Can Mercy Stand Alone?

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There can be no question that mercy is a beautiful virtue and that it is an attribute of God.

It is also a virtue that is urgently needed in our sinful and broken world. At the same time, it is important to note that it is not the only virtue and not the only attribute of God.

Dionysius, in his classic work On the Divine Names, includes Holiness, Beauty, Goodness, Light, Omnipotence and other names to represent God. God is also love, justice, wisdom and truth. For St. Francis, even courtesy is an attribute of God (La cortesia e una proprieta di Dio).

Pope Francis’ new book, A Year of Mercy With Pope Francis: Daily Reflections, is not a systematic treatise on mercy. It is, as one reviewer states, a series of “bite-sized quotes and engaging questions [that] will fit easily into your busy schedule.”

The book is a best-seller. Furthermore, it has been a source of inspiration and comfort to an untold number of readers, Catholic as well as non-Catholic. Yet it has caused some readers to wonder if the message implies that we can do whatever we want and still be eligible for mercy.

The Catholic who wants to understand the notion of mercy more fully will benefit greatly by reading Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). It should be remembered that the former pope was devoted to promoting mercy. He designated the Second Sunday of Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday, making this announcement at the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska, who inaugurated the spiritual movement of Divine Mercy.

On that occasion, John Paul stated that this feast day represents “a perpetual invitation to the Christian world to address, with trust in divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that await the human race in the coming years.” This statement could just as easily have been written by the present pope. It is worth mentioning that St. John Paul passed away at 2:37 EST on April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.

In Dives in Misericordia, John Paul is at pains to clarify the notion of mercy. He points out that, in revealing his love/mercy, “God at the same time demanded from people that they also should be guided in their lives by love and mercy.” God is merciful, but he is also “demanding.”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ proclaimed: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In this way, the Messianic message preserves a divine-human relationship. In other words, the merciful shall receive mercy, hence the obligation on the part of human beings to be merciful to others as a condition for receiving mercy themselves. God is rich in mercy, but it is dispensed to those who themselves are merciful. God’s mercy, therefore, does not stand alone; its blessings depend on the merciful hearts of its benefactors.

Our reception of God’s mercy presupposes our own expression of mercy. In addition, there is something that should follow this reception, namely reform.

The people of the Old Covenant experienced misery from the time they worshipped the golden calf. This did not please the Lord, who said to Moses that he is a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

As St. John Paul writes, “Even when the Lord is exasperated by the infidelity of his people and thinks of finishing with it, it is still his tenderness and generous love for those who are his own which overcomes his anger.”

Whereas people may abandon God, God will never abandon his people. Mercy, then, has a twofold purpose: 1) It is an instrument of forgiveness, and 2) it provides grace for reform. Mercy remains unfulfilled where its recipient does not reform his life.

If mercy stood alone, isolated from human mercy and human reform, it would be as worthless as counterfeit money. Bogus currency is not backed by the government. Hence, it cannot be validly issued. Secondly, it has no purchasing power, and, therefore, it does not enrich its possessor.

St. John Paul also writes about the importance of justice. There can be no justice without mercy. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution. Justice without mercy is cruelty.”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most moving stories in the New Testament. Nonetheless, the son became eligible for his father’s mercy only once he was repentant and acknowledged his sinfulness. He was finally able to recognize that his sins against God were injustices against him. It is a beautiful story because it harmonizes repentance, justice, forgiveness, mercy and reform. God is merciful, but we must ask for it by being merciful and just ourselves and will to amend our lives.

Pope Francis’ style and approach, we might say, is more immediate, pastoral and easy to grasp. The style and approach of Pope St. John Paul II, by contrast, was more systematic, philosophical and more difficult to grasp. Together, however, somewhat like Plato and Aristotle, they complement each other and provide a more complete picture.

We should not ignore the great contribution that Pope Francis’ predecessor has made in promoting the virtue of mercy. Church teaching enjoys the blessing of continuity. It is in that larger scope that we find answers to what we might not be able to locate within one time period or from a single author.

As St. John Paul has selflessly proclaimed, “The Church must profess and proclaim God’s mercy in all its truth, as it has been handed down to us by Revelation.”

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D.,

is a senior fellow of

Human Life International.

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