Photo: Marian Helper magazine
'Today Is a Time of Mercy!'
By Chris Sparks (Oct 27, 2015)
Throughout his pontificate, two major themes have emerged again and again in the teaching and witness of Pope Francis.
Upon one, many have commented. On the other, much of what he has said has been overlooked.
What are those themes? Mercy and the family.
We've written pieces in the past about Francis' teaching on mercy, along with many others from a variety of media outlets both secular and sacred. But far fewer people have ever taken notice of Pope Francis' teaching on the family. Oh, sure, there's been speculation and fear about possible changes of unchangeable doctrine coming out of the synods — they were misplaced fears at the time and always have been. The synods do not teach definitively, but rather gather the bishops in discernment "with and under Peter," as the Holy Father stated repeatedly, to find the way forward for the Church amidst the challenges of the present age.
But I've seen no one commenting on the Holy Father's weekly catecheses on the family. And very few people have taken notice of the way he connected mercy and the family in comments aboard the plane from the Rio World Youth Day in 2013:
Holy Father, during this visit too, you have frequently spoken of mercy. With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church's discipline? That these sacraments might be an opportunity to bring these people closer, rather than a barrier dividing them from the other faithful?
This is an issue which frequently comes up. Mercy is something much larger than the one case you raised. I believe that this is the season of mercy. This new era we have entered, and the many problems in the Church — like the poor witness given by some priests, problems of corruption in the Church, the problem of clericalism for example — have left so many people hurt, left so much hurt. The Church is a mother: she has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we have no other choice than this: first of all, to care for those who are hurting. The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy. And find a form of mercy for all. When the prodigal son returned home, I don't think his father told him: "You, sit down and listen: what did you do with the money?" No! He celebrated! Then, perhaps, when the son was ready to speak, he spoke. The Church has to do this, when there is someone… not only wait for them, but go out and find them! That is what mercy is. And I believe that this is a kairos: this time is a kairos of mercy. But John Paul II had the first intuition of this, when he began with Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy… He had something, he had intuited that this was a need in our time. With reference to the issue of giving communion to persons in a second union (because those who are divorced can receive communion, there is no problem, but when they are in a second union, they can't … , I believe that we need to look at this within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage.
And from there, Pope Francis tells the story of how we came to have a synod on the family in the first place:
… two weeks ago the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops met with me about the theme of the next Synod. It was an anthropological theme, but talking it over, going back and forth, we saw this anthropological theme: how does the faith help with one's personal life-project, but in the family, and so pointing towards the pastoral care of marriage. We are moving towards a somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage. And this is a problem for everyone, because there are so many of them, no? For example, I will only mention one: Cardinal Quarracino, my predecessor, used to say that as far as he was concerned, half of all marriages are null. But why did he say this? Because people get married lacking maturity, they get married without realizing that it is a life-long commitment, they get married because society tells them they have to get married. And this is where the pastoral care of marriage also comes in. And then there is the legal problem of matrimonial nullity, this has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage. Thank you.
All that was said before the first of the two synods on the family took place under Pope Francis.
Now, at the conclusion of this two-year synodal process, the bishops have met and discussed the great good and the many challenges of marriage and the family in the modern day. There are revised rules regarding annulments, set to go into effect on Dec. 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II, and the opening of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. There are a number of new books, videos, and other publications on the family. We have hosted a World Meeting of Families in the United States for the first time in the history of the meetings and, in that context, welcomed Pope Francis for a massively successful and historic papal visit.
And at the end of it all, Pope Francis brought the conversation back to mercy in his closing address, putting the synod in the context of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy:
We have seen, also by the richness of our diversity, that the same challenge is ever before us: that of proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of today, and defending the family from all ideological and individualistic assaults. And without ever falling into the danger of relativism or of demonizing others, we sought to embrace, fully and courageously, the goodness and mercy of God who transcends our every human reckoning and desires only that "all be saved" (cf. 1 Tm 2:4). In this way we wished to experience this Synod in the context of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy which the Church is called to celebrated [sic].
He proceeds to explain that the Church's first duty is mercy, quoting his predecessors Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI in the process:
… Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God's love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae — they are necessary — or from the importance of laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:47-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).
In this sense, the necessary human repentance, works and efforts take on a deeper meaning, not as the price of that salvation freely won for us by Christ on the cross, but as a response to the One who loved us first and saved us at the cost of his innocent blood, while we were still sinners (cf. Rom 5:6).
The Church's first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God's mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50).
Blessed Paul VI expressed this eloquently: "We can imagine, then, that each of our sins, our attempts to turn our back on God, kindles in him a more intense flame of love, a desire to bring us back to himself and to his saving plan… God, in Christ, shows himself to be infinitely good… God is good. Not only in himself; God is – let us say it with tears — good for us. He loves us, he seeks us out, he thinks of us, he knows us, he touches our hearts us and he waits for us. He will be — so to say — delighted on the day when we return and say: 'Lord, in your goodness, forgive me. Thus our repentance becomes God's joy".
Saint John Paul II also stated that: "the Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy… and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour's mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser".
Benedict XVI, too, said: "Mercy is indeed the central nucleus of the Gospel message; it is the very name of God… May all that the Church says and does manifest the mercy God feels for mankind. When the Church has to recall an unrecognized truth, or a betrayed good, she always does so impelled by merciful love, so that men may have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10)". …
Mercy and the family go together in this Pope's mind. Why? Because that truth is at the heart of the faith of the Church. The eternal Father sends the eternal Son to save us, to make us by his Incarnation brothers and sisters, to join us to the household, the family of God. The mercy of God is all about the fathering of a family, the rescuing of lost members of the family, of drawing all back into the community of the love at the heart of the Trinity.
The Catholic faith is a family affair, a covenantal arrangement, borne from the heart of Love eternal and extending into the cosmos, reaching out to embrace all times, all places, all peoples (if only we let that love in!), to seek to make all family, to draw all into loving relation, one to the other.
The Divine Mercy of God is all about the family. Let us learn that truth and live it into the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, drawing all into the love of God by becoming more like the face of Mercy, like Jesus Christ in our words and our deeds, in our forgiveness and our lovingkindness, in our desire and our self-gift. Let us, like Francis, see the connection between mercy and family, between being merciful and restoring the bonds of family life and love in the face of all the challenges of the present day.
Let us love like the Father, "rich in mercy," and help all become one family in Christ through the Holy Spirit, for, as Pope Francis said in his homily at the closing Mass for the synod, "Today is a time of mercy!"