Pope Francis’ Teaching and Witness of Mercy
Blessed Pope Paul VI observed that people in today’s world are more likely to listen “to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). In this Jubilee of Mercy that concludes soon, on November 20, the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis has followed that advice by teaching the truths of our faith through actions as well as words.
In his document Misericordiae Vultus announcing this extraordinary holy year, in homilies dedicated to mercy, in a year-long series of catechetical talks at his weekly general audiences – all of which I encourage you to read and reflect upon – and by personally witnessing to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through his monthly “Mercy Friday” charitable outreach, the Holy Father has personally demonstrated how we are called to be a Church and people of mercy.
In an audience this summer, Pope Francis noted that a cathedral’s Holy Door for the Year of Mercy represents both an entranceway to receive God’s mercy and an exit “to go out and bring God’s mercy to others with the works of mercy.” Experiencing God’s forgiveness and new life in Jesus brings people on a journey of the heart and hands, the pope said. “From our hearts forgiven and healed, and with the compassion of Jesus, the journey toward our hands begins, that is, toward the works of mercy.”
We receive the gift of God’s limitless mercy in a special way in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God is greater than our sin, Pope Francis often reminds us, and in the confessional, the penitent finds healing, not condemnation. Then, having received this unmerited grace, we are better able to go share Christ’s love and mercy in the world.
“In a world unfortunately hit by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote,” the pope emphasized in one audience, attesting that a person can change the world simply by living out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy every day and bringing Jesus’s love to another in need, maybe someone close to home. “May the Holy Spirit help us,” he said, “may the Holy Spirit kindle within us the desire to live this way of life: at least once a day, at least!”
As we experience all sorts of social conflict and division, the Holy Father’s words of patience, forgiveness, consolation and dialogue are particularly timely. “Dialogue breaks down the walls of division and misunderstandings: it builds bridges of communication,” explained Pope Francis at a recent talk.
The Holy Father began his Mercy Friday public witness of doing works of mercy shortly after inaugurating the Jubilee last December, when he visited and celebrated Mass at a homeless shelter in Rome. Subsequent Mercy Fridays included visiting a community that serves people with intellectual challenges, a retirement home, and a group home for people in a persistent vegetative state, thereby bearing witness to the God-given dignity of all human life.
Pope Francis has often reached out during the Jubilee to those who have been marginalized. On one Mercy Friday at a drug rehabilitation center for young adults, this pastor of souls met with each resident, spoke to them and listened to their stories, and offered encouragement and a blessing. In the spring, he lived out the mercy of welcoming the stranger by meeting with migrants at a refugee camp in Lesbos, and then by bringing a group of Syrian refugees, including families with children, back with him to Rome, where they were supported by the Vatican and the Community of Sant’Egidio. Later, the Holy Father visited a home in Rome for 20 young women trying to rebuild their lives after being rescued from prostitution. The women, many of whom had been victimized by human trafficking, came from Eastern Europe, Africa and Italy.
During World Youth Day in Krakow, Pope Francis visited a children’s hospital, where he spoke to and blessed the young patients, including children being treated for cancer, and their parents and doctors and nurses. “To serve with love and tenderness persons who need our help makes all of us grow in humanity,” the pope said. After returning to Rome, the Holy Father spent time ministering to infants, parents and caregivers at a hospital neonatal unit, offering prayers and encouragement. Then he went to a hospice and personally visited patients and their family members.
Last month, the pope also visited a home in Rome for children whose parents cannot care for them. Recognizing that some of the greatest mercies are simply spending time with people and doing simple things with them, the Holy Father played table soccer with one of the young boys there and also joined them all for a snack.
Throughout this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has taught us how to be a Church and people of mercy. Through prayer and action, we too can be teachers and witnesses of mercy, like our Holy Father, by opening our hearts to receiving God’s mercy and then by sharing that with others.
This is the third installment in a three-part series discussing the recent popes on mercy.