Blessed are the merciful

“This is the season of mercy,” Pope Francis told reporters gathered on a late-July flight back to Rome after the conclusion of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, it is more than just a season, the pope said. It is a whole new era.If that’s the case, Francis himself deserves plenty of credit.

Since nearly day one of his papacy, the highly quotable pope has placed the Church’s teaching on mercy front and center, both in word and deed. Suddenly, mercy is a hot topic of conversation.But the concept, of course, is hardly new. Humanity’s need for mercy, both from God and one another, is a central theme in many stories throughout the Old and New Testaments. Since then, many Catholic thinkers, from St. Augustine on down, have written about the importance of mercy to the Christian life.

And yet, it can still be a challenge to understand exactly what the Church teaches about this age-old practice.

“People tend to think of mercy as it is portrayed on TV or in movies, which is usually someone who is groveling and saying ‘have mercy on me!’ or pleading with someone who is prone to violence to spare them,” said Joe Paprocki, a catechist and author of several books, including “7 Keys to Spiritual Wellness: Enriching Your Faith By Strengthening the Health of Your Soul” (Loyola Press, $12.95). “So it starts from the wrong premise, that someone is getting ready to punish or hurt you and if you plead with them you’ll be spared.”

Divine Mercy
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Paprocki said he remembers learning about that concept of mercy when he was growing up, and it is an understanding that through his work in catechetical ministry he finds many Catholics still hold. “But that’s not quite how mercy is portrayed in the Bible. God is portrayed as being slow to anger, not someone who is just waiting to unleash his wrath.”

Compassion and chaos

So just what is mercy? The word itself is derived from the Latin misericordia, which can be translated as either mercy or compassion. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew words used to describe God’s mercy are hesed, which means “steadfast love,” and rachamim, a tender, compassionate love.The latter comes from the root word rechem, which can be translated as “womb,” providing the helpful image of mercy as treating someone in the way that a mother would treat her unborn child.But mercy requires more than just compassion.

As Jesuit Father James Keenan puts it, mercy is perhaps best understood as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.”Father Keenan, Founders Professor of Theology at Boston College and author of “The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism” (Rowman & Littlefield, $19.95), said that there are many situations in our modern world where we see someone in need, but know that helping them will take more than just a “quick fix.” For example, a driver with his or her broken-down car on the side of the road likely has a whole set of problems that led to them being stranded — in other words, their “chaos” — and stopping to help them would mean willingly getting involved in those issues.Another example would be a person who is grieving. Since grief carries a complex set of emotions, showing mercy to that person requires getting more deeply involved in their situation.

“So an act of mercy is really to enter into somebody’s chaos, into all the attendant issues that they have to work with and live with,” Father Keenan said. “And when you do that, you are entering something that is a little more unpredictable than you may imagine, which is why so many people hesitate to do it.”

That natural hesitation can make mercy a real challenge, both for the giver and the receiver. In the case of someone experiencing grief, for instance, an act of mercy toward them may feel more like an intrusion.

“There are some people who just want to handle it on their own and don’t want a lot of help,” said Father Keenan. Paprocki believes that overcoming that hesitation requires a change in mind-set. Just as God shows mercy to his children, Paprocki said, we too can be more open to mercy if we think of others around us as family.

The stranded motorist, for instance, takes on a different tone when they are one’s sibling rather than a stranger. The same principle can be applied in any situation — at work, with friends, in a public place — by simply asking “how would I respond to this person if they were part of my family?”

“That usually means going out of our way a little bit, treating people with an extra bit of care and compassion and kindness,” said Paprocki. “That’s what God does with us, and when we do it, it is God’s mercy working through us.”

Opportunities abound

Mercy isn’t only reserved for the major chaotic moments in life. Even the most ordinary situations in a person’s daily routine can create openings for mercy.

John Cavadini

“Sometimes we don’t even see the opportunities,” said John Cavadini, theology professor and director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

“We might even disdain them or think that they are too small.”But no opportunity to offer mercy should be overlooked, he said. “We can’t miss them just because we are looking for something magnificent to do. All of these things are magnificent when you do them.”

Those kinds of small moments can pop up throughout the day: letting another car cut in front of you while stuck in traffic, stopping to hold a door for someone when you are in a rush, even just taking a few minutes to stop and ask a coworker how they are doing. Cavadini said that one opportunity to show mercy that is often challenging for him is getting through the airport. With everyone being in a rush, frequent delays and plenty of stress, it can be easy to lose patience with others who are just trying to get to their destination.

“You just have to keep repeating the beatitude: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,’” he said. “If I keep saying that to myself, I feel less inclined to judge everybody around me.”

Transformative effect

The more a person starts looking for opportunities to show mercy, the more situations they are likely to find. And through performing merciful acts, one is likely to develop a heightened sense of awareness about the needs of others.

“I think that once you’re familiar with mercy, the more you see it and the more you appreciate people’s predicaments,” said Father Keenan. “Being merciful, you learn more about how humanity really is, both in yourself and in the other.”

Developing that merciful view of the world also has the effect of making one less likely to focus on his or her own self-interest. That can have some real spiritual benefits, Paprocki said.In his own life, he said, there are times when he’ll be in a rush or caught up in his busy schedule, which can lead to feeling tense, grumpy and flat-out selfish. In those situations, he tries to take a deep breath and remind himself that the people around him aren’t rivals or obstacles, but his brothers and sisters.

“That puts me in a healthier spiritual mind-set and that has a domino effect — I feel better physically and emotionally if I am not tied up in myself,” he said. “So I think mercy is critical to a healthy spirituality because it gets us out of ourselves.”

Whether the acts of mercy one performs are large-scale outreach efforts or simple showings of hospitality and kindness, they can have real transformative power. They are also a tangible way of bringing the Catholic faith to life in the course of our daily interactions with one another.

“Mercy is the stuff of conversion,” said Cavadini. “People, by the little acts or the larger acts of mercy, can feel connected to God in a way that they never have before.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.

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