Exorcising mercy almost a year ago, Pope Francis launched the Jubilee of Mercy, with the aim of helping us to experience mercy, both the mercy which all of us need to receive from God and the mercy we must show towards all those overwhelmed by suffering.
But there are some words which are traitorous: words that though they mean positive and good things, sound bad, at least to some people. One of these words is mercy. Is mercy a weakness? Nietzsche said, ‘I do not like the merciful who feel blessed in their pity”. And maybe modern man feels too self-sufficient.
But one does not have to turn to Nietzsche’s taunts to see this repugnance and rejection of mercy. Because when many people hear the word mercy, they think of cheap sentimentality, works of charity carried out to shirk justice, help for poor people without concern for the causes of their suffering…. The word can be a curse and it can be deceptive, but the word mercy is important, as its true meaning is none other than a deep personal feeling for the suffering of others, a feeling which moves one to sincere and generous action to alleviate suffering…. The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, has two parts: a heart, cordia, which feels the suffering, the miseria of others.
We should be aware, however, that strictly speaking, mercy is a secondary human drive, originating in compassion1. Compassion is an enduring attitude in any situation where there is brotherhood and love. It is the capacity to share the situation and the feelings of people, whatever they may be, a radical attitude of sympathy towards others and the world. At the end of Vatican II, Paul VI said that perhaps the most valuable legacy of the ecumenical council was “a current of affection and admiration which flowed out of the council to the modern world” 2. Mercy is compassion towards those who suffer. It is a profound and dynamic sentiment, which prevents the person who feels from remaining impassive in the face of the great suffering of humanity. Mercy lies at the heart of solidarity, of social action, of a commitment to justice…. It is a profound attitude, a clamour of the heart, which leads to acts of solidarity.
The God of the Bible is a God with feelings, who is delighted to have made the world and to have created man: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). But the founding story of Sinai also presents a God who loves and who therefore feels the suffering of the oppressed people, wishes to set them free and trusts Moses to lead them (Ex. 3:7-10). Although there are episodes in which God appears to be somewhat harsh and which must be interpreted in the light of the entire history of salvation, the overall picture is of a God who is “compassionate and gracious” (Ps. 103), for “his love endures for ever” (Ps. 136). Moreover, despite a current of thought which was shared by Saint Thomas and which reasons that God, although he comes to the aid of suffering man, is not affected by this pain3, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shown us a God who is a ‘lover with the passion of true love” in the words of the latter. John Paul II even went so far as to say that one can glimpse an “unimaginable and unutterable pain ….in the heart of God, and, in some way, at the very heart of the ineffable Trinity”. And Pope Francis describes God’s mercy as a truly “visceral” love (Misericordiae Vultus 5).
His life and actions reveal the “merciful father” (Luke 6:36). Jesus himself appears as a man possessed by the Spirit, sent to liberate man from all types of slavery, to proclaim the good news to the poor, and to announce a new world (Luke 4: 16-21). This spiritual man is troubling as he plays down the importance of customs, rites and religious practices, even the temple, and mixes with the poor and those of evil repute. And when, troubled by this, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one who is expected by the people, Jesus explains that his mission is to cure the sick, make the lame walk, raise the dead and proclaim good news to the poor (cf. Matt 11:2-6). Because in the face of the needs and suffering of others, Jesus’ “bowels were stirred”, that is to say, he was moved by the suffering of others.
Almost 25 years ago, Jon Sobrino formulated the Principle of Mercy, in accordance with the traditional vision of the Old and New Testaments, taking his inspiration from Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope” 4. Because mercy is what inspires all God’s actions in the Old Testament and those of Jesus in the New Testament. Though Jesus does many things in many places (he teaches, heals, condemns, feeds, converses, and so on) it is mercy that inspires him and underpins his life and acts. He feels people’s suffering deeply; he relieves their pain, before he deals with their sin. One thing, however, needs to be highlighted: Jesus does not limit himself to the private sphere; he extends his mercy to groups and to the public sphere. He feeds the multitudes, he challenges the rich, he preaches to the masses, he condemns the abuses of religious and political authorities, and he clashes with those who manipulate religion in the temple. Jesus is not rejected and executed for his prayers, but because his way of life, of speaking, and of acting, in the service of the poorest and the marginalized and for the common good, makes the religious and political authorities uncomfortable.
The principle of mercy must therefore inspire and guide the lives of followers of Jesus, and of the Church as a community. This is the direction that Vatican II set for the Church of the future: a Samaritan church, a Church of mercy. Mercy is “the essence of the gospel and the key to Christian life” (Walter Kasper)5 and Pope Francis reminds us that “mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life” (Misericordiae vultus, 10). This is a mercy which not only embraces people’s most immediate and intimate relationships but also confronts the structures of evil and injustice. Pope Francis reminds us: “The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and desires to respond to it with all her might” (Evangelii Gaudium, 188). Our solidarity with and our commitment to a fairer and a more fraternal world become fully effective: we become people, communities and groups defined by a passion: the suffering of others.
Imagine what would happen if half the members of the town councils, the parliaments, the UN Security Council, the World Bank and the FMI were affected by the virus of mercy…. In calling 2016 the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is calling out to all those who commit criminal acts moved by greed, to those who love money and create an unjust world, to those who are drifting in a sea of corruption, bidding them to convert. And he calls them to experience the mercy of God, which, if they embrace it, will cause them to be merciful in turn (cf. Misericordiae Vultus, 19). If the principle of mercy were the motor of our society, it would be self-evident that “mercy is a political act” (Louis Lebrêt).
This is the deep conviction of Pope Francis. Much of the magisterium of the current Pope reveals that he is engaged in a form of diplomacy, “the diplomacy of Francis”, and that the ‘political process” is inspired by mercy. Thus it is possible to speak of “mercy as a political process”. Antonio Spadaro6, who knows Francis well, has gone so far as to state that “the journeys of Pope Francis … are a path of mercy”, as “the first hurdle which needs to be bridged is indifference, which is more divisive than hatred”. He says that “mercy is the love which experiences the suffering of others as its own”. Thus Francis’s first reaction to horror - the concentration camps or the Paris attacks - “is consternation, not explanation”. It is therefore evident that the intention of the Year of Mercy is not only a call to Catholic believers, nor only directed at people’s inner lives. A good reflection and summary of the Pope’s intention are found in the words, or rather the cry of the Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagel, who said of the situation his country finds itself in: “Our nation should bring mercy into politics”.
However, we have to recognise that the view many citizens have of politics and politicians is similar to Jesus’ own view of those in power at the time. In fact, speaking to his disciples of the necessity of placing themselves in the service of others rather than seeking power and high office, he said to them: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42). So now, moved by Jesus’s very real and harsh warning, and following our discussion of political mercy, let us now consider indifference as a contrast to mercy, as it is a concern over indifference which has prompted this conference. I shall relate the idea of indifference to sloth, the attitude of weakness and insensitivity to which Pope Francis makes repeated reference in the Evangelii Gaudium (6,9,3).
Sloth is a vice, a weakness of the soul, which the Pope has retrieved from the ancient tradition of the Church, in particular the wisdom of the so-called Fathers and Mothers of the Desert (3rd to 5th Century), above all, Evagrius the Solitary and John the Ascetic. Sloth is a spiritual disease characterized by indolence, boredom and apathy. The Pope speaks of the “psychology of the tomb”, and of “mummys of the museum”. Although Francis speaks of sloth in our day, sloth is by no means exclusive to our times.
Emmanuel Mounier, writing in his work Affrontement chrétien in the mid-20th century, warns us that sloth is an ailment that Christians frequently suffer from. His comments were a response to the attacks of Nietzsche, who accused Christians of speaking a great deal about liberation but of being scarcely free themselves and of seeming to lack backbone.
Mounier replied by saying that the disease of sloth, which so often assails us, is diametrically opposed to the true Christian spirit, which is positive and confident, endowed with courage, freedom and creativity, and which gives freely and cheerfully of itself. And, more recently, the Spanish philosopher, José Antonio Marina, in his short treatise on the great vices has probed more deeply into the vice of sloth and goes as far as to say that together with the other cardinal sins which we are taught about by Christian tradition, constitutes the “underbelly of European culture”. He reminds us of the insensitivity or indifference, the submission to evil or the banality of evil, which was so well portrayed by Hannah Arendt. It is to be hoped that Pope Francis’s warning about indifference, about sloth, will give our representatives in Brussels, in Strasburg and in New York something to think about. But it is also to us, as citizens, that he calls to shake ourselves out of the stupor of indifference, to commit ourselves on a daily basis, and to live up to our responsibilities in the various forms of democratic participation.
And I believe that this two-fold call of the current Pope is very much to the point. In the first place we need to recognize the value of politics: The Pope writes, “Politics, so vilified, is the highest of callings, and one of the most valuable forms of charity, as it seeks the common good” (Evangelii Gaudium, 205). But true politics is rooted in mercy, in a profound feeling for the pain of the poor and of all people who suffer: The Pope continues: “I entreat the Lord to grant us more politicians who really feel the pain of society, the people, the life of the poor” (Ibid.).
The Kingdom of God is at hand, something is moving. Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom, as everywhere there are signs of true political sensitivity, with deep roots in solidarity. As evidence of this and without making reference to present day cases and people about whom we don’t yet have the necessary historic perspective, I would like to speak of the distinguished second Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld (Mister H) who in the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s had to tackle crises in Corea, the Congo and Suez and who in 1962 died, possibly assassinated, in an plane crash, in what was then Leopoldville. This brilliant man, who played an important role in the service both of his own country and in the service of all humanity, had a very rich inner life and demonstrated the heights that can be reached in high-ranking political service. It is worth taking note of what he said in an interview shortly after being elected Secretary General of the UN:
Generations of servicemen and government officers on my father’s side have passed down to me the firm conviction that there is no greater satisfaction in life than the selfless service to one’s own country or humanity. This is the service which entails the sacrifice of all one’s personal interests and at the same time the unflinching courage to defend one’s own convictions.
I come from a line of intellectuals and clerics on my mother’s side and they have passed down to me the profound faith that in the most radical sense of the gospels all men are equal children of God, and we should consider them and treat them as our masters[…].
I find in the writings of the great medieval mystics that “true abnegation” has been the path to full self-realization, and that it is in “spiritual detachment” and “inner life” that they found the force to say ‘yes’ to any call that the need of their neighbour’s might make upon them7.
When we think that a person with these attitudes and behaviour has lived amongst us, at least amongst the older ones here, we can trust that, despite the globalization of indifference, there are true outpourings of mercy in our world which reveal the possibility of the new world, the Kingdom of God we yearn for.
Let us not be ingenuous and look at society from outside, as if all evils came from others, like the Pharisee from the parable who condemned everybody but felt comforted by his own practices and religious rites. The gospel tells us at the end of the story that ‘all’ will be judged not only for the evil they have done, but for the good they have not done, for the lack of mercy… “I was hungry…, I was thirsty…, I was a stranger…, I needed clothes…, I was sick and in prison, and you did not look after me” writes Matthew (Matthew 25, 31-46). An excellent way of participating in the society of change, the creation of a new society would be to start with an honest recognition of what we are not doing now but could do to change things, a recognition of our complicity and silence, our passivity in the face of injustice. And for this reason, the Pope speaks to Christians about renewing the sacrament of reconciliation. This is a good opportunity to be open and honest about how little mercy we demonstrate, and it opens us to the mercy of God, who encourages us to show true and generous solidarity and to be living proof of the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7).
So this year which Pope Francis has placed under the banner of mercy should also be a time to recover true joy, the joy of those who embrace the mercy of God and at the same time open themselves to the search for justice and the work for peace. I doubt that many of us will reach the level of Etty Hillesum, who suffering, rebelling and struggling in the depths of a concentration camp, could still exclaim: “life is beautiful”. But we can show “mercy cheerfully” (Romans 12:8).
In the presence of the dramatic and offensive spectacle of the immigrants washed up on the island of Lampedusa in July 2013, the Pope gave vent to his feelings in a heartfelt outburst, railing against everybody, but in particular those in the highest positions of power, stating that we have lost the capacity to “weep for our brothers and sisters”, the capacity for mercy, and we are dominated by a globalized indifference. The words of the Pope take us back 26 centuries to the prophet who inveighed against injustice and against those who justified their own exploitation of the poor with the practice of rites and religious exercises. However, the Pope has repeatedly invited us to participate in the joy of the gospel, a gospel rooted in mercy. The question of joy, the joy that gushes up in followers of Jesus, is an issue which also needs to be addressed in current Christianity, as joy is the great offering to the current world and is the source of freedom, solidarity and friendship.
If we embrace this appeal, the voice of Francis, if we cultivate the brotherhood which comes from mercy, maybe we will realise, in some small measure, the dream of the prophet who issued dire warnings and threats to his people, but who also announced the good news, the joy of mercy: “loose the chains of injustice…. set the oppressed free….share your food with the hungry… provide the poor wanderer with shelter… When you see the naked, clothe them and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood. Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear…then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday… You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail”. I close with the words of the Psalmist: Would that it were so!
1 Cf. M. Gelabert Ballester, Sentido teológico de la compasión, Staurós, 53 (20149 73-85. Condensed in Selecciones de Teología, 215 (2015), 214-224.
2 Address at end of Council, 7 December 1965.
3 Gelabert, in the article quoted, says that Saint Thomas believes that in God there is a “a mercy without passion”. For this point and for what follows, cf. Selecciones de Teología, pp. 118-119.
4 La Iglesia samaritana y el principio-misericordia, Sal Terrae 927 (1990), pp. 665-678. Article republished in: El principio-misericordia. Bajar de la cruz a los pueblos crucificados, Santander, 1992, pp. 31-45.
5 La misericordia. Clave del Evangelio y de la vida cristiana, Santander, Sal Terrae, 32013.
6 This paragraph and the quotations therein come from A. Spadaro, La diplomacia di Francisco. La misericordia come proceso politico, La Civiltà Cattolica 3875 (2016) 209-226. Condensed article in Selecciones de Teología, 2016 (2016) 219-228.
7 ¡Te conocimos, Señor!, BAC, Madrid, 1999. Selection of texts prepared by T.H. Martín and commented on by J. Martín Velasco. Hammarskjöld is presented, together with Manuel García Morente and André Frossard.