In this, our third meeting, I propose that we meditate on the works of mercy, by taking whichever one we feel is most closely linked to our charism, and by looking at them as a whole. We can contemplate them through the merciful eyes of Our Lady, who helps us to find “the wine that is lacking” and encourages us to “do whatever Jesus tells us” (cf. Jn 2:1-12), so that his mercy can work the miracles that our people need.
The works of mercy are closely linked to the “spiritual senses”. In our prayer we ask for the grace so to “feel and savour” the Gospel that it can make us more “sensitive” in our lives. Moved by the Spirit and led by Jesus, we can see from afar, with the eyes of mercy, those who have fallen along the wayside. We can hear the cries of Bartimaeus and feel with Jesus the timid yet determined touch of the woman suffering from haemorrhage, as she grasps his robe. We can ask for the grace to taste with the crucified Jesus the bitter gall of all those who share in his cross, and smell the stench of misery – in field hospitals, in trains and in boats crammed with people. The balm of mercy does not disguise this stench. Rather, by anointing it, it awakens new hope.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in discussing the works of mercy, tells us that “when her mother reproached her for care for the poor and the sick at home, Saint Rose of Lima said to her: ‘When we serve the poor and the sick, we are the good odour of Christ’” (No. 2449, Latin). That good odour of Christ – the care of the poor – is, and always has been, the hallmark of the Church. Paul made it the focus of his meeting with Peter, James and John, the “columns” of the Church. He tells us that they “asked only one thing, that we remember the poor” (Gal 2:10). The Catechism goes on to say, significantly, that “those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church, which from her origins, and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defence and liberation” (No. 2448).
In the Church we have, and have always had, our sins and failings. But when it comes to serving the poor by the works of mercy, as a Church we have always followed the promptings of the Spirit. Our saints did this in quite creative and effective ways. Love for the poor has been the sign, the light that draws people to give glory to the Father. Our people value this in a priest who cares for the poor and the sick, for those whose sins he forgives and for those whom he patiently teaches and corrects… Our people forgive us priests many failings, except for that of attachment to money. This does not have so much to do with money itself, but the fact that money makes us lose the treasure of mercy. Our people can sniff out which sins are truly grave for a priest, the sins that kill his ministry because they turn him into a bureaucrat or, even worse, a mercenary. They can also recognize which sins are, I won’t say secondary, but that have to be put up with, borne like a cross, until the Lord at last burns them away like the chaff. But the failure of a priest to be merciful is a glaring contradiction. It strikes at the heart of salvation, against Christ, who “became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). Because mercy heals “by losing something of itself”. We feel a pang of regret and we lose a part of our life, because rather than do what we wanted to do, we reached out to someone else.
So it is not about God showing me mercy for this or that sin, as if I were otherwise self-sufficient, or about us performing some act of mercy towards this or that person in need. The grace we seek in this prayer is that of letting ourselves be shown mercy by God in every aspect of our lives and in turn to show mercy to others in all that we do. As priests and bishops, we work with the sacraments, baptizing, hearing confessions, celebrating the Eucharist… Mercy is our way of making the entire life of God’s people a sacrament. Being merciful is not only “a way of life”, but “the way of life”. There is no other way of being a priest. Father Brochero, soon to be canonized, put it this way: “The priest who has scarce pity for sinners is only half a priest. These vestments I wear are not what make me a priest; if I don’t have charity in my heart, I am not even a Christian.”
To see needs and to bring immediate relief, and even more, to anticipate those needs: this is the mark of a father’s gaze. This priestly gaze – which takes the place of the father in the heart of Mother Church – makes us see people with the eyes of mercy. It has to be learned from seminary on, and it must enrich all our pastoral plans and projects. We desire, and we ask the Lord to give us, a gaze capable of discerning the signs of the times, to know “what works of mercy our people need today” in order to feel and savour the God of history who walks among them. For, as Aparecida says, quoting Saint Alberto Hurtado: “In our works, our people know that we understand their suffering” (No. 386). In our works…
The proof that we understand is that our works of mercy are blessed by God and meet with help and cooperation from our people. Some plans and projects do not work out well, without people ever realizing why. They rack their brains trying to come up with yet another pastoral plan, when all somebody has to say is: “It’s not working because it lacks mercy”, with no further ado. If it is not blessed, it is because it lacks mercy. It lacks the mercy found in a field hospital, not in expensive clinics; it lacks the mercy that values goodness and opens the door to an encounter with God, rather than turning someone away with sharp criticism…
I am going to propose a prayer about the woman whose sins were forgiven (Jn 8:3-11), to ask for the grace to be merciful in the confessional, and another prayer about the social dimension of the works of mercy.
I have always been struck by the passage of the Lord’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, and how, by refusing to condemn her, he “fell short of” the Law. In response to the question they asked to test him – “should she be stoned or not?” – he did not rule, he did not apply the law. He played dumb, and then turned to something else. He thus initiated a process in the heart of the woman who needed to hear those words: “Neither do I condemn you”. He stretched out his hand and helped her to her feet, letting her see a gentle gaze that changed her heart.
Sometimes I feel a little saddened and annoyed when people go straight to the last words Jesus speaks to her: “Go and sin no more”. They use these words to “defend” Jesus from bypassing the law. I believe that Christ’s words are of a piece with his actions. He bends down to write on the ground as a prelude to what he is about to say to those who want to stone the woman, and he does so again before talking to her. This tells us something about the “time” that the Lord takes in judging and forgiving. The time he gives each person to look into his or her own heart and then to walk away. In talking to the woman, the Lord opens other spaces: one is that of non-condemnation. The Gospel clearly mentions this open space. It makes us see things through the eyes of Jesus, who tells us: “I see no one else but this woman”.
Then Jesus makes the woman herself look around. He asks her: “Where are those who condemned you?” (The word “condemn” is itself important, since it is about what we find unacceptable about those who judge or caricature us…). Once he has opened before her eyes this space freed of other people’s judgements, he tells her that neither will he throw a stone there: “Nor do I condemn you”. Then he opens up another free space before her: “Go and sin no more”. His command has to do with the future, to help her to make a new start and to “walk in love”. Such is the sensitivity of mercy: it looks with compassion on the past and offers encouragement for the future.
Those words, “Go and sin no more” are not easy. The Lord says them “with her”. He helps her put into words what she herself feels, a free “no” to sin that is like Mary’s “yes” to grace. That “no” has to be said to the deeply-rooted sin present in everyone. In that woman, it was a social sin; people approached her either to sleep with her or to throw stones at her. That is why the Lord does not only clear the path before her, but sets her on her way, so that she can stop being the “object” of other people’s gaze and instead take control of her life. Those words, “sin no more” refer not only to morality, but, I believe, to a kind of sin that keeps her from living her life. Jesus also told the paralytic at Bethzatha to sin no more (Jn 5:14). But that man had justified himself with all the sad things that had “happened to him”; he suffered from a victim complex. So Jesus challenged him ever so slightly by saying: “…lest something worse happen to you”. The Lord took advantage of his way of thinking, his fears, to draw him out of his paralysis. He gave him a little scare, we might say. The point is that each of us has to hear the words “sin no more” in his own deeply personal way.
This image of the Lord who sets people on their way is very typical. He is the God who walks at his people’s side, who leads them forward, who accompanies our history. Hence, the object of his mercy is quite clear: it is everything that keeps a man or a woman from walking on the right path, with their own people, at their own pace, to where God is asking them to go. What troubles him is that people get lost, or fall behind, or try to go it on their own. That they end up nowhere. That they are not there for the Lord, ready to go wherever he wants to send them. That they do not walk humbly before him (cf. Mic 6:8), that they do not walk in love (cf. Eph 5:2).
Full text of Pope Francis’ first meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ second meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ third meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Courtesy: Vatican Radio, Image: Woman Caught in Adultery, John Martin Borg, 2002.