At the recent Synod of Bishops, there was a lot of talk about mercy; it’s become the key-note of Pope Francis’ ministry. Two other words often heard in Rome were closely related to mercy. The first was “accompaniment”; the second was “discernment”.
“Accompaniment” presumes we’re on a journey. The God who is “with us” leads us on our journey. Like Abraham, we’re given no road-map by the God who calls us to take a new road and then accompanies us on the way. Instead, we’re asked to keep our eye on the God who is with us, because He alone knows where we’re going and how to get there. That’s one reason why prayer is crucial.
“Discernment” means that we have an eye that sees where and how God is with us on the journey. The process of discernment can be messy, even unsettling. Road-maps and rule by decree are clearer and quicker. But they may not be what we need now. We walk by faith – which means that we don’t look for the clear and the quick to discern how and where God is leading us, step by step, into the future He has promised. We trust the one who journeys with us, and therefore we pray – listening to God, especially as we prepare for Christmas.
As Advent begins, we cross a threshold into the Year of Mercy which, for Pope Francis, is deeply connected to the recent Synod process which included the two Synods and all that went before and after them.
When the recent Synod ended, it was clear that the journey wasn’t over. We still have a long way to go. The Year of Mercy is the next phase of the journey. In convening these two Synods, Pope Francis wanted to lead us to a deeper sense of a permanently synodal Church. This is something he’s said since he became Pope. He wants us all to understand that we’re on the road together – journeying, like Abraham, as a weak and sinful people, but called and accompanied by God who won’t leave us where and as we are.
One thing I came to see more clearly through the recent Synod was that synodality – to use one of the new buzz-words – is a permanent feature of the life of the whole Church, not just an occasional feature of episcopal life. We all journey together all the time, not just some of the bishops some of the time. This has many implications.
Journeys are very physical things, as I learn each time I take a long flight. The time of Advent prepares for a birth – and birth is a very physical journey of another kind. According to Scripture, mercy is also a very physical thing. The Latin for mercy is misericordia which means a compassionate heart. But the Bible sees it more physically: for Scripture, the source of mercy is the entrails, even the womb.
The Bible sees mercy as like the love a mother has for her child. A mother loves her child unconditionally. She sees the child just as she or he is. A mother sees all that’s weak or wrong in her child, but she sees much more. Whatever is weak or wrong is surpassed infinitely by the mother’s love for her child, the one she bore in her womb.
It’s the same with God and us. God sees us just as we are – weak and wounded, all of us. God sees our sinfulness far more clearly and comprehensively than we ever do. But God sees more – and because he sees more, God is infinitely merciful, like a mother.
Mercy is a vision of possibility. It sees that much more is possible. In that sense, mercy is the mother of hope. The time of Advent, then, prepares not just for the birth of a child who is God-with-us. It also prepares for the birth of mercy which is also the birth of hope.
As we journey together, the Church becomes a womb. If the Church is a mother, then the Church is also a womb – bringing forth Jesus in the world and therefore giving birth to mercy and hope.
A mother never ceases to accompany the child she conceives and bears in her womb. Mary gives birth to Jesus whom she has borne in her womb; and she stands by the Cross as He dies, just as she shares the joy of His Resurrection. This is the kind of accompaniment mother Church has to offer to all her children, not just some, not just those who are good. The only question is how. That’s where discernment is crucial.
The question isn’t abstract. It’s very practical: what do we have to do to be a more merciful, hope-bearing Church, a Church that really does accompany everyone on the journey, especially the stragglers? One thing we’ll do is welcome refugees from the Middle East into our midst. But there are many others things we’ll be called to do through this Year of Mercy, which will be a challenge to our imagination and our generosity.
If we’re all talk and no action, then we may feel pangs – but they’ll be the pangs of death not the pangs of birth. Advent is about the pangs of birth, which are as physical as the Incarnation when the Word took flesh. The real God is very physical. My hope is that this Advent and our journey through the Year of Mercy will be just as physical, just as real, as we travel the road together.
+ Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
First Sunday of Advent 2015