On the feast of the Immaculate Conception Pope Francis will declare open a year of God’s mercy. It is his way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II – a wonderful way of creating a symbol for the event that has dominated the life of the Catholic Church for a half century. It is sometimes said that events such as these belong to the long duration. Their meaning is released only very slowly. In 1985 the meaning Vatican II was summarized in the word communion. Pope Francis from the beginning saw it as an event of mercy. Ever since Catholics have searched their tradition for the meaning of God’s mercy. So did we at our Chapter.
“Miséricorde”, “mercy” is a frequently used word in the writings of Léon Dehon. He links it to the Heart of Christ: « God created everything for the Heart of Jesus, that is, for our love.” “Dieu créait tout pour le Cœur de Jésus, c’est-à-dire pour notre amour. (CAM 30) He also was very much aware of how important this word was in our tradition: mercy, he said, was the “most glorified divine attribute in Scripture” “attribut divin le plus glorifié dans la sainte Écriture. » (RSC,72). However, when last year the word “mercy” appeared in the motto of the General Chapter, I received a number of protests, saying that the word mercy was not part of our spiritual tradition. But a brief entry into DehonDocs in Rome allowed us to discover that it was.  The Chapter deepened the notion of mercy and suggested that it ought to be a mark of in our community and in our ministry.
For me it took the thinking of the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas to make me realize a major weakness in my thinking about God’s mercy. Levinas criticized Western thinking of always looking at reality under the guise of sameness. Western philosophy approaches things by abstracting from them all their unique features. It speaks of things, humans, animals by reducing them to what they all share; that is, “being”. All things are beings. we say. We have also presumed that God is a “being.” We have said that God’s essence is that God exists. So for us, God was stuffed into the box of being. It was clear at the last session of the Synod on the Family, that many bishops would not allow God to escape from this box. At the time of the council 50 years ago this was captured by the closed imagination of a Cardinal Ottaviani with his motto: “semper idem”, “always the same”. I think that Pope Francis is asking us to release God from this box.
Calling on his Jewish tradition, Levinas taught me a way of escaping from the box. His philosophy begins what our Western thinking left out of the box. For him each thing is unique and different. Each thing is other, he said. You may not take that uniqueness away. He dares us to begin with this otherness, each thing’s uniqueness. What does that do to our image of God? We do not begin with what is the same between God and us; we begin how God is other – infinitely other. That is true also of God’s mercy.
We often link mercy – as did Dehon – with forgiveness or pardon. Mercy in God means God does not leave things the same. When it touches us in our brokenness, it is a power that overcomes our situation and makes it new. Mercy is God changing the condition of the sinner from being “lost”, “condemned” or “excluded” to being “saved.” In other words, mercy changes situations: a person is changed from being a sinner to being “in grace.” God’s mercy transforms something I have done and clings to my self as evil, disorienting, and for-gives it: an absolutely free gift.
I take another cue from a second use of mercy in Dehon. He connects it with the miracles of Jesus. Jesus had compassion or mercy on the sick and healed many. We in the West have difficulty with miracles because we think that they are impossible. In the miracle stories Dehon sees the workings of God’s mercy. He links mercy with “excess”. Mercy is said to be to be “inexhaustible,” “inexplicable.” Miracles reveal the excess in God, the surplus beyond justice, the extravagance of doing impossible things. When we think of mercy, we must let go of images of sameness: mercy does not leave things where they are. The ultimate face of God is inscribed in what Jesus did. He broke through our sameness. God trounced death. He healed the sick. He forgave sinners. Perhaps, it may allow us to think that God can forgive even the remarried divorce person. Theologians are now saying that God’s mercy – as did Dehon – is the overriding attribute which refigures the other attributes such as God’s justice. God’s justice is a merciful justice. Before the measuring balance of justice, God mercy is excess or extravagance. We must dare trust it, despite the incredible evil and suffering that we encounter in this world. Our Advent readings are full of this ultimate breakthrough of mercy in our history. In the resurrection of Jesus as God’s re-creation of the world – we are witnesses therefore of the power unleashed by the self-giving force of God’s mercy in history. Nothing remains the same.
If creation, as Levinas suggests, is the upsurge not of the same but of a fecundity that makes emerge the other, God’s mercy must first of all be understood as a coming-to-be of possibility, a release of a new capacity, the force of evolution, an re-empowering of broken relationships, especially pardon. In this context, mercy is to be understood as a breaking through, a superseding of a past that was blocking life of possibilities, the release of hope, the recharging of the power to love, the unblocking of our capacities. The mercy of God operative in creation is an excess, a superabundance, a surplus that urges creation to move beyond a static sameness to what is different, or new. It is urged by mercy, the creative force of God; it is the selfhood of God moving creation to a completion. This allows us to understand Dehon’s saying, that “God created all for the Heart of Jesus.” (CAM 30) (Dieu créait tout pour le Cœur de Jésus, c’est-à-dire pour notre amour. (CAM 30))
However, Dehon had a third and final meaning for mercy. It touches on the effect that mercy has upon those who receive it. It makes possible the distribution of God’s mercy to others – “je veux aider votre miséricorde” Dehon has God say. “I want to help your mercy” (RSC 315). The effusion of God’s creative mercy allows us to show mercy to others –“taking on all the sufferings of our brothers.” (Ext 8035185, 3) It is the foundation for our “compassion for the infirmities of our brothers.” (CAM 253) In line with the theme of the chapter, it makes us merciful to others. In this way, we can appropriate perhaps the word that Dehon put in the mouth of God: “Come all of you, I am thirsty to do mercy.” (CAM 254) (Venez tous, j’ai soif de faire miséricorde. (CAM 254))
May our communities and our ministries benefit from this surcharge of mercy this year.
John van den Hengel scj