By Marian Friedrichs (Mar 31, 2009)
At the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy in Rome last April, I met a priest who asked a question that I have been turning over in my mind ever since. How, he wondered, could mercy be God's greatest attribute if eventually it will be set aside? If mercy is the divine quality that enables God to forgive our sins and allow us, in our fallen states, to be redeemed and reconciled to Himself, then, this priest reasoned, after the world has ended and everyone has been judged, God will no longer need to practice mercy. Surely it doesn't make sense to say that our Eternal Father's greatest attribute is one that will not be manifested eternally.
I didn't know what to say to this priest at the time, but now, nearly a year later, I do have a few thoughts to share. First of all, we need to know what mercy is. If mercy is nothing more than forgiveness, then yes, I think this priest has a point. Forgiveness isn't needed anymore after everything has been forgiven. But mercy, I believe, is much more than that. My favorite definition of mercy is one that I didn't come up with, but I don't remember where I first heard it, so unfortunately I can't give credit to the person by name. (To that person, I say thank you, and I'm sorry for leaving you anonymous.)
Here it is. Mercy is love that bends down, grabs hold, and lifts up. In other words, when a soul is crushed under some weight — usually guilt, oppression, or weakness — mercy is the arm of love that scoops that soul off the ground, embraces it, kisses it, dusts it off, dries its tears, and sets it on its feet again. That's why, in the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy, we find such a wide variety of ways to practice mercy. If mercy were merely another word for forgiveness, the Church would list not 14 works of mercy, but just one.
I recently started reading Pope John Paul II's book Love and Responsibility, written when he was Cardinal Wojtyla. The book, which is about sexuality and marital love, begins by describing the concept of utilitarianism, which states that the whole world revolves around me — the individual — and that everything, including other people, is relevant to me only insofar as I can use it in order to get pleasure or avoid pain. We've all heard the adage that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and there is truth in that. But when Cardinal Wojtyla wrote Love and Responsibility, he made a new observation: The opposite of love is in fact utilitarianism.
If I'm using you, I can't claim to love you, for love, as the Great Mercy Pope defined it, is self-donation. It means the generous outpouring of ourselves in order to achieve the greatest good for someone else. If we look at it that way, then the opposite of love must indeed be the using of someone else to get what we want without caring what it might cost that person. The opposite of actively loving others is trampling them to get where we want to go.
How does that fit into the subject of mercy? Well, when we're trampling others, we can't also be reaching down to lift them up. And so, to that priest who wondered how mercy could really be God's greatest attribute, I would like, humbly and respectfully, to offer this response: Yes, Divine Mercy is the love that forgives me, but Divine Mercy is also the love that will, if I hide in the wounds of Christ, lift me up to heaven and keep me there. It would be impossible to separate God from mercy because God is love, and mercy is the ultimate love: the extreme and complete opposite of the selfish using that Cardinal Wojtyla described. Mercy is love perfected, and who can practice perfect love but God?
Let's imagine, though, just for a second, that Judgment Day has come and gone, and God puts aside His mercy because He doesn't need to be merciful anymore. That lifting arm of love would suddenly let go, and what would become of us? We know we can't hold ourselves up. How could we keep from tumbling into hell?
"Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God," Christ tells St. Faustina (Diary of St. Faustina, 300). But, actually, mercy is more than God's greatest attribute. It's His entire nature. "All the works of My hands are crowned with mercy," Christ says (Diary,, 300). Without mercy, God wouldn't be God, and Judgment Day or no Judgment Day, if God stopped being God, there would be no more heaven because heaven is where He is. But — Christians, rejoice! — there is a heaven, and it will last throughout eternity because God is eternal. And we will get to live there because God's name is Mercy. Lent is here now, but Easter is coming to remind us that Jesus is in heaven, waiting eagerly to lift us up and hold us in the arms of Mercy. Forever.
Marian Tascio is a freelance writer who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.