I have a hunch that when the same idea or even word comes to me uninvited three times or more, I may be experiencing a whisper from the Holy Spirit.
If that’s true, then I think I’m being asked to reflect upon, prayer over and put into action the “virtue” of mercy.
The threefold repetition came to me in the form of three books: John XXIII, The Medicine of Mercy by Massimo Faggioli (Liturgical Press, 2014), Mercy, The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper (Paulist, 2014), and The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis (Loyola Press, 2014).
In the old days theologians (Thomas Aquinas, for example) thought of mercy as sorrow in the face of another person’s misery or as a relaxation of justice, and argued whether or not God could really be merciful since “there is no sorrow in God” and “God cannot remit what appertains to his justice.” Aquinas, of course, addressed both arguments, and concluded that mercy can indeed be attributed to God (I, 21, 3).
The Old Testament certainly attributed mercy to Yahweh (“His mercy endures forever”) but we still question how that Hebrew word hesed (used 240 times) should be understood -- mercy? loving-kindness? compassion? faithfulness?
The connotation of faithfulness or loyalty seems present when Hosea quotes Yahweh’s challenge, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.”
In 1962 in his opening address to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII seemed to have compassion in mind when he encouraged the Council Fathers to “make use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity.”
Later Pope John Paul II focused on mercy in his second encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia (1980), and in 2002 when he established the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
In 2012 German Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed the contemporary failure to focus on mercy in systematic theology, and, with the publication of his book Barmherzigkeit, urged the younger generation of theologians to go beyond academic theology and give consideration in a more pastoral theology to a culture of mercy.
Pope Francis, elected in 2013, said that Kasper’s book “has done me so much good,” and his own reflections on the need for a culture of mercy are apparent in his homilies, interviews, books, and Evangelii Gaudium. His book The Church of Mercy is a collection taken from the speeches and papers of the first year of his papacy.
Faggioli says of St John XXIII, “Roncalli’s life was exceptional in the way he lived it –understanding the profound need to rediscover the mercy of God revealed through Jesus Christ for the church and for humankind” (p. 134).
Pope John’s opening speech to the Council “upset the current mentality of official Catholic culture, which was focused on the condemnation of ‘enemies’…The speech did not give Vatican II an agenda, but a perspective…(cf. Faggioli, p.126).
Kasper clarifies the idea of mercy when notes that “the Bible understands mercy as God’s own justice. Mercy is at the heart of the biblical message, not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it” (p. 18).
Kasper’s analysis of and appeal for mercy does not undermine Church discipline or the requirements of the Gospel. He rejects any arbitrary interpretation of Church law which is contrary to the objective sense of the law, nor does mercy mean twisting the objective sense of the law “out of an erroneously understood goodheartedness” (cf. Kasper, pp. 174-80).
At the same time the Church’s judgment are not to be applied “like a guillotine,” but rather should leave open a loophole of mercy which makes possible a new beginning for a person of good will. The judge should take Jesus Christ, the merciful judge, as his or her example. “His or her benchmark must be the gentleness and kindness (epieikeia) of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 10:1)” (Kasper, p. 180).
The Pope Francis book, The Church of Mercy, is subtitled “A Vision For The Church.” In his homily for the Mass when he accepted the chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis advised anyone in the crowd who was overcome by sin and guilt to go to the Lord and accept God’s offer of mercy and forgiveness.”His is a caress of love. For God, we are not numbers, we are important ; indeed we are the most important thing to him. Even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart” (p. 5-6).
On September 10, 2013, Pope Francis spoke at the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome. His remarks reflected his personal experience of working with and for the poor. He said, “Charity that leaves the poor person as he or she is, is not sufficient. True mercy, the mercy God gives to each of us and teaches us, demands justice; it demands that the poor find a way to be poor no longer” (p. 107).
Hesed, eleos, misericordia, barmherzigkeit –mercy! I keep hearing that word. I suspect the Spirit is trying to tell me something.