Like Pope Francis, St John Paul II wrote on mercy quite early in his papacy. I was not aware of such writings in those college days of mine. If you check the links in the highlighted text, you’ll see it was promulgated two years and a month or more into the JP2 era–about the same spot we’re in now with Francis.
The idea that secular society has forsaken mercy is not new to Pope Francis. His sainted predecessor preached on it more than a third of a century ago:
11. Let us not forget the great teaching offered by Saint John Paul II in his second Encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, which at the time came unexpectedly, its theme catching many by surprise. There are two passages in particular to which I would like to draw attention. First, Saint John Paul II highlighted the fact that we had forgotten the theme of mercy in today’s cultural milieu: “The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in (people), who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it (cf. Gen 1:28). This dominion over the earth, sometimes understood in a one-sided and superficial way, seems to have no room for mercy … And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God.”[Evangelii Gaudium 2]
This is spot on. I think it takes great sanctity to merge mercy into a position of power. Even as a parent, I find it difficult. And the power of a parent is not really so much as earth-shattering. Certainly my nation has grave difficulty with mercy. We can imprison, we can execute, we can impose–but without mercy, the power becomes rather empty, unchristian, and even demonic.
Furthermore, Saint John Paul II pushed for a more urgent proclamation and witness to mercy in the contemporary world: “It is dictated by love for (people), for all that is human and which, according to the intuitions of many of our contemporaries, is threatened by an immense danger. The mystery of Christ … obliges me to proclaim mercy as God’s merciful love, revealed in that same mystery of Christ. It likewise obliges me to have recourse to that mercy and to beg for it at this difficult, critical phase of the history of the Church and of the world.”[Dives in Misericordia 15]
Let’s unpack this a bit. The citation is from the final conclusion of the encyclical letter. It is an appeal from a pope–and from a Church–for mercy in a time of great uncertainty. Confronting “many forms of evil which weigh upon humanity and threaten it,” John Paul urged more mercy, not less. More compassion, not a surrender of outreach and a defensive posture. Some would say that the current age, having “graduated” from nuclear competition into a hundred knives of sectarianism and terrorism, demands even less mercy. And indeed, that is how the powerful act in today’s world. And have they shown themselves any more secure for it?
This teaching is more pertinent than ever and deserves to be taken up once again in this Holy Year. Let us listen to his words once more: “The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer – and when she brings people close to the sources of the Savior’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser.”[Dives in Misericordia 13]
Why is mercy so important? Simply because it is of God. It shows God more deeply and reverently than power over the Earth, its people, and creatures.
The highlighted text is © copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the document in its entirety on the Vatican website here.