Well, the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy has ended. Does that mean that the Church’s emphasis on mercy ends? No! The year of mercy didn’t introduce new truths but highlighted the importance of old truths that are especially relevant for our day’s challenges. Let’s consider a few of the most important.
The most important thing to take with us from the year of mercy is a good understanding of what mercy actually is. Even though mercy has been much talked about, there is often a fuzziness about it. Mercy is receiving undeserved favor. Mercy is the gratuitous gift of a love that forgives and goes beyond anything that we could ever deserve or earn. Mercy is undeserved kindness, unearned pardon, unfathomable love, gratuitous gift.
Pope St. John Paul II described it in a particularly profound way: “For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-à-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world” (Rich in Mercy, 7).
In its deepest expression, mercy is the infinite love that rescues us from perishing (hell) and offers us the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life (heaven). Could anything be greater? Does anything deserve more our eternal gratitude and fidelity? Is there anything more important to communicate to others for the sake of their salvation?
Sometimes because Pope Francis so strongly emphasizes mercy and being non-judgmental, people don’t notice that he is very clear, in harmony with his predecessors, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and scripture, that a response to mercy by way of conversion is necessary for it to be effective.
For example, in the very first paragraph of his inspiring apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he makes this clear.
“Those who accept His offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness…. I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ… Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.’”
Pope Francis lovingly repeated this basic truth during his first Good Friday Way of the Cross comments at the Coliseum: “In judging us, God loves us. If I embrace his love, then I am saved; if I refuse it, then I am condemned.”
Nowhere is the necessity of responding to mercy with faith and repentance clearer than in the examples of Jesus’ mercy in the Gospels. Here we find Him expecting mercy to result in genuine repentance and a changed way of life going forward. Remember, the Prodigal Son had to make a decision, a change of direction — “I will return to my Father” — which opened up the door of the son’s heart to the mercy, forgiveness, and restoration that the Father was always ready to extend to him.
Remember the woman caught in adultery? Jesus mercifully didn’t condemn her but clearly told her not to sin again. “Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again” (Jn. 8: 11). And remember the person who was physically healed after being ill for 38 years? Jesus sought him out afterwards to tell him: “See you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (John 5: 14).
The Catechism admirably sums it up: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit” (#1864).
As we go forward into the new year, let’s remember how great the gift of God’s mercy is and how necessary is it that we respond to it with faith, repentance, and a life that is increasingly characterized by the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — and, as Legates, sharing this message with everyone we meet.