Skip to main content

The Last Word - January 2016

The Quality of Mercy

When I was in high school, we used to have to memorize poems and other classic works.  I remember only bits and pieces today, but among them is the beginning of Portia's speech in The Merchant of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

Note that mercy comes down from heaven, from God, and then that it blesses both the one who shows mercy and the one who receives it.  And that brings us to the Year of Mercy
proclaimed by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

So what is mercy and how does it work?  Although mercy can be the care we give the sick, or the shelter we offer refugees and the homeless, or the care we have for the needs of the poor, I want to focus on what I think is the greatest challenge for mercy: our response to the sinner.

I find a good starting place is in the liturgy, the fourth Eucharistic prayer, "When through disobedience [man] had lost Your friendship, You did not abandon him to the domain of death.  For you came in mercy to the aid of all."

Mercy is first the work of God.  As the Holy Father put it:  Mercy is the "act by which God comes to meet us" when we are in sin.  He meets us in the Person of His Son who is "the face of the Father's mercy."  He so loved us that He sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, much as we might deserve it, but that we might experience forgiveness and be saved.

The Holy Father goes on to challenge us to show mercy toward those in our lives.  We are to model our response on the Father's.  So, let's say we have been sinned against or we are troubled by some sin in our society.  How do we respond as members of the Church?  Here, the Pope quotes from his predecessor Pope Saint John XXIII, who said that we are to "use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity."  He speaks of how mercy means looking into the eyes of our brothers and sisters and opening our heart to them.  He advises confessors, although it applies also to every believer, to remember that we ourselves are "penitents in search of mercy." And we are thus able to show authentic compassion; that is, we can feel the pain and understand the struggle of the one who has sinned.

This does not mean that the sin is ignored.  Errors are to be condemned, and those who have made a mistake must pay the price.  But, this will only be possible for the offender who has first experienced mercy and compassion, understanding and respect.

For only love can change hearts.

-Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal