Just before Christmas Pope Francis inaugurated the Year of Mercy for 2016. What at first appeared to be exclusively a pastoral response to internal situations in the Catholic Church, specifically the outreach to divorced and lapsed Catholics who feel excluded from the Church, has become a much broader initiative.
Pope Francis in his various talks has always stressed that people come before doctrines. In fact, he has been criticised for this by some from within the Church. But his instinct is sure. He somehow has rightly taken the collective pulse of Catholic people everywhere and discerned the need for a personal witness to God’s mercy.
Some are afraid of the word ‘mercy’ because it seems to suggest the need for divine forgiveness because of our inherent human sinfulness (to use a word we often try to avoid).
We have every reason, as a species, to be aware of our tendency to embrace evil rather than love.
As I write the world is watching as Syrian forces bring the rebel city of Medaya to the point of starvation. An NGO spokesperson said this morning (January 8th) on the BBC World Service News that children, already suffering from starvation, will die in the city of Medaya within the next 48 hours. This is just one example of our current lack of humanity. We could also instance our indifference before the imminent threat posed by climate change. Only the mercy of God can bring about the change of heart needed for us to pull back from these evils.
In biblical terms the word ‘mercy’ is the English translation for the Hebrew word ‘heed’ which is usually translated as “loving-kindness”. It is a translation of the word ‘hesed’ found frequently in our liturgical prayer books, for example, in the Psalms. We often refer to the “loving-kindness of our God”. We recognise that this all embracing kindness and love is a quality we ascribe to God, to the divine. It is a personal quality, not something abstract. It affirms our conviction that human history is an area where God’s loving kindness is always available, if we open ourselves to it and if we construct a world that bears witness to it.
Which brings me back to Pope Francis. Just this week (the first week in January 2016) Pope Francis issued an extraordinary appeal to people of all religious faiths and none to join with him in ending the current wave of violence and strife engulfing our world. It is an inspirational call to all the religions to set aside differences in the promotion of peace, harmony and love (not just tolerance!).
What a challenge this is as we begin 2016.