What is Mercy?: Living 2016 in Mercy

This week, Father Scalia unites our world’s calendar year with the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy in a week-long series on Living Mercy in 2016.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, full of good intentions and hopeful resolutions. A good way to begin the world’s 2016 is to situate it within the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy. That is, to make our first reflections of the year be about mercy – His and ours. We can do no better than to take as our guide Saint Augustine’s classic definition. Mercy is “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to assist him if we can.” In that short (and, admittedly, somewhat dry) definition, we find two main ingredients of mercy – one passive and one active.

Living in Mercy

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First, the passive: mercy is “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress.” We must have the capacity to be moved by the suffering of others. In fact, we recognize this as essential to our humanity. Someone without it is incomplete, “heartless.” In that haunting Gospel parable (cf. Lk 16:19-31), the rich man finds himself in eternal torment, not because he had done evil but because he had failed to do good to poor Lazarus. He did not allow himself to be moved.

Pope Francis often uses the word “tenderness” (or, rather, his translators do) to convey this point: We need to allow our hearts to be moved by the sufferings of others. We often harden our hearts against their sufferings – out of anger with the other person, or fear that we will suffer as well, or because we feel impotent in the face of pain. But that hardness does not remain within our hearts. It stifles mercy and thus leads to hardness in our culture and in the world.

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Second, mercy must be active: It impels us to assist if we can. This distinguishes mercy from just feeling sorry for someone. It is not mercy until and unless we act to assist the person. After all, the Pharisee and Sadducee probably felt sorry for the man on the side of the road. But that feeling did not prompt them to action. So, in a beautiful paradox, the tenderness of mercy leads to bold and often heroic action on behalf of the suffering. Mother Teresa’s tender feelings toward the poor of Calcutta impelled her to stoop down and pick them up out of the gutter.

We find this mercy most of all in God Himself. The Old Testament speaks of Him as moved by our suffering and coming to our assistance. His plaintive, searching question reveals this: “The Lord God then called to the man and asked him: ‘Where are you?’” (Gen 4:9) From the burning bush He speaks to Moses: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them…” (Ex 3:7-8). Through the prophet Hosea He gives voice to some of the most profound words of divine mercy: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (Hos 11:8).

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At this time of year, we are especially aware of how He fulfills those words in the most extraordinary manner. He comes down to rescue us by becoming one of us. Assuming our human nature, He now has a human Heart capable of being moved on our behalf. He looks upon the crowd, like sheep without a shepherd, and His heart is moved with pity (cf. Mk 6:34). Most importantly, His Heart is pierced for our sake (cf. Jn 19:34).

But our Lord’s birth reveals more than God’s heartfelt sympathy for us. It also leads us to feel the same for Him and for others. At His birth He makes us fall in love with Him as the Son of Mary…so that we will weep over Him when He is the Man of Sorrows. By allowing ourselves to be moved with love for the infant Christ, we open ourselves to being moved by the sufferings of the Crucified.

And they are not His sufferings only. He takes on every form of human suffering – emotional, spiritual, mental, physical – so that we will learn how to have the same heartfelt sympathy for others. The saints show us time and again how devotion to our Lord in His suffering is inseparable from the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the abandoned, and so on. This simply confirms His words: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Mt 25:45).

As we enter 2016 and continue with the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we should examine ourselves on these two points. First, how have we hardened our hearts and denied to others that heartfelt sympathy their suffering deserves? Second, what concrete words or actions is the Lord asking of us? Most of all, let pray to have a heart like His – capable of both being moved with pity and also impelling us to action.

Tomorrow: Mercy is Grateful.

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