‘Blessed are the merciful’
It is surely significant that when Pope Francis announced last April that he would open the Holy Door at the beginning of a Jubilee Year he did so to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Church obviously feels a great need to keep this event alive as we have experienced in the various commemorations. It was a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning. It was a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction. The Church sensed a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world. And that is a task which unites us as Christians.
So we other Christians can support you in prayer and action in our common quest to display the compassion of Christ and the mercy of God in his Body, which is Christ, who longs for unity in his Church. We who are separated brothers and sisters need to be shown mercy and cooperation by Catholics. And we show mercy by seeking forgiveness for past wrongs and divisions which have damaged the Body of Christ. Collaboration among Christians is crucial in various areas of service to humanity if the world is to believe. What a great opportunity this Year of Mercy provides in being able to work side-by-side together to minister to those whom society has forgotten.
We must also not to forget to show mercy to those whose religious views differ from ours. That inter religious dialogue is as crucial as the ecumenical imperative. Prayer in common “should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’.”
But what does this mean in practice? I want to share just three points.
Firstly, It means tearing down walls. The Holy Year began on the day we remembered 50 years since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. I love the Pope`s comments on the purpose of the council, and the challenges they present to us today in all our congregations:
With the Council, the Church entered a new phase of her history. The Council Fathers strongly perceived, as a true breath of the Holy Spirit, a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way. The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way.
This is direct challenge to us all to look at the walls we have built up around ourselves. In what ways is our particular parish, even the world as Wesley said was his parish, like a fortress? What walls need to be torn down during this Jubilee year to bring us closer to the people we are called to serve? Are we effectively preaching the Gospel in a way that is accessible to people of our time? Is our church a living sign of God’s love in our community and neighbourhood?
Secondly, it means reaching out to ALL. The message is very clear that this year is for believers and non believers. The Holy Father desires that the balm of mercy reaches EVERYONE. Just as centuries ago John Wesley came to spread scriptural holiness and God`s message of love for all to the England of the 18th century. Through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, we are being invited to embrace the pain of the world. God wants us to put aside our indifference and become a messy Church where all our welcomed, where wounds are healed, the weak are carried and people are reconciled to God. He also makes a special plea for hardened criminals and evil-doers to repent of their ways and return to the Lord during this time.
Catholics and Methodists share this emphasis on acts of mercy. For Wesley, works of mercy are a crucial dimension in the Christian life, as shown through his writings, sermons and, actions. Wesley was oriented toward a social lifestyle from the very beginning of his life. His upbringing and his early days at Oxford with the “Holy Club” orientated him thus. Wesley pursued the area of a ministry in pursuit of social justice throughout his life, never deserting the cause. He not only regularly wrote and preached about the necessity of “works of mercy,” but he exemplified social responsibility through his actions. As Wesley grew older and could no longer actually perform physical work and deeds, he continued to preach diligently on the importance of social action. The question then becomes, why did Wesley hold works of mercy to be so vital to the Christian life? It was by virtue of their fundamental role in the process of sanctification, of growth in holiness. Wesley held works of mercy to be a necessary part of the “imitation of Christ,” and an essential but often overlooked part of spiritual formation.
This is probably one of the biggest challenges we face. It challenges our thoughts on who should and shouldn’t be in Church. Are we inclusive and ready and open to receiving such people? Are we ready to receive the unchurched, the hurting, the broken and the lost? Are we ready to step out of our comfort zones and leave our securities behind, so that we can go out and welcome all into our congregations?
Thirdly, it means learning from Jesus. Pope Francis gives many beautiful examples of mercy made manifest through the life, words and actions of Jesus for “everything in Him speaks of mercy”. Everything “He says and does teaches mercy”. There is much to reflect and pray over here, but with it comes an invitation to spend time during this year mediating and contemplating the word of God. If we want to be merciful, then we must commit ourselves to listen to His Word and learn from Him. We are also reminded that mercy is not just the work of the Father, it is also the criterion for ascertaining who his children are, who his disciples are. If we are truly disciples of our Lord, then mercy is a fundamental part of our calling and mission. It is what we will be judged on just as we read in the story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, another crucial text for Wesley in his preaching.
Do we give God’s word priority in our community life and daily lives? Are we challenged by scripture? Are our hearts and witness formed by his word or by the world around us? Can we as Catholics and Protestants learn from each other as we read the scripture, as we did in our last Methodist/Roman Catholic British Committee, as an exercise in lectio divina? In what ways then does mercy become part of our shared personal and collective mission?
Centuries ago St. Caesarius of Arles wrote these words which resonate with us still as a challenge for today: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. ‘Mercy’ is a beautiful word: more beautiful still is the thing itself. All men wish to receive it, but the worst thing is that not all of them behave in a way that deserves it. Although everyone wishes to be shown mercy only a few wish to show it. O man, how can you have the effrontery to ask for what you refuse to give to others? You must show mercy in this world if you want to receive mercy in heaven.
And so let us, in our different traditions, seek this year to recover the practice of mercy, in corporal and spiritual matters, together, in the quest for holiness and in bringing all to the salvation that a merciful Father wills for all his children.