In The Joy of the Gospel (Apostolic Exhortation, 'Evangelii Gaudium) Pope Francis has restored to prominence a number of virtues we had largely forgotten: “joy”, “beauty”, “warmth”, “mercy” and “tenderness”.
With his emphasis on mercy he has rescued for us the virtue which in the Old and New Testaments defined God. From the time of the Exodus, our God is "a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 33:19).
Francis reminds us that “rules make us harsh judges” and that mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies (#37) .
What “the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” We are to heal wounds not to exacerbate them with our criticisms and demands.
In this he is again mirroring Jesus. For Jesus, mercy takes precedence over holiness and even justice. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus doesn’t demand that people approaching him must first be perfect or undergo formal rites of penance. Often he just dines with “sinners”, and scandalously touches or is touched by them. It was probably Jesus’ deeds of mercy that aroused opposition and ultimately lead to his death.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus saw the beggars and the sick abandoned on the roadside and felt compassion for them. He wanted to make them healthy, restore them to their relationships and above all to set them free from an understanding of God that oppresses and does not free people.
Jesus understands that those who lack everything are also condemned to live in shame without honour and dignity. It does not mean that he thought the commandments were unimportant. Instead Jesus knew that spiritual progress takes time and right now they need acceptance, love and confidence. Grace comes before judgement in the reign of God and as Pope Francis hopes in the Church.
For the Pope, “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" (#114). It will be wonderful when those in society who today feel they are far from God, and would not expect a welcome in the church, start to think of the church as a place where they will be “welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”
Francis dreams of the church as a “Mother with an open heart” or “the church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open...The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak" (#47).
He dreams of a church with room for everyone not just the perfect, the holy and the approved. With his emphasis on mercy and healing wounds he is stressing the importance of pastoral flexibility and realism in walking with Christians through their (and our) imperfect lives.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He has worked in many Australian Dioceses in programmes to welcome, enable and help integrate overseas priests and religious.