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Mercy at the coalface

Michael Gilbert CSsR

Can you believe it? It has been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council which was a great milestone in church history. To mark the occasion, Pope Francis has declared this year to be ‘The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy’. He desires the whole church to contemplate more deeply on the mystery of God’s mercy in order that the church and all its members become more effective signs of this mystery of mercy.

“Not another Holy Year!” I hear you mutter. So often in recent times we have been summoned to engage in the disciplines of a Holy Year without deriving much benefit from our efforts. Some of us suffer from Holy Year fatigue. I think this Holy Year offers more promise and is worth our consideration and participation. It is an opportunity to awaken dormant spiritual capacities. Why? Because, as Pope Francis says, our very salvation depends on mercy. Mercy is the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. It is the bridge connecting God and humanity. It is the key to opening our hearts to the hope of being loved in spite of our faults and failures. Mercy plays an unambiguously critical role in the way we live as married couples and family. It touches us where we live our daily lives.

Mercy has peculiar and endearing qualities. It allows us to enter into the distress of others and to make their distress our own. It is the exercise of forbearance and clemency to those who, on the grounds of justice, might not deserve it. In fact, the pardoning of offences is the clearest expression of mercy. Mercy is the outcome of love. It makes love tangible and visible and is love with a kind face. It enables one to go beyond love’s minimum requirements. It is love that is cheerful; that is generous and open hearted. It is conscious goodness. It flows from a fidelity to one’s deepest self.

Mercy touches the whole person – body and soul. The bodily acts of mercy are called the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to shelter the homeless; to clothe the naked; to visit the sick and imprisoned; to give help to the poor and to bury the dead. Works of mercy that nourish the human spirit are called the spiritual works of mercy: to instruct the ignorant; to exercise forgiveness; to give wise advice to the doubtful; to console the afflicted; to bear patiently those who do us ill; to pray for the living and the dead.

Many aspects of contemporary culture run counter to the exercise of mercy. Mercy is commonly regarded as a ‘soft option’ practised by hopelessly romantic ‘do-gooders’. They say that ‘real life’ has no room for mercy. Yet mercy is a fundamental cornerstone of social functioning. No set of human relationships –particularly marriage and family – could be conducted tranquilly without practicing mercy.

Marriage and family is the human institution where mercy is best learned, practiced and celebrated. It is there that the moral dimensions of mercy find practical expression. Married couples are often quite unaware of the merciful dimensions of their life. It is mercy when a wife and mother, after a long day’s work, provides a nourishing meal for the family; when a husband works extra hours to provide his family with the necessities of food, clothing, transport, schooling. It is mercy to get up in the middle of the night to attend to a sick child; to go without some of life’s luxuries in order to give children the benefit of a good education; to arrange the funeral of a deceased relative; to respond generously to the incessant appeals to help the needy.

Mercy is integral to the spiritual dynamics of marriage and family. It is the burden of exposing the hard truths of life to children; the tardy task of letting go of resentment after one has been hurt. It is not letting the sun go down on one’s anger. It is offering encouragement to the surly teenager. It is standing beside one’s partner in times of disappointment and turmoil. It is being patient with the unruly and hurtful outbursts of children. It is offering silent prayer and petition for loved ones living and dead.

Mercy is integral to the spiritual dynamics of marriage and family. It is the burden of exposing the hard truths of life to children; the tardy task of letting go of resentment after one has been hurt.

Marriage and family is a privileged place to enact mercy. This is so because mercy is the outcome of love and marriage and family are nothing without love. If a marriage is sound and loving, family thrives and mercy happens. As we engage with the demands of the Holy Year, family is the place to begin. It begins with a spiritual renewal that seeks its inspiration from the source of all mercy – the God of mercies. All human mercy is founded on and summoned forth by God’s mercy. It begins with acts of contemplation.

Contemplation of God’s mercy opens us to surprise. God’s mercy is qualitatively different from our human experience and practice of mercy. We tend to exercise mercy as a tempered adjustment to the strict requirements of human justice – as kindness that softens chastisement. We can easily convince ourselves that this is how God acts and be led to think of God as a demanding Father administering strict justice; a God who needs an intermediary intercessor to plead our cause. Sometimes Our Lady is cast in the role of one who persuades God to be more merciful. Our Lady is indeed merciful but so is God.

God, the Father of mercies, does not need to be persuaded to be merciful, as God is love itself. Mercy is the outcome of love and God is mercy unlimited. God is bound by God’s own nature to be merciful. God is unable to be anything but merciful as God’s own sense of justice demands that God ‘go over the top’ to be bountifully merciful to humanity.

St John Chrysostom, one of the great theologians of the early church, speaks of mercy as God’s ‘philanthropy’ – an expression of God’s generous love for humanity. This merciful love is so bountiful that it even refuses to hold our sins against us. God’s nature binds God to be ‘super forgiving’. God’s mercy is in a different league to our own impoverished and niggardly human concepts of mercy.

God’s mercy is fully demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ. Even a cursory reading of the gospel accounts confirms the fact that Jesus lived and breathed mercy. Jesus is the human location where we see God’s mercy recapitulated in a way we can understand and hopefully imitate.

Christians are people who gratefully receive this divine philanthropy. We believe it extends to every person in the whole world; that the whole of humanity is under the spell of God’s merciful love. We express our gratitude by attempting to be ardent practitioners of the merciful gift we have been given so lavishly by God. This is what the Holy Year of Mercy is about; a time to prayerfully contemplate the generosity of divine mercy and allow ourselves to be more deeply drawn into the mystery of the God of love and mercy. Then, nourished by God’s merciful love to allow ourselves to be convicted and energised by it and to make mercy our way of life.

Family is a privileged place to understand and to enact mercy. It is the place where the rubber of lofty and spiritual aspirations hits the hard and demanding road of reality. When mercy becomes part and parcel of family life its ripple effects take on tsunami-like dimensions. Families come alive. Church communities become kinder. Society prospers. God is delighted. Alexander Arnold’s words might be our prayer: “Teach me to feel another’s woe, to hide the faults I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy shown to me.”

This article was first published in the Majellan Magazine. Download the Majellan Family app at