“We need Christians who make God’s mercy and tenderness for every creature visible to the men and women of our day. We all know that the crisis of modern man is not superficial but profound… The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the gospel.” (Pope Francis)
These words of Pope Francis seem to be an unreachable ideal, making any who desire it something of a Don Quixote tipping at windmills while singing “Dream the Impossible Dream.” Yet that is exactly what a Christian is called to do: dream the impossible, believe the unbelievable, live the unexpected and do all with the confidence of a child of God.
Jesus Christ, Son of God, became human two thousand years ago. Nothing is more improbable or impossible than that. Because of that event in human history, everything is changed, “changed utterly.” We can do more with Christ than we are capable of doing ourselves. We can love no matter the situation. We can forgive instead of retaliating; we can believe in the midst of doubt and move forward in the face of fear. We can pick ourselves up after failure over and over.
Our God walks with us, cries with us, laughs with us and reaches out to those in need through us. In this extraordinary Year of Mercy, the Church is called to embolden itself and raise the standard of behavior to that of being a Church of Mercy. We know well the sins of the Church — greed, sexual misconduct, cover-up, fraud, abuse of power. For those who have suffered under any of these realities, the Church can only respond with honesty, retribution and sorrow. Yet there are also the daily sins of indifference, neglect, coldness, meanness, cruelty, disrespect. Often people at their most vulnerable are met with these reactions from those who represent the Church. Fortunately there are many Church members who are kind and compassionate; but somehow the unkindness leaves a wound that is hard to heal.
This is the extraordinary Year of Mercy, a time for the Church to do what every Christian is called to do — approach God with empty hands and perhaps even empty hearts and ask for mercy. This is neither easy nor quick. We may have to stay in the pose of the suppliant for a long time, until God’s message sinks in. It is not that God is slow to forgive. On the contrary, mercy is God’s nature, but we have to learn it and that takes time.
Lent is a good time to learn. The sins of the Church are all of our sins, whether committed by pope or prelate, cardinal or priest, nun or deacon, grandmother or son. As we begin every Mass with “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy,” we are praying for everyone. The transformation of the human heart is an incredible experience. What a waste not to take advantage of it. It seems as if God is offing a waterfall of mercy, enough to cover the whole world; and we walk by it and measure out a few drops from a puddle of water far from the source.
The first weekend of March, the 4th and 5th, Pope Francis invited us to join him in “24 Hours for the Lord.” He asked us to step into that waterfall of God’s mercy and be refreshed and strengthened for ourselves and, in turn, for others. The needy among us are the homeless on our streets, the refugees at our borders and the heartbroken in our own families. Few have the opportunity to step from the usual rush of life and spend this 24-hour period in contemplation of the mercy of God, of the God of mercy. But we can all do something. The best prayer of all is gratitude. We can set our iPhones and Fitbits to chirp, vibrate or buzz every hour. Then with the reminder, stop for just a moment and thank God for that moment in time. We can step into the waterfall of mercy. It beats settling for a pathetic little puddle.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.