The choice of the Divine Mercy Sunday for this proclamation of the extraordinary Holy Year marks a point of continuity between the pontificate of Pope Francis and those of his predecessors. Popes Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II were both instrumental spreading the devotion to The Divine Mercy throughout the world.
The mercy of God has become a signature theme for Pope Francis. But it’s also important to remember that emphasizing God’s mercy does have a long history within the Catholic Christian tradition. Medieval artists depicted God’s “throne of Mercy,” and the image of “God’s throne of Grace” goes back to St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews.
But if the “Mercy of God” is one of the most prominent themes in Christian understandings of God, it’s also the most problematic. Simply put, how can a merciful God allow so much human suffering?
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On Good Friday, I lingered after a beautiful service at the College of the Holy Cross where I teach. I sat in the back row and fixed my eyes on a large wooden cross behind the altar. The cross was tied with rough-twined rope at the place where the horizontal and vertical beams met.
I tried to simply repeat the name of Jesus — silently, reverently, so that it would merge with the rhythm of my breathing.
I wanted to quiet my mind.
But my mind wandered.
I thought about friends who had died too soon. I thought of loved ones struggling with intractable illnesses. I remembered brilliant teachers and students who felt themselves unnoticed and unloved.
Where was God’s mercy for them?
More thoughts came to me — thoughts of the self-pitying, self-indulgent kind, thoughts of times when I suffered and wondered where God’s mercy was for me.
I forced my mind farther afield, to an experience I had a year ago.
I was in a car driving through the jungle on a dirt road, heading to a shrine dedicated to the Passion of the Christ in the northern part of Sri Lanka.
Nailed to the coconut palms lining the road were signs with diagrams and photos explaining how to identify claymore mines, improvised explosive devices, undetonated shells and grenades — warnings for travelers about the leftover war still lurking in the lush foliage.
As I entered the village, I could see that the area was still rebuilding from two decades of war — the walls of some of the homes were still gouged and pitted from the fighting; other homes were clearly improvised from whatever was available: thatch, wood, corrugated tin.
I entered the small church, carrying photographic equipment. I found it nearly empty, except for some field laborers who were having their lunch on the floor.
Here it was: the heart of desolation, destruction, abandonment. Once again, that subversive thought surfaced: Where was God’s mercy?
* * * * *
The center of the shrine was a large statue of Christ scourged. Christ wore a crown of thorns and a red cloak. The lashes on his body were painted bright red, with drops of blood detailed on his chest, arms, and face. Christ’s eyes looked up and his lips were parted as if he was about to speak.
Here is the God who suffers — suffers for us, suffers with us.
For Pope Francis, the suffering God is the merciful God. God enters into our own experiences of suffering to provide comfort and consolation in unexpected ways. Of course, Pope Francis has said a lot about mercy, and a book has been published that brings together his diverse and varied reflections. Usually, Pope Francis’ penetrating insights come in the form of concise commentaries, aphorisms, and the occasional off-the-cuff sound bite.
We still are waiting for a more systematic explication of his views.
A more academically sustained discussion of mercy can be found in the writings of Cardinal Walter Kasper, formerly the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Kasper and Pope Francis are reported to be quite close; Kasper has been described as “The Pope’s Theologian.”
During the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Kasper published “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and Key to the Christian Life.” The central theme of the book is developing a coherent understanding of Christian mercy. Kasper realizes all too well that one of the greatest criticisms that atheists make against Christianity is that it is simply incoherent to believe in a merciful God who is all-powerful and a loving Creator, yet nonetheless allows human suffering.
Kasper reflects on mercy through the ancient Latin term misericordia, which he defines as having a “heart” with the poor. Taken in this sense, mercy doesn’t eliminate suffering. Humans suffer; that much we know in our fallen world. Rather, in Kasper’s view, mercy responds to suffering, whether it’s the suffering that comes from poverty or persecution, or the suffering that results from a simple lack of love.
Mercy is a connection, not a cure from above.
Mercy is the essence of God — the quality from which all others proceed.
Kasper argues that Christians are required to promote a culture of mercy. He reflects at length on the challenges of globalization and the gap between the rich countries of the North and the poor countries of the South. But he does not want Christianity to become a political program — that would be “Christian totalitarianism.” Instead, mercy forces us to ask in concrete terms: What do human beings need in order to be human beings with full freedom and dignity?
As much as he emphasizes what we must to do in our responses to human suffering, Kasper wants us to know that God suffers with us. It is here that he enters into a contemporary theological controversy: The notion of a suffering God could be understood to compromise God’s omnipotence. If God is all-powerful, doesn’t His suffering make Him weaker or lacking in some way?
But Kasper argues that God’s suffering with us isn’t a sign of weakness; rather, it is a sign of God’s strength, God’s choice to surrender to love.
And we must make the same choice.
Let go of hatred, prejudice, and indifference. Commit to kindness, openness, and solidarity.
Embrace and express the mercy of God.
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Seeing my Sri Lanka experience in my mind’s eye during prayer on Good Friday wasn’t something random, but it also wasn’t some sort of mystical insight or illumination.
I had been thinking about — no, struggling with — that Sri Lanka experience intently over the past week as I thought about Pope Francis’s call for a Year of Mercy.
My decision to read Kasper’s book had been part of that effort.
But applying Kasper’s more philosophical reflections on mercy would be a challenging task in Sri Lanka.
Though the civil war ended six years ago, thousands of Sri Lankans remain unaccounted for. There were human rights violations and war crimes on both sides: suicide bombings, massacres, rapes, and torture. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans died and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Hundreds more have been killed by the war’s leftovers: land mines, injuries, disease.
Surely it was merciful that the conflict ended, but where was God’s mercy when it began? We can speak of mercy for those wounded and displaced. But what about mercy for the killers who remain alive? What about justice for the dead?
One of the aspects I most appreciated about Kasper’s discussion is how he engaged contemporary critics of religion I had read in graduate school. But being in a former war zone definitely puts the academic life in perspective — its “ivy-covered towers” seem privileged and distant when the people around you are collecting brush and leaves to roof their homes.
If I had known Tamil, I could have talked to the people having lunch in the shrine church and asked what they thought about the image of the scourged Christ with his eyes raised to heaven and his mouth parted.
I could have asked: What do you hear Christ saying?
I could have asked: Does God suffer? Is God all-powerful? What is “mercy”?
But would my questions even have made sense in that context? Maybe Kasper’s book — so filled with systematic theological reflections — would have been not just untranslatable, but also strangely irrelevant.
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The suffering Christ was not the only image in the shrine that day in Sri Lanka. Off to the side was a poster of the glorified Christ, in a white gown, his pierced right hand raised in blessing. Christ’s left hand pointed to his heart, and from his heart emanated two rays of light: one red and one pale white/blue.
This was the reproduction of The Divine Mercy, originally painted at the direction of Sister Faustina Kowalska — a Polish nun, visionary, and stigmatist who died in 1938. As Faustina had recorded in her spiritual diary, in a vision Christ had asked that the Sunday after Easter be specially consecrated to Divine Mercy.
For a time, the Vatican prohibited dissemination of images and writings associated with Sister Faustina and The Divine Mercy devotion. One concern was that there was perhaps too much focus on Faustina herself as well as potential theological difficulties with some claims about the remission of sins outside of the sacrament of penance. It was only under the pontificate of St. John Paul II that her reputation was fully rehabilitated; in fact, he proclaimed her the first saint of the new millennium.
Seeing The Divine Mercy in Sri Lanka wasn’t that surprising, since the devotion has quickly become popular the world over. But as popular as it is, both the devotion and Sister Faustina herself have their critics. Some are concerned that the more ancient traditions associated with the second Sunday of Easter have been displaced in favor of a contemporary devotion of dubious origins. Some simply do not see Faustina’s visions as genuine.
Given these suspicions, it surprised me when Kasper referenced Faustina’s prayer in his quite scholarly reflections on mercy. Faustina’s prayer begins, “Help me, O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances, but look for what is beautiful in my neighbors’ souls and come to their rescue.”
Mercy involves concrete acts: forgiveness, consolation, patience, and solidarity.
But mercy begins and ends with a prayerful union with the crucified and resurrected Christ that allows us to see our neighbor in a new way.
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I didn’t stay long in the Shrine to Christ’s Passion in Sri Lanka. I took photos and departed since it was going to be a long drive back.
I also didn’t stay that long after the Good Friday service at the College chapel. I tried to look at the cross for as long as possible. I reflected on my Sri Lanka experience as much as I could, but realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make complete sense of God’s mercy in that context — or any other.
The Holy Year of Mercy will surely be an extended opportunity not only for us to reflect on God’s mercy in our own lives, but also to bring mercy into the lives of others. There will also be opportunities for discussions of the more academic kind, such as how Pope Francis is explicitly and implicitly drawing upon a range of theologians and mystics when he speaks of the mercy of God and reminds us that “God never tires of forgiving.”
And it is the surely the case that many of us never tire of being forgiven. But the demanding, difficult questions surrounding God’s mercy and the grinding reality of suffering are personally and collectively tiring — they frequently exhaust our abilities to comprehend or understand. The pain and tension seem never-ending.
In her diary, St. Faustina often writes of the “abyss” of misery. But she also describes God’s mercy as an “abyss.”
During this extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis seems to be asking us to follow St. Faustina’s example and enter into an abyss of both misery and mercy — to “have our hearts” with both; not to quickly retreat, but to linger longer than seems comfortable.
It is then, perhaps, that we can fully experience what is often so hard to understand: that God loves and is present with each and every one of us.