The meaning of mercy

By Steve Atherton

As we come to the end of the Year of Mercy, I'd like to share with you some of the gifts it has given to me. As the Archdiocese's Justice & Peace fieldworker, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on what I'm supposed to be doing and thinking about the tasks implied by the title of the job. What is justice? What is peace? How do we encourage our parishes to be places where justice and peace can be found, places where they flourish?

I get phone calls sometimes from people who think I'm a justice of the peace who can help them with some legal problem they have. I have to tell them the Church doesn't deal with the legal system and we have nothing to do with the courts.

During the Year of Mercy I've been helped to realise that, even in the context of Church life, I do have a tendency to think of justice as a legal approach to the way I live, as a way of doing what is right. I'm not on my own in this. Saint Paul wrote scathingly that we are not saved by the law, with the phrase "works of law" occurring 74 times in his letters. This might sound a bit pedantic but what Saint Paul is reminding us is that we are not 'saved' by anything we do. We cannot put ourselves onto the 'good step' by doing certain things and by not doing others. We are saved because of the mercy of God. That is the great blessing that Pope Francis has given us in this Year of Mercy: a chance to relearn that God's love is complete and overwhelming. It is not something we have to earn.

There are two words in Hebrew scripture to describe God's love. Hesed: God's compassionate love that reveals Him as a doting father in whose eyes his children can do no wrong; and Rachamim: God's tender love that reveals Him as a mother who cannot help but love the child once carried in her womb. The tenderness of this mercy is a far cry from the mercy of a judge who lets us off despite what we have done.

The Greek translation of mercy was Eleos, from which we get Kyrie Eleison: Lord have mercy. Thus at the start of Mass we are not pleading with a judge but luxuriating in the overwhelming love that God has for us. This is the mercy we ask for in the Gloria and then again in the Agnus Dei.

None of this is to say it doesn't matter what we do. Of course it matters. Our search for justice and peace is now fuelled by our desire to be like our heavenly parent, to share the love that is showered on us. We will do this in the way we live and the kindness we show in our relationships with others, especially in the way we care for people. Our caring needs to include not just other people but we need to be kind to ourselves and to all creation. This brings us back to the three priorities of the Justice and Peace Commission that I wrote about last month: 1) forced migration; 2) care for creation; and 3) inequality.

If the Year of Mercy is leading us to make caring the touchstone of our behaviour, then maybe we could remember the words of the poet Robert Frost: "Only three things matter. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind."

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