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The Church of Mercy with Pope Francis

Oscar Andrés Cardenal Rodríguez M., S.D.B
 

On January 20, 2015, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics hosted a visit to Santa Clara University by Cardinal Oscar Andres Maradiaga Rodriguez, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa and president of Caritas Internationalis. Cardinal Rodriguez is the coordinator of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinal Advisors. His remarks were drawn from this essay.

Watch the video of the talk

1. The Gospel is summarized in love

Fraternal love has its origins in God, who is Love and that loved us first. He spreads his love unto us, through the Holy Spirit, so that, in each of us, that love can grow, mature and resemble true love —the love with which Christ loved us.

If we are able to love, it is because God communicates his love to us. If we can love, it is due to Christ’s death for love and His resurrection, which have made love possible. This love of Jesus is the measure of love. The Christian ideal surpasses the pure humanism of interpersonal equality ("don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you; do unto others what you want others to do unto you"), and pushes us to love as Christ loved us. Therefore love’s growth has no limits in our life. That is why learning to love is the great task of Christian spirituality, always unfinished.

Sometimes there is the risk of focusing spirituality on other goals, other values, and not giving supremacy to the Beautitude of Mercy. This Beautitude teaches us that according to the Gospel, it is both solidarity and commitment of efficient love towards the brother in need and suffering misery, and the forgiveness of offenses and the reconciliation.

Mercy is the practice of fraternal love, and it shows us the concrete ways of the incarnation of love: the reconciliation and the liberation from miseries. Jesus’ teachings reveal to us that practicing mercy is the only universal way that builds fraternity (that makes us brothers and sisters to one another). That is the message of The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is the parable of the true practice of mercy and fraternal love (Luke 10: 25-37). At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the experts in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor (brother) to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10: 30). It means that the three were not brothers of the wounded. They could have been, but in fact “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10: 37) was. The priest was not a brother of the Jew and neither was the Levite, the Samaritan was. For Jesus being a brother to others is not something “automatic,” like an acquired right. We are not brothers without practicing love. Saint Paul reminds us that we gain nothing if we serve the poor or surrender to martyrdom if we do not have love (I Cor. 13: 1 et seq.)

Regarding the commandment of growing in love, we must acknowledge that we do not know how to love. Our love is usually a caricature (Rom. 12: 9: “let love be genuine”). Our selfishness, our worries and our sensitivity take us over. Nevertheless we know that fraternal charity is the most difficult Christian and human realization: to be able to love as Christ loves us. We know that on Earth we will never reach the perfection of love; we know that we will continually fail, that we do not know how to overcome division and rancor, that every day we are timid in serving, in welcoming, in forgiving and in giving something of our lives for others. All this does not mean that we do not want to love or that in fact we do not love. Love is the way of love, to love is to want to love. What God asks of us, essentially, is not the success of charity but the permanent effort to grow in love and the struggle to learn to love, which begins every day. In the struggle to mature in love, the “human” and “evangelical” aspect of love walk together hand in hand, without ruptures or contradictions.

There is no separation between human love and Christian charity. There should not be in practice a quandary between evangelization and social action born out of charity. The commandment of love that Christ gave us coincides with the vocation of man to grow affectionately, to give and give oneself above receiving and possessing.

Indeed, the mission, the mercy and the service to the poor and to all brothers as a human and missionary experience must be a place of discovery of God, of greater knowledge of the face of God. God’s Spirit reveals Himself in the values of self-giving and service, the aspirations to justice and solidarity, in each conversion, in the “little ones”, the suffering and the indigent… Human reality, cultures, are filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the action of God that builds the Kingdom; they lead us to experience God Himself.

The social dimension of the mission implies becoming “contemplative in the action.” Both dimensions of the evangelist’s spirituality are inseparable: The God that is experienced and loved in Himself and through himself, and the God experienced and loved in the brothers. The first dimension underlines that Christianity is transcendental to any temporal reality; the second dimension highlights that Chrisitanity is incarnated and inseparable from the love to the brother. The first one reminds us of the first commandment to love God above everything else, and the absolute of the person of Jesus. The second one reminds us of the commandment similar to the first one, to love your neighbor as yourself and the presence of Christ in that love.

The Christ found and contemplated in the prayer of the faithful “prolongs itself” in the encounter with the brother, and if we are able to experience Christ in the service to the “little ones,” it is because we have already found Him in the contemplative prayer. Social charity is not only to discover Jesus’ presence in the brother (“you do it to me”), but also a call to action in his favor, a call to commitment. That is why if we evangelize with Christ in our hearts, we will do the works he did.

Jesus certainly has widened the horizon and the demands of love and has given it new motives and meaning. But his demands for evangelical charity take place and develop in the interior of human love, the emotional nature and the heart, though they are surpassed by the faith and action of the Holy Spirit. (For which fraternal love it is not always sensitive and gratifying). We learn to love following Jesus through love. Once more, he shows us the true practice of love, and communicates to us the light and life to be able to love like he loved us and to be able to evangelize as he did.

2. Mercy is the Highest Expression of Love

The Church presided in charity—as it is called liturgically—wants to be known in times of Pope Francis as the house of mercy. The following text summarizes this symbol of identity: “I believe that this is the season of mercy. This new era we have entered, and the many problems in the Church – like the poor witness given by some priests, problems of corruption in the Church, the problem of clericalism for example – have left so many people hurt, left so much hurt. The Church is a mother: she has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy.” (Pope Francis Press Conference on July 28, 2013)

The Pope’s words in this speech feel harsh for the corrupted, the abuser, the liar, the one who seeks power mundanely, but feel tender and benevolent, like balm and sweet to “those who are hurting.” A Samaritan Church will heal the wounds of those who are beaten, hurting and prostrated, those who have weakly fallen under the power of those who use violence. That is why the Pope’s words have such a deep evangelical meaning. Thinking about the Church as “a mother who has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy,” puts her in a completely original role —the one from the beginning of Christianity— a Church that is close to people, incarnated and submerged in the existential history of man, turning their miseries into wealth and their weaknesses into their biggest strength. This makes us think of the Church in metaphoric similarities to a “home” and a “hospital”. The Church of Christ is the Church of Francis: beset with compassion.

2.1 The starting point: God’s Mercy

In the Angelus from September 15, 2013, the Pope said: “Remember this well, ‘There is no limit to the Divine Mercy which is offered to everyone,” since “Mercy is the true force that can save man and the world from the “cancer” that is sin, moral evil, spiritual evil. Only love fills the void, the negative chasms that evil opens in hearts and in history. Only love can do this, and this is God’s joy!”

Starting from God’s Mercy, the Church that allows itself to be led by that mercy becomes infinitely generous and can take the commandment of Love to the ultimate consequences, knowing that it is Love what saves man and the world, or what saves man from the world. If sin is considered a “cancer” and can disguise itself as moral evil, spiritual evil and psychological evil, then the universal remedy against any form of evil will be the love that becomes forgiveness; it will be the love that becomes hope able to give meaning to so many empty lives and so many human lives beset with pain and frustration. If something is able to redeem from sin it is the Cross of Christ. Therefore, everything that fits under the Cross’ shade is redeemed.

It is not just Christ’s pain and his passion that redeem, it is not just the cross that saves us: his pain, his passion and his cross have redeeming power because of Love. It is then Christ’s crucified Love that gives back meaning to human existence and elevates it to the dignity from which sin deprived it and that Jesus’ decision, dying for love in the cross, recovered.

If the world experienced how big God’s love and salvation initiative are, all temples would be filled with people asking for the holy sacraments of Confession, Baptism, Anointing of the Sick and Eucharist. Priests would not be able to handle such a need for absolution, blessing or communion since entire multitudes —convinced of that infinite love of God, origin of salvation—, would understand that truth and life have a name: Jesus. And his name is Love.

That is why the Pope says, “Only love fills the void,” Which void? Superficiality, noise, alienation of the heart that hardens when it lets itself be taken over by consumerism, love for money, the culture of death, the maelstrom of pleasure in all its forms, the drugs and the life without God. If man’s void was filled with God’s mercy and mercy could be experienced in the Church, nobody would abandon their parish, temples would be packed with faithful, seminaries would be filled with young men that would leave the field of daily worries to devote themselves to serve God and console their brothers. This is not idyllic nor poetic, it is as realistic as the pain that only love can heal. Void cannot be filled with another void. It has to be filled with content and realities that can sublimate and explain them. That is why the answer that man—wounded—seeks as the ultimate meaning of his existence only exists in God.

If people were to found a Church close to the people, compassionate, a companion, identified with the bleeding pain of so many “sick” and terminally ill lives, the Church of Christ, the Church that Pope Francis presides today, would be more credible and necessary.

It is starting from God’s mercy how we reach man. That is why every honest meeting with the existential reality of man takes place under the sign of mercy. It is either mercy or judgment. And the Church is not here to judge, condemn, reproach or reject anybody but to embrace as in a home where love reigns for everybody who needs it.

2.2. The Point of Encounter: Man’s misery

It is starting from God’s mercy how we reach man. That is why every honest meeting with the existential reality of man takes place under the sign of mercy. It is either mercy or judgment. And the Church is not here to judge, condemn, reproach or reject anybody but to embrace as in a home where love reigns for everybody who needs it.

Pope Francis explains that Jesus’ mercy towards man is not so much a feeling as a force. He says it in this manner, “it is a force that gives life, that raises man up! (…) “This compassion is the love of God for man, it is mercy, the attitude of God in contact with human misery, with our poverty, our suffering, our anguish,” (Angelus, June 9, 2013).

It is not a simple emotional harmony of the agreement of altruist feelings but a real assumption and possession of the misery of man by God. When Christ was Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made Man (cf. Nicene’s Creed), he took as his all human beings reality, all their miseries to redeem them and save what was lost. He did it in a way that where there was man in his circumstances, where there was a person conditioned by his or her own existential environment, where life weighs and existence hurts, where depression and absurdity stand out, God’s love arrives, repeating what the Pope said, “the attitude of God in contact with human misery, with our poverty, our suffering, our anguish,” (idem). God does not become absent from man. Instead, moved by mercy, He has an eternal appointment with him to heal his misery and proclaim about each life and about each history a new hope made up of forgiveness, comprehension and deep tenderness. This type of God wants this type of Church.

Therefore, following Jesus does not mean to participate in a triumphant entourage. It means to share his merciful love, to enter his great work of mercy for each man and for all men.

2.3. The Finish Point: The Church of Mercy

We walk as Church towards a deep and global renovation. For this renovation to be sincerely Catholic, it must encompass all of the historical dimensions of the Church.

Specifically, there is no true ecclesial renovation without a transformation of the institutions; of the quality and focus of the activities; of the mystic and the spiritual. Usually, renovation begins with pastoral activities. For it is there where the inconsistencies of a certain “model” of the Church and reality are primarily experienced. The missionaries, the evangelists on the “margins” of the Church, are the first ones to notice the insufficiency of the “traditional” ways of action; the pastoral criticism begins with the experience of the mission in the “peripheries.” Changes and adjustments begin there.

After Vatican Council II, the methods and content of evangelization and Christian education change. The liturgy changes: local languages are adopted, some rituals and symbols change, measurements are taken for a greater participation, etc. The missionary perspective changes: the missionary must know the culture, the human situation; the missionary must establish an evangelizing dialogue with those realities. “Social action” changes, it is no longer just charity and development services but also struggle for justice, human rights and liberation…

For Christian coherency, certain institutional and organizational changes are contemplated simultaneously: new functions require new suitable institutions.

The Council propelled institutional renovations, following the logic of the Spirit. These reforms encompass all levels of the ecclesial organization: the religious congregations or missionary societies —whose “Chapters of Renovation” multiply— the diocesan and Vatican Curia, Episcopal Conferences, the Synods, the parishes, the pastoral areas, the presbyteries, the lay apostolic institutions, the teaching of theology, the seminaries, the catholic schools… New institutions for missionary dialogue emerge: ecumenism, Jews, other religions… Everything in the Church changes consistent with a renewed pastoral model.

Maybe some thought that the Church renovation was only that. But the institutional and functional changes —alone in themselves— proved insufficient, superficial. Sometimes they created new problems and crises both unnecessary and deep. Any change in the Church eventually requires considering a renovation of the motivations that the new options inspire. Without deep-rooted, living and explicit motivations, no human group, no institution and no society can survive for a long time, much less renovate itself. Motivations answer to the fundamental “why” of the options, the enterprises, the demands, and the same reason for being of the institution.

The Pope wants to take this Church renovation to the point where it becomes irreversible. The wind that propels the sails of the Church towards the open sea of its deep and total renovation is Mercy.

For the Church, the motivations are more than essential; they are its identity stamp. The “why” of its organization and its action cannot be decisively explained by the human sciences or the pure historical rationality: they refer to Jesus and his Gospel as the global, indispensable and predominant motivation. It is the motivation of the Spirit. Therefore, to speak of motivations in Christianity is to speak of the mystical, of spirituality.

The institutional and functional renovation of the Church requires a renovation of its mystical dimension. And at the roots of the mystical is mercy.

2.4 The Maternal Heart of Mercy

Catholic spirituality in history, due to its same incarnate nature, never takes place as an “activity” isolated from the pastoral, the theological, the social and the cultural conditions. Since one of its dimensions —it is not the only one— is to motivate believers to follow of Jesus. This following acquires renovated nuances, demands and topics consistent with the mission and with the human experience of the believers. While the life of Christ and the Gospels are always the same, the experiences and the options that inspire are always historical.

Spirituality is not a science nor one more praxis in the Church. It is the “nourishment” of the pastoral, the theology and the community, whatever their “model” is.

When this was forgotten by the process of ecclesial renovation, this caused “schizophrenia” in some Christians, which is one of the causes of many failures. In a short time, they progressed in all of the levels of the renovation. They changed many pastoral, theological, and disciplinary categories. The image and the mission of the Church changed. Likewise, its concept that related faith with history and society changed; therefore the social and political options became more important.

In this context, there was no mystical renovation and it remained “traditional,” consistent with another vision of the faith and of the mission, and inconsistent with the new ecclesial experiences.

In this context, a spirituality does not motivate, it becomes irrelevant. It ends up being perceived as a useless appendix and ends up being abandoned, since a mystic that does not nourish the human experience stops having meaning; a spirituality that is foreign to the ecclesial model that is being lived leads to the crisis of the Christian “schizophrenia.” Many abandonments of the ecclesial life, and even of the faith, are rooted there. The only answer is not in abandoning all mystic or reversing the renovation of the institutions or options (due to fear of a collapse of the Christian values), but in deeply renovating the faith and spirituality starting from love to reach mercy. That is what the Pope wants.

In that regard, on July 28, 2013, Pope Francis said (speech):
“She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand… So we need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of 'wounded' persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love."

On December 9, 2014, at the Chapel of the Santa Marta Guest House I heard the Pope say loud and clear what I will share now: “I ask myself, what is the consolation of the Church? Just as an individual is consoled when he feels the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord, the Church rejoices and is happy when she goes out of herself. In the Gospel, the pastor who goes out goes to seek the lost sheep – he could keep accounts like a good businessman. [He could say]: ‘Ninety-nine sheep, if I lose one, it’s no problem; the balance sheet – gains and losses. But it’s fine, we can get by.’ No, he has the heart of a shepherd, he goes out and searches for [the lost sheep] until he finds it, and then he rejoices, he is joyful.”

“When the Church does not do this, then the Church stops herself, is closed in on herself, even if she is well organized, has a perfect organizational chart, everything’s fine, everything’s tidy – but she lacks joy, she lacks peace, and so she becomes a disheartened Church, anxious, sad, a Church that seems more like a spinster than a mother, and this Church doesn’t work, it is a Church in a museum. The joy of the Church is to give birth; the joy of the Church is to go out of herself to give life; the joy of the Church is to go out to seek the sheep that are lost; the joy of the Church is precisely the tenderness of the shepherd, the tenderness of the mother.”

“May the Lord give us the grace of working, of being joyful Christians in the fruitfulness of Mother Church, and keep us from falling into the attitude of these sad Christians, impatient, disheartened, anxious, that have all the perfection in the Church, but do not have ‘children.’ May the Lord console us with the consolation of a Mother Church that goes out of herself and consoles us with the consolation of the tenderness of Jesus and His mercy in the forgiveness of our sins.”

These are words accompanied by gestures of the Pope that speak of coherence. His actions and his harmony with those who need consolation are small pieces of encyclicals, they are itinerant “Pope Magisterium,” they are prophetic gestures that arouse admiration and cause the holy emulation of what he does, because he does it as Christ did and Peter summarizes it at Cornelius’ house: “He went about doing good” (Acts 10: 38).

3. To Bear Witness to God’s Mercy is to Commit to Man

The best testimony of charity and mercy is found especially in the saints, in their high level of Christian life and in the maturity of the live idea of God. The God loved and worshiped by saints reveals Himself gradually along with the fidelity and contemplative growth of the believer [“no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10: 22)].

The biblical God is not the God of Theodicy or of pure rationality: it is a God that has to be found, that has to be received as a gift and as a revelation. It is a different God… The Christian God is not exactly the God of the philosophers, of the logic and of the Theists. Just believing in God does not make you a Christian. A Christian is someone who has discovered the biblical God; the God of Abraham, of Moses, of the Prophets, that revealed Himself in plenitude in the God of Jesus. Through the history of Salvation, there is a gradual revelation of the face of the true and only God. The way of the Church’s pastoral conversion today is to guide individuals and cultures through that gradual revelation, though in different contexts and experiences. Nothing reveals God more than love. Therefore, Pope Francis says (speech of November 14, 2013) that, “The Church’s primary task is to bear witness to the mercy of God and to encourage generous reactions of solidarity in order to open a future of hope. For where hope increases, energy and commitment to building a more human and just social order also grows, and new possibilities for sustainable and healthy development emerge.”

3.1 Full-Time Christians

In the Family Synod (October 2014) something notable happened for the first time: There were like two Synods because outside the precinct where the Synod Fathers were gathered, there was a media Synod that denoted a perverse intention to confuse opinions, invent answers, imagine solutions and exaggerate positions of those of us gathered there; instead, inside the working room a charismatic, serene, cordial, filled-with-unction-and-faith synod was taking place, seeking to agree and to answer the essential issues of family and marriage.

Many identified as the unique and fundamental topic, issues that were merely secondary. For example, we did not talk only about giving “communion” to re-married Christians —that was a collateral argument, it was never essential. What was really said, and I repeat and emphasize, is that the realities of dissolved and rebuilt families are not an impediment to live and participate in the abundant life of the Church; that the “sacramental communion” is not the only way to vitally participate in the pastoral dynamic of the parish community and that every Christian couple that seeks God will find Him because he allows Himself to be found and that every re-married Christian can be a full-time Christian, has a right to be happy, and his house can become also a place where the love of God is born witness.

For me, there is no “place in the basement” of the Church for Catholics that have wanted to rebuild their lives having remarried, though they cannot receive the Sacrament of Communion; there is no corner in attic for migrants that do not have documents in order and want to prepare their children in the sacraments of Christian Initiation; there is no special window in Heaven to assist those who have left the Catholic Church and have gone to other places seeking the warmth, refuge and respect that their mother has not been able to provide.

All these are challenges to our conscience and a strong and tough demand to our parish practices that are so rigid and narrow-minded. That is why the Pope said to be careful not to turn the parish and episcopal offices into “customs.” And he is completely right. (Santa Marta, May 25, 2013). To remember the whole message, I quote: “We are many times ‘controllers of faith,’ instead of becoming ‘facilitators’ of the faith of the people," lamented the Pope during his daily mass at Santa Marta’s Guest House in the Vatican. In his homily that was broadcasted by Vatican Radio, the Argentine Pope mentioned a priest who refused to baptize the son of a single mother, “this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy (…) and what does she find? A closed door,” affirmed the Pope.

Nobody is excluded from the Church of Christ. There is a place for everybody, for the migrants, for those who one day abandoned the Church but come back convinced that they can stay forever, for those married-divorced-remarried, for the poor, for everybody. Within these categories fall those that Francis calls “the least”, when he encourages: “The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be. If we step outside ourselves we find poverty. We cannot put up with this! We cannot become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ, those who are the flesh of Christ! (Vigil of Pentecost, May 18, 2013).

3.2 The Culture of Good

The Pope’s words sounded strong when he said, “Be men and women with others and for others: true champions at the service of others” (December 2, 2013). Following this, the Holy Father tells us something fundamental, three points that I want to share with you today to finish my talk here: “In your society, which is deeply marked by secularization, I encourage you also to be present in the public debate, in all the areas where man is at issue, to make God’s mercy and his tenderness for every creature visible.” Yes, dear Friends, let it be a task and commitment for you to work courageously and heroically “where man is at issue.” Only in that manner will we bear witness of God’s mercy, the mercy that is love —and love that begins at home.

The incarnate aspect of spirituality, turning life into a transcendental humanism according to the Spirit, is what lays the foundation for the Christian mystic. It is focused on the search for God through Jesus, but also focused on man and the search for fraternal love. It lives in the hope that the Kingdom will have no end but it centers completely on the tasks of a Kingdom in history and in society. It receives faith as a gift from God, irrepressible to any human experience, but it knows that faith takes diverse shapes and demands according to the cultures, the challenges of society and the individual commitment, and that all human or Christian commitment must also be a place of the experience of God.

Since certainly, the privileged “place” in which Christ’s Mercy becomes incarnate and becomes practice is in the love for the brothers and sisters, and in the preferential love for the poor and the suffering. The temporal reality that summarizes all the incarnations of the mystic, all the realism of the Christian spirit, and that gathers all the demands of the practice of the faith and love, is the brother, is the poor. The God hiding in the faces of our brothers is the supreme experience of incarnation and to practice mercy is it’s definitive stamp because “mercy is the true force that can save man and the world” (September 15, 2013).

Thank you

Jan 20, 2015