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Photo: Father Jim McCormack, MIC
Let's Talk About 'His Signature Touch'
By Chris Sparks (Sep 25, 2013)
The Pharisees saw this and said to His disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" He heard this and said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." — Mt 9:11-13
"On the spiritual plane, [Pope] Francis' signature touch so far has been a strong accent on mercy, expressed in a repeated emphasis on God's endless capacity to forgive," said Vatican reporter John Allen in a Sept. 13 piece for the National Catholic Reporter.
It's a claim Allen has made from the start of Pope Francis's pontificate, one supported by many papal actions in these few short months since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the newest Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Look at his habit of personally calling everyone from his cardinals to people who've sent him letters to offer words of counsel and consolation. Look at his insistence on remaining in the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta living quarters rather than living in the Apostolic Palace. His reason? In order to keep from being isolated. Look at the many Masses he celebrates for the humblest workers in Vatican City. Look at his willingness to go anywhere, wash the feet of anyone, to help bring the love of Christ to the least in our society.
Look, in short, at what Pope Francis is living, as well as preaching.
John Allen cites a recent essay for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in which Enzo Bianchi, founder of the celebrated ecumenical monastery of Bose, offered a statistical analysis of the words used most frequently by Francis since his election. Bianchi found that the single most commonly used term was 'joy,' followed closely by 'mercy'.
In recent days, Pope Francis has added a dramatic reiteration of the theme of mercy in his interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., published in Jesuit publications around the world. If you haven't already taken the time to read the interview, please do so. It's very rich, full of many glimpses into Pope Francis himself, as well as bearing many of his insights into the state of the Church and the world. And his essential message is mercy.
"The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," said Pope Francis. "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, 'This is not a sin' or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
"How are we treating the people of God?" he continued. "I dream of a Church that is a mother and shepherdess. The Church's ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary — that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people's night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."
In short, the Holy Father is calling on the clergy of the Church to be icons of Jesus, to show God's mercy to the world through their pastoral ministry. Just as St. Paul calls on the ministers of the Church to nourish the faithful on milk before giving them meat — that is, to reach the people where they're at and not ask of them a greater understanding or sanctity than they are prepared to give — so, too, is Pope Francis calling on the Church not to expect the world to be capable of living the law of Jesus before they've experienced the love of Jesus.
"I see clearly," the pope continues, "that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds ... And you have to start from the ground up."
The Christian life is impossible without the Holy Spirit, without God's grace and assistance through the Church. So we must spread the Good News of Jesus Christ first. Only then may we begin to teach morality to a broken world. Until Jesus, the Good Samaritan, has bound their wounds and brought them to the refuge of the Church, a wounded world cannot walk the path of sanctity. Indeed, many of us must crawl for a very long time before we can even hope to walk the way of holiness, let alone run.
The Pope is reiterating the classic saying, "The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." Once the wounds of the world are treated, however, we recovering patients of the Divine Physician are called to share in His life and His work by being holy, as His Father in heaven is holy. The Pope offers a beautiful vision of the holiness of ordinary Catholics, saying, "I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity."
Everyone is capable, by the grace and mercy of God, of living this common, quietly heroic sanctity. And everyone is called to this holiness. "This Church…is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people," continued Pope Francis. "We must not reduce the bosom of the Universal Church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the Church is Mother; the Church is fruitful. It must be."
So the Holy Father, once again, points the Church to the path of mercy in this age of mercy. What is Pope Francis telling the Church and the world? Quite simply, Francis is reiterating the teaching of Jesus through St. Faustina:
Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy. Oh, how much I am hurt by a soul's distrust! Such a soul professes that I am Holy and Just, but does not believe that I am Mercy and does not trust in my Goodness. Even the devils glorify My Justice but do not believe in My Goodness. My Heart rejoices in this title of Mercy. Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of My hands are crowned with mercy. — Diary of St. Faustina, 300-301
Indeed, Pope Francis has spoken very directly about the importance of St. Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy, which God entrusted to her. On the plane ride back from World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis talked about Bl. John Paul II's canonization of Faustina and her message for our times. Here's what he said:
I believe this is the time of mercy. This change of epoch, also because of many problems of the church — such as the example of some priests who aren't good, also the problems of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don't have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It's a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn't say: "But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?" No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there's someone ... but, it's not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy. And I believe that is a kairos: This time is a kairos of mercy. John Paul II had this intuition first, when he began with Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy ... he had something, he intuited that it was a necessity of this time.
Now is the time for mercy! The Holy Father is obviously a student of the Divine Mercy message, because Jesus Himself told Faustina repeatedly that we are now in a time of mercy:
Tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice, is near (Diary, 965).
I am prolonging the time of mercy for the sake of sinners. But woe to them if they do not recognize this time of My visitation (Diary, 1160).
Before the Day of Justice, I am sending the Day of Mercy (Diary, 1588).
Now is the time for mercy — especially under the paternal care of this present Holy Father, the Pope named for St. Francis of Assisi, a model of mercy and love. Now is the time for mercy, both for us to receive God's mercy and to have mercy on those around us. We need to be praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the Novena during the Hour of Great Mercy, venerating the image, and celebrating the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as performing the works of mercy. We need to follow the example of Pope Francis and let the Holy Spirit drive us out into the desert where those most in need of God's mercy are to be found. Let us, with our prayers, sacrifices, and deeds of mercy, bring God's love to those in need, and by helping them, help ourselves to live the eternal, divine life of self-sacrificing love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us. ... We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. ... There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. — 1 Jn 4:7-12, 16, 18-21