thing than true mercy. In fact, it's false mercy, because it denies the very need for mercy. Modern notions of relativism and tolerance say that nothing is really wrong or sinful, that there's nothing to forgive, and so there's really no need for mercy. But there's nothing merciful about such ideas of tolerance. So, we have to be on guard about letting others make us think that tolerance of evil is somehow the same as mercy.

And we need to do what we can to help our culture and our society value mercy again. We need to make mercy attractive and appealing again. We need to remind others how inspiring mercy is, when we see it and experience it. It's only a very cold-hearted person who is not moved by scenes of true mercy.

1 Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium.

In the popular novel and musical Les Miserables, there's a great scene of mercy, when the freed convict Jean Valjean breaks his parole and is arrested for stealing silver from the bishop who gave him shelter the night before. When the police bring Valjean before the bishop, the saintly bishop pretends that he gave the silver to Valjean, and he gives him two silver candlesticks, as well, asking why he forgot to take them with him. After the police leave in shock, the saintly bishop says to Valjean, "My brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

When we witness mercy, or even better, when we receive it, we sense the presence of goodness in the world, and we feel that the world has become a better place. That's because what we are sensing is the presence of God in the world. Mercy, St. John Paul II said, is "the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer" (DM, 13). So, when we encounter mercy, we encounter God. And that means that acts of mercy make the world a holier place.

One of the great reminders to the world of God's mercy took place at the end of the 17th century when Christ appeared to a young religious sister, named Margaret Mary Alacoque, in France. Her spiritual director, Fr. Claude de la Colombiere, told her to ask Christ during His next apparition what were the sins of her last confession, to see if it was truly Christ appearing to her. The next time she saw Christ, St. Margaret Mary said, "Lord, please tell me, what were the sins of my last confession." And Christ said to her, "I can't. I forgot." And when she reported this answer to her spiritual director, he knew for sure that it was Our Lord who was appearing to her. What followed was the revelation to St. Margaret Mary of the Sacred Heart, which is overflowing with love and mercy for sinners. As we pray in the Psalms, "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins" (Ps 103:12). This is the mercy of God: when He forgives our sins, He blots them out and holds them against us no more.

But the real mystery of God's mercy is that it is infinite and inexhaustible. And it is always available. "God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving" (MV, 22), even though we may get tired of asking for His mercy. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways," says the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Is 55:8-9). Although we might get tired of asking for or showing mercy, God never tires of offering it to us.

God's mercy may be difficult for us to understand, because it is so different from what we typically find in ourselves. But the world needs to rediscover the mystery of God's mercy, because without God's mercy, "life becomes fruitless and sterile" (MV, 10); it becomes cold and harsh, and the world becomes a darker place. So, during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we hope and pray that our own contemplation of God's mercy will help the world rediscover this great mystery.

2. Focus on Sin, Repentance and Conversion

It is not possible, however, and it is not right, for us to contemplate God's mercy, without also contemplating our sins. It's not even logical to think of God's mercy, without also thinking of our sins, because there's no need for mercy, if there's no sin. Mercy is God's response and cure for sin. Mercy is God's desired response to misery. It's how He offers to rescue a soul from self-destruction. So, we really can't appreciate and value God's mercy, if we don't also think of our need for it, which is caused by our sins. It just doesn't make sense to focus on mercy, without also focusing on sin.

It's also dangerous to talk about mercy without talking about the need for conversion. It's true that God's mercy is always there for the asking, and it's always infinite in supply, but it's also true that it's our repentance and conversion that unlocks and unleashes God's mercy and makes it available to us. Repentance is the proper attitude and disposition that is needed to approach the topic of God's mercy. To do otherwise would be to risk the sin of presumption, by taking God's mercy for granted. And for this reason, I've heard more than a few priests say that they think we needed a "Year of Repentance," before this Year of Mercy!

I would go even further and say that there are other risks involved, if we try to think or talk about God's mercy, without emphasizing the need for us to ask and beg for it. If we talk about mercy without talking about conversion, we risk denying the truth about our very existence as free beings. If God's mercy is something we receive and benefit from, without any movement on our part, then we become something less than free beings whose actions have real consequences. We start to look more like robots or puppets who receive a mercy that doesn't really change anything about us. Those who trust in God's mercy without thinking that they need to repent don't even understand who and what they are.

You see, no message of mercy without our need to ask for it is truly satisfying, because it denies the basic truth of what and who we are as free moral agents. Mercy without conversion denies the truth of our free will. And so, any notion of God's mercy without the need for conversion is ultimately insulting. And it starts to look more and more like the modern notion of tolerance and relativism, which ultimately denies the need for mercy at all. Mercy is not insulting, but denying the role of our freedom in asking for it is.

As Christians, we can never forget the great truth and mystery of our free will. Human freedom, Pope Benedict XVI said, is "God's great gamble,"2 and the "Christian faith always reckons with [what he calls] the freedom factor."3 In other words, we cannot allow ourselves to think of God's mercy without also thinking of our freedom. Our freedom is always somehow part of the mystery of God's mercy.

And this means that the message of conversion and repentance must always be part of the message of mercy. Our Lord knew this. He came to bring God's mercy to the world - to redeem the world by making possible the forgiveness of sins. But He started His work of redemption with the message of conversion. The very first words of Christ reported in St. Mark's Gospel are, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk 1:14). The need for repentance was the opening line in Christ's message of mercy.

And the importance of repentance was a major theme in Christ's preaching. For example, He told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to show us how to approach God properly, with sorrow for our sins.

Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity-greedy, dishonest, adulterous-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for

2 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 55.

3 Ratzinger, God and the World, 58.

everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 18:10-14).

Honesty about our sins, and using our freedom to express true sorrow for them, is the only way to approach God's mercy.

The same lesson was taught in the Psalms, which we pray as a Church every

Friday in Morning Prayer (Ps 51:3-6):

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense.

O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin.

My offenses truly I know them;

my sin is always before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned;

what is evil in your sight I have done.

This type of repentance requires honesty and humility, to admit the truth about our lives - including the darker truths about our sins - so that we can recognize our real need for God's mercy. And to see our lives clearly, we need to measure them against the ideal of perfection found in Christ. Christ, Vatican II said, is not only true man, He is also the "perfect man." And, "[w]hoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man" (GS, 41). Pope John Paul II said that Christ is "the perfect realization of human existence" (Fides et Ratio, 80), and that "Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life."4 In other words, Christ reveals the mystery, the meaning and the purpose of our lives.

And so, Christ is the standard by which we should measure our lives, even though we know that we can never perfectly measure up to Him. He is the ideal of perfection for which we strive. He is the model for all men who strive to grow in holiness and to discover the more abundant life that Christ came to bring us (cf. Jn

10:10). And, He is always calling us to persevere in the lifelong project of conversion.

4 John Paul II, Homily at the Mass in Orioles Park, October 8, 1995.

It may be that our modern society and culture have also lost an appreciation and respect for conversion. So, we have to do what we can to remind people just how beautiful the conversion of a soul is. An experience of conversion is just as beautiful and attractive and inspiring as an experience of mercy. Think of any scene of conversion you may have seen in a movie, or read in a novel; for example, the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Conversion scenes are very moving. When we watch one, or better yet, when we experience one in ourselves or in others, we feel again that some great goodness has burst into the world, that some great goodness has been restored to the world, and that the world is suddenly a better place. And converts, like Mary Magdalen or St. Paul, or St. Augustine, remind us that goodness and truth can triumph over sin and evil. They remind us that sin and misery and ruin do not need to be the end of the story, and that the world always becomes a better place, when a soul turns back to God.

Forgive me for the spoiler, but I hope that most who are interested have already seen the new Star Wars movie. When Han Solo meets his son Kylo Ren on the bridge and begs him to leave the evil First Order and come home, wasn't there a brief moment of great excitement about the possibility of a dramatic conversion, one that would have signaled a great triumph of good over evil? You see, when a soul converts and turns way from evil and sin, and turns back to goodness and truth, love wins and evil loses ground in the world.

And it is part of our hope for this Year of Mercy that countless souls will repent of their sins and turn back to God, so that His infinite mercy will rain down from Heaven, and so that they can discover the more abundant life that Christ came to bring us. This is our great hope for the Year of Mercy.

3. Requirement to Be Merciful

There is another requirement, however, for those who hope to receive God's mercy. Sincere conversion is absolutely necessary, but it is not enough, according to the teaching of Christ. Christ made it very clear that if we want to receive mercy from God, we must show mercy to others. He did not mince words when it came to this important lesson. He said, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. … Forgive and you will be forgiven" (Lk 6:36-37); "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (Mt 6:14-15); "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Mt 5:7).

And, in case we missed the point from His straightforward words, He told the shocking parable of the unforgiving servant, to get our attention to this great truth.

The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?' Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart (Mt 18:23-35).

This parable shocks us when we hear it. We find it almost unimaginable that someone who received so much mercy could then so quickly hesitate to show mercy to others. We resent the unforgiving servant, as someone who is cold- hearted and cruel. But should we be so shocked by this parable? Don't most of us have the same reluctance to forgive at times? Our Lord knew we do, which is why He told the parable. As St. John said, Christ "did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well" (Jn 2:25). Christ knew that one of the effects of the Fall is that we hesitate to forgive, even after we have begged God to forgive our sins. If ever we leave the confessional, and then refuse to forgive another person, we are just as bad as the wicked, unforgiving servant, and we will not be forgiven by God. Knowing that might help to motivate us to forgive.

The simple truth is that showing mercy to others is a condition for asking for God's mercy for ourselves. Being merciful is a criterion and a requirement of a true Christian (cf. MV, 9). Forgiving others, Pope Francis says, "is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves" (MV, 9). No one can call himself a Christian, if he does not show mercy to others. "In short," Pope Francis says, "we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us" (MV, 9).

Many people say that we men are pretty good at forgiving. They say that we forgive and forget a lot more easily than women. They say that we let things go pretty quickly. But others say that women are much better at forgiving and showing mercy, because mercy requires compassion, and we men don't always do so well in the compassion business. From my own experience, as a man and as a priest, there seems to be pretty good evidence that we men also hesitate to forgive at times. We fear that we'll lose something, maybe some leverage over the other person, if we just let go and forgive. We prefer to hold on to the offense. We prefer to hold the grudge, maybe because we get some unholy pleasure from it.

But we must never forget the words of Christ to St. Peter, when Peter asked Him,

"Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" And Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times" (Mt 18:21-22). If God's mercy is infinite, so should be ours. If God's mercy is endless and endures forever, so should ours.

So, we need to remind the world of the importance of mercy; we need to remind the world of the importance of conversion; and we need to show the world how to show mercy to others. And a lot is at stake; because if we talk about God's mercy without talking about sin, or if we talk about mercy without emphasizing conversion, or if we talk about God's mercy without being merciful to others, well, then, the message of mercy will be distorted, people will fail to rediscover the mystery of God's mercy, and the great hopes of this Year of Mercy will be in vain. Many great things could happen in the Church during this Year of Mercy, but it's also possible that nothing great will happen, if the Church presents a false or inaccurate message of what God's mercy is.

4. Imitation of Christ, the Model of Mercy

And when we go about showing mercy to others, we need to take our cue from Christ, who is always the model for us, in everything. He taught us how to live, and He taught us how to show mercy. Christ said, "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you" (Jn 15:12).5 And, one way we love others as Christ did is by showing them mercy. Christ wants us to love as He loves, and He wants us to show mercy to others as He showed mercy. So, we have to look carefully at how Christ showed mercy. He is the model of mercy for us, because He is the "perfect man" (GS, 22). Pope Francis says that the motto of this Holy Year is "Merciful like the Father" (MV, 14), and that "Jesus is the face of the Father's mercy" (MV, 1). So, this means that we must be merciful as Christ was merciful.

And again, a lot is at stake in how we men show mercy to others. If we do it right, after the model of Christ, people will think again about their need for mercy. But if we don't get it right, if we show mercy in a way different than Christ did, we will send misleading signals, and people will not understand the mystery of God's mercy or their need for it.

When Christ was merciful, He was full of compassion. Pope Francis says that when Jesus encountered others, He always had a "merciful gaze" that was full of compassion, especially for sinners, for the poor, the sick and the suffering (MV, 8). He "read the hearts of those He encountered and responded to their deepest need" (MV, 8). When He looked out at the crowds who followed Him and saw that they were "troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd," "his heart was moved with pity for them" (Mt 9:36). When He saw that the crowds of the poor were hungry, He performed a miracle to feed them (cf. Mt 15:32-38). And when He saw the widow of Nain taking her only son out for burial, He felt compassion for her and raised her son from the dead (cf. Lk 7:11-15).

Perhaps the greatest example of Christ's compassionate mercy is when He looked down from the Cross at those who were killing Him, and said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). And when the repentant thief dying on the cross next to Him said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," Jesus replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:42-43).

5 See also Jn 13:34: "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."

Christ's heart was full of compassion. He imagined what other people were feeling, and He suffered with them. We men have to be careful about thinking that there is something unmanly or unmasculine about compassion. Perhaps we think that mercy is a more womanly virtue, because women are better at showing compassion. But, we should be careful. Christ is the perfect man, and He showed a mercy that was full of compassion. He showed us how a manly heart can be full of compassion. And He taught us that mercy is a sign of God's power (cf. MV, 6). It is not a sign of weakness, as some might think.

And Christ also taught us that any show of mercy must also affirm the need of it, by recognizing the reality of sin that is blotted out by mercy. His compassion was always coupled with a firmness that reminded others of the truth about sin.

For example, before He healed the paralytic man who was lowered through the roof, He first said to him, "Your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5). And after He healed the sick man at the pool of Bethesda, He said to him, "Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you" (Jn 5:14). When He saved the woman caught in adultery, He said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" And when she replied, "No one, sir," Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, from now on do not sin any more" (Jn 8:10-11).

The lesson here is that the purpose of mercy is to call a person back from sin, to help a person find the better, more abundant life that Christ came to bring

us. Acts of mercy should never be content to leave a person in sin. Our Lord came first and foremost to rescue us from sin.6 He cared about our earthly lives, for sure, but He cared much more about our souls and their eternal destiny. His acts of mercy were always meant to steer us away from sin and back to the good life with God. He did not hesitate to show a certain firmness when dealing with sin. In fact, the Gospel tells us that He was often angered by the attitude of the Pharisees and He "grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mk 3:5).

This is important, because Christ is the model of mercy. He is "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15) and the "perfect man" (GS, 22). And when He showed mercy, He always did it in a way that recognized the truth about sin, the truth about our freedom, and the need for conversion. He always emphasized that

6 See 1Tim 1:15: "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

there is a need for a movement on our part, because we are not puppets or robots, who are doused with God's mercy, even if we don't want it.

I think every father knows the importance of showing this same firmness when being merciful. Fathers know that if they show mercy to their children without emphasizing the need for it, their children will take it for granted. They won't appreciate the gift of mercy, and most likely their behavior won't change.

A great example of Christ-like mercy is found in the movie Cinderella Man, with Russell Crowe. Hopefully, many of you have seen it. The movie is based on the true story of the champion boxer James Braddock, who was a Catholic, and who struggled to support his family during the Great Depression. It's full of

scenes which show the sacrifices that a good father makes for his children. In one very powerful scene, Braddock comes home from looking for work to find out that one of his young sons has stolen a stick of salami from the local butcher.

Braddock very firmly orders his son to bring the salami back to the butcher, and Braddock goes with him to make sure he confesses and apologizes. As they're leaving the butcher's shop, the boy explains that he stole the salami, because he was afraid he would be sent away, like some of his friends were, if his family didn't have enough money to buy food.

Braddock stops his son on the sidewalk, leans down to him and says, "Just cuz things ain't easy, that don't give you the excuse to take what's not yours, now does it? That's stealing, right? And we don't steal. No matter what happens, we don't steal. Not ever. You got me?" He then makes his son promise that he will never steal again. "And I promise you," Braddock tells his son, "we will never send you away." When the boy starts to cry, Braddock picks him up in a big fatherly hug and says, "It's ok, kid. You got a little scared. I understand." And he carries him home in his arms.

Christ-like mercy is manly, fatherly mercy, because "Christ is the face of [God] the Father's mercy" (MV, 1). And fatherly mercy is expressed with compassion, but also a certain firmness that recognizes the reality of sin, the truth of our freedom, and the need for conversion. Christ is the model of mercy for us, and so when we show mercy, we need to imitate Christ, so that the world, beginning with our families and friends, will experience the truth of God's mercy, and not some distorted version of it. Only real mercy is satisfying. False versions of it are insulting, because they deny our freedom and our need for conversion.

As Christian men, when we try to show mercy to others, we need to imitate Christ's compassion and His selfless willingness to bear with and endure the faults of others. We can never over-react to the sins and faults of others, and we need to be joyful when we offer forgiveness to others. But we also need to affirm the truth about sin and conversion, without which mercy is pointless and unnecessary. As Archbishop Chaput has said, "The Church can be truthful without being merciful, …. But the Church cannot be merciful without being truthful. And the truth is, we are called to conversion."7 Any version of mercy that denies the truth about sin and our freedom utterly fails to satisfy, because it does not reflect the reality of who and what we are. And it would never make a difference in the world.

Christ is true God and true man. He is the model of mercy. Just as our love for others can never contradict our love for Christ, so must our efforts at showing mercy always reflect our love for Christ and our obligation to imitate Him. This is the challenge for us men during the Year of Mercy. And a lot is at stake in whether we get it right.

7 Charles J. Chaput, "A Jubilee Year of Mercy," First Things (December 2015).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016