In light of the Father’s merciful love made incarnate to us through the gift of His Son Jesus Christ, we come to see how man finds his fulfillment and destiny in mercy. Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church’s relationship to the modern world, says:
“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear…He Who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man…For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (Par. 22).
If Christ is the Father’s merciful love made incarnate, and Christ has united Himself in some way to every man, and in so doing reveals man fully to himself, then every man is somehow destined to re-discover himself in mercy.
The second century Church Father, St. Irenaeus, is famous for the expression, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” However, it is important to note that St. Irenaeus proclaims this beautiful statement in the context of his treatise on the Incarnation. Thus, what St. Irenaeus is ultimately communicating is that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ - the union of man and God in the person of Jesus Christ - is the glory of God. Thus, we can say with great joy that God’s greatest glory is His mercy incarnate. Since Christ is the image of the fully alive man - the man who possesses God’s very own divine Life, then any man who finds his identity in Christ will be a man of mercy. He will be a man after his Heavenly Father’s own heart, seeking to live not for himself but for others. He will seek to live in the love of Jesus Christ, the Man who exists completely “for others.” Pope Francis said, “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes the criterion for ascertaining who his true children are.”
Making the Father’s Merciful Love Our Own
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:9, 12). To love as the Father has loved us through Christ, is to love in mercy. Thus, all of us are called to merciful love; we are called to have a heart for the wretched. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). The primary way in which we love as the Father is to love those who are sinners.
There is nothing more wretched than sin. Thus, we must make it our mission to live for sinners. To have a heart for the wretched is to have a heart for sinners. At its core, merciful love is the choice to draw sinners out of sin. The Apostle James reminds us, “If any among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). There is nothing more merciful, more like the Father’s heart, than helping a brother out of sin.
Confronting Our Own Wretchedness
However, before we can embrace the mission of Jesus Christ to save souls from sin, we must first be delivered from our own sinfulness. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). Before we can join in Christ’s mission of salvation, we must first allow his merciful love to free us from our sins. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is essential to the life of every Catholic. In this sacrament we receive forgiveness for our sins; we allow our Savior to remove the log in our eyes. Receiving the merciful love of Christ ourselves is what enables us to see clearly to help our brothers and sisters in their journey to be free from sin. We cannot help others in forgiveness unless we ourselves have first experienced God’s forgiveness. The practice of going to confession should be a habitual aspect of our life. Confession should be regular, not rare.
When I was studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, I discovered a beautiful Catholic tradition familiar to the Guatemalan people but not very familiar to Americans: Eucharistic Procession. In many cultures, a procession of the Blessed Sacrament is a common experience. Throughout the liturgical year, the priest or bishop will celebrate Mass in a local church and then process with the Blessed Sacrament down the streets that surround the local church. As a part of this tradition, many Guatemalan families will spend a significant amount of time cleaning the streets and making sure there is no trash on the path of the procession so that “Jesus doesn’t have to walk down a dirty street.” Our souls are much like the streets of the Eucharistic processions. Jesus Christ wants to come into our souls and the best way for us to prepare for His coming is to have Him remove the dirt and trash of sin from our life in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is precisely our experience of God’s mercy that enables us to be agents of that same mercy. We are all familiar with the famous expression, “You cannot give what you do not have.” We cannot love as God loves without first having an encounter of that love. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “Of course, that does not, by a long way, mean that a Christian is a person who does nothing wrong and has no failings. On the contrary, he is a person who knows that he does have failings and who is generous with God and with other people because he knows how much he depends on the generosity of God and his fellowmen.” In other words, a Christian’s ability to be merciful flows directly from his experience of God’s mercy. Only when we have allowed Christ to remove the log from our own eyes through the Sacrament of Confession are we then able to be His human instruments of His merciful love in helping others overcome sin. Pope Francis said, “We are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.”
There is a dangerous temptation that we often experience when we become aware of someone who is in a state of grave sin. The temptation is to remain silent and not to say anything to them, usually out of fear of being perceived as judgmental. We must remember that attempting to correct another person’s error is not the same as being judgmental. St. Timothy reminds us, “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-3).
As mere human beings, we do not always know the full extent of someone’s intentions or culpability with regards to their particular sins. Thus, we cannot and must not make a judgment about their soul. However, through Divine and natural law, God has made known to us the kind of behavior that is, and is not, in accord with His plan for human love. We are called by God to bring all of His children into the light so that they might know what pleases God and what does not please Him. Shedding light on immoral behavior is not being judgmental. Rather, it is an essential aspect of merciful love. If we did not seek to enlighten people about their sinful behavior, we would not be truly merciful, because we would not have a heart for them.
Allow me to expand on this point with a reference to St. Luke’s famous “Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother” (Luke 15:11-32). Although the younger son gravely violated his father’s dignity by demanding his share of the inheritance and then spending it all on immoral activity, when he returned to his father’s home, he had a heart of repentance and a desire to be a member of his father’s household again. In other words, he desired to live in his father’s love again. Yet, his older brother (the father’s eldest son) although living in his father’s household, made the choice not to live in a manner that reflects his father’s love. He was angry toward his younger brother and did not desire to forgive him. On account of this, the father had to come to his eldest son to beg and plead with him to be a man of forgiveness. Notice, when the younger son was away from his father’s household, the father did not come to him. Rather, he waited for his son to return. Once his youngest son had made the long and penitential journey home, he immediately embraced him and welcomed him back to the household. Yet, regarding his eldest son, merciful love required that the father come to him to remind him of the kind of love expected of those who remain in his household.
If we are to truly embrace the year of mercy’s slogan, Misericordes Sicut Pater, “Merciful as the Father,” then we must seek out those within God’s household who have chosen to live as if they were not in His household. There are many baptized Catholics, who by virtue of their baptism are still members of the household of God, but have chosen to live as if they were not baptized. As the father came to his eldest son, we must find a way to come to them; become incarnate in their life, as Christ became incarnate in ours, and witness to them the joy of God’s plan for human love.
All are called to conversion. We must never be complacent in the face of sinfulness. To have a heart for the wretched is to virtuously and lovingly call all sinners to repentance - especially those who are closest to us. This is why it is absolutely essential that our attempt at fraternal correction come from our own experience of mercy. We learn to be patient with others only when we realize how patient God is with us.
How many Catholics do we know who have fallen away from the faith? Is the merciful love of the Father not calling us to reach out to them and share with them the joy of His mercy and the joy of His plan for human love? What a blessing the year of mercy would be for the Church if we were to patiently and lovingly dedicate ourselves to witnessing the beauty of God’s mercy to them!BACK TO LIST