I was delighted a few months ago to hear that Pope Francis had declared this year to be Holy Year of Mercy. It is to be a year of opening ourselves to God's mercy and of showing God's mercy to others. But, what is mercy?
The obvious answer is that mercy is what God shows when God forgives us our sins. That is true, but the real answer is even deeper than that. Mercy is God's response to what is broken and damag3ed in us and in all of creation Mercy is not only shown in forgiving our sins, but in healing everything in us that leads to sin. It is also the Lord's response to sickness, pain and grief as well as to the terrible injustices suffered by us humans. Cardinal Walter Kasper in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life suggests that unlike the thinking of many theologians who see mercy as an attribute of God, mercy is part of the essence of God. This means that our loving God can't help but be merciful to us. The key is that we must open ourselves to this precious gift.
I would like to offer a few practical suggestions that might be followed during this Holy Year.
1. Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Notice that I did not just say "Go to Confession." This wonderful Sacrament is meant to truly be a celebration. Over the past few years (actually decades) many people have fallen away from the practice of going to Confession. There are many reasons for this. Some blame lies with us priests for celebrating it poorly or without compassion. I promised the Lord when I was ordained that I would never yell at anyone in confession, or take their sin personally. Yes, at times gentle guidance and teaching must be given, but emphasis on "gentle."
Many people who attend Mass regularly have not gone in years. They figure "I'm basically a good person." In this they are right, but none of us are perfect persons." To periodically celebrate this sacrament is a way of humbly going before God and saying, "Lord, I am in need of your mercy. Please not only forgive me, but heal in me what leads me so sin." This is an important dimension that has not been given enough attention. An example is the person who confesses using bad language. They want to stop, but don't seem to be able. The reason is that it is not just a matter of will power and trying harder, but of being healed of the anger, etc. that leads to this practice. With this brief advice I urge you to go to confession, especially if you haven't been for a while. Finally, there is no sin, no matter how great, that our merciful God cannot and will not forgive.
2. Pray and reflect on what needs healing and compassion within you. So many of us carry hurt, resentment, fear and shame. Ask the Lord to set you free.
3. Practice mercy. Practice mercy in dealing with others. Strive to be understanding and gentle even when you disagree. The social media are filled with angry rants and hurtful comments to others.
4. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Not because the wrongdoer deserves it, but because you deserve to be set free from the bondage of past hurts. How many people are filled with anger over what happened to them years ago? It's not that one should not have been initially angry, but that carrying it over time harms no one but you.
5. Practice the Corporal and Spiritual works of mercy. Huh! What's that? Those of us who go back to catechism days had to learn them, but they haven't been done away with, so this is what they are:
The Corporal Works of Mercy are these kind acts by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs.
feed the hungry
give drink to the thirsty
clothe the naked
shelter the homeless
visit the sick
visit the imprisoned
bury the dead
Spiritual Works of Mercy
The Spiritual Works of Mercy are acts of compassion, as listed below, by which we help our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs.
counsel the doubtful
instruct the ignorant
comfort the afflicted
bear wrongs patiently
pray for the living and the dead
So, as Scripture says: "Be Merciful, as your heavenly Father is Merciful" (Lk 6:36)