Archbishop Mark Coleridge explores the Year of Mercy – where it comes from and what it means for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
As you know now the Year of Mercy is about us and the questions are ‘what is it all about?’ and ‘where’s it come from?’ Well in fact it comes from Pope Francis. It was his idea. He is a man of surprises and he keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat and just when you think there are no more rabbits in the hat out pops another one. One of the biggest rabbits he has pulled out of the hat is this Year of Mercy.
Way back at the end of 2013 he decided to summon the whole church right around the world on a great journey that we call the journey of the Synod. You might remember that we had a Synod in 2014 and we had all the preparation for that. Then there was the year between that first Synod and then the recent Synod that I attended in Rome. Now we are on a journey beyond that because one thing that was very clear when we finished that Synod in Rome was the journey isn’t over. In many ways it’s only just begun with these two synods in Rome and I’m sure the Year of Mercy, in the mind and heart of the Pope, is the next phase of the journey. We don’t have a road map, we’re a bit like Abraham. We’re not sure where the journey is going long term but the next phase of the journey we can say is this Year of Mercy. So the purpose of the whole synodal journey, keeping in mind that the word synod means “on the road together”, is for us to become a more merciful church. I think that is the key for understanding both the synods and this Year of Mercy. In a merciless world we are summoned, not by the Pope but by the Holy Spirit, to become a more merciful church. The question is what does that require – and we’re going to grapple with that question right through this Year of Mercy.
The Pope knows, as I and you do too, that it is a merciless world – a world where lies seem to swirl all around us and it’s hard to know the truth; a world of violence, as we have seen so dramatically in recent times. In such a world how are we to respond? What are we to do?
It’s tempting to think that the best we can manage in a world which is such a mess is to manage a few smart deals and perhaps issue the odd condemnation. I’m not denying for the moment that we need the odd smart deal, and occasionally we might have to condemn this or that, but these are not nearly enough. We also have to make moral judgements. They’re even more important. Plus we do need justice in an often unjust world. Yet moral judgements and justice, even they are not enough for us to respond powerfully to a merciless world. We need more. If the question is “what is more?” then the answer is mercy.
Try thinking of the Year of Mercy as the Year of More. What do I mean? God is merciful, or all merciful as we say. There was a famous old priest in Italy many years ago and he had a genius for communicating with university students. He was asked a question in a crowd like this, and he thought for a moment before responding simply like this – “I see what you see but I see more”. This old priest was echoing God. God sees what we see, the mess and mercilessness, but God sees more. It is like a mother, and God is very like a mother. In fact in the bible the word for mercy comes from the word for womb. So God is like a mother who looks at her child, borne in the womb, with a love that nothing can destroy. She sees her child just as the child is, with all the faults and failings, but she also sees more. Why does she see more? It is because she loves.
God looks at us and says “yes, I see sin, but I don’t only see sin”. In a merciless world we would be no more than our sin or crimes. All there would be is punishment and condemnation. Yet God sees more, and again, think of the situation where a girl falls in love with a guy and someone, perhaps her mother, says “I don’t know what she sees in him”. Yet she sees something that perhaps no one else but God sees. Alternately it could be said of someone that “only a mother could love them”. Why, because she sees more. If you want to know what it is for God to see more think of Jesus and the Prodigal son, one of his greatest parables. Why does the father run down the drive to greet the son and cut him off halfway through the prepared speech? As soon as the boy says “I am no longer worthy” his father says “stop, stop”. Why? It is because the father sees more. He says “you are my son because you are my son because you are my son; it is not because you are worthy, that’s not the point.” Or think about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, where the law of Moses says pick up a great big stone and throw it at her until she is dead. Why? Because she has compromised the holiness of the holy people of God and therefore she must be ex-communicated in this most dramatic way. Jesus says, as you know, “let the one who is without sin throw the first stone”, and one by one the crowd drift away and he is left with her alone. “Does anyone condemn you?” he says. “No one,” she replies. “Then neither do I.” What he is saying is “I see more; you are not just your sin. Go on your way now and sin no more.” In other words he opens a whole new vision of other possibilities, a whole vision of hope.
So mercy and hope are absolutely joined at the hip. If we are talking about a Year of Mercy then we are talking about a year of genuine hope too in a world that is full of cosmetic hope. So a whole new vison of possibility, not just once upon a time for the woman caught in adultery. She is you; she is me; and where we expect rejection, condemnation and punishment and what Jesus the merciful one says is “on your way now, and sin no more.” In other words, it is possible for her to lead a genuinely human life beyond sin, whatever the sin is. That’s what mercy makes possible, and why it is not just a sentiment but an action which is a power.
Faced with a merciless world the temptation can be to respond with escapism; because it is a narcotic culture to drug yourself into a kind of narcotic dream that is a denial. Alternately you could respond by meeting violence with violence – there is plenty of that. Yet what we say as we walk through the Year of Mercy is that the only real and creative response to a merciless world is the mercy of God that takes root in us. You experience it and then you become the experience of God’s mercy for others. That’s the whole meaning of the Christian life and it’s the whole meaning of the church. A people in which the mercy of God takes root so that the community becomes the one through whom the mercy of God as power and as action enters a merciless world.
Mercy is also the only way in which you will ever discover, in any depth, who you really are. We say that we are created in the image of God. It’s true because it’s said on the first page of scripture. What does it mean to be created in the image of God, the all merciful one? If you want to discover who you are; your true self individually, then the only way is to find your way more and more deeply into mercy. This is because mercy is your true self. Anything else is a demonic mask.
The word synod, as we mentioned, means to be on the road together. We’re on a journey and we have to understand what that means more and more to do so together, even the stragglers. What it is going to mean for us in this Year of Mercy is we walk through a door. We have a holy door in Rome and doors of mercy all over the place. There is one for you to walk through and it’s not just for you as individuals but for the whole church. As a church we must walk through the door which is Jesus Christ – the door of Mercy; he is the Mercy, and into a new world where we have a more merciful church. The words that echo in our midst as we begin the journey of the Year of Mercy are not just the words of Pope Francis but they are the words of Jesus. These are inscribed over the door of Mercy through which we walk: “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”