Mercy and Mission

An Address to priests of the Society of the Holy Cross: Milton Keynes, 15 June. 2016

“Lord Jesus Christ, you are our merciful God become Man to redeem us from our sins. Open our eyes to the debt of love that we owe you for your unspeakable merciful love for us. Open our hearts to give ourselves to you through those whom you place into our lives, so that by our mercy toward them we may win mercy from you and, dear Jesus, cooperate with you in the redemption of a sinful world. Amen.”

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to be with you today, and for the opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the place of mercy in the mission of the church. Mercy is a characteristic of our loving God, and therefore our understanding of mercy increases as our knowing God increases. And because mercy is a characteristic of God, inseparable from God himself, we are engaged in the business of proclaiming something which is part of God’s very nature. Given the broadest possible interpretation of the word ‘Mission’ as the task which God originates and shares with his church, we should be able to recognise that if we proclaim God, we proclaim His Mercy, which is itself the archetype of all acts of mercy in the course of daily living. 
Of course, the great quasi-liturgical and spiritual motif of this Year of Mercy is that of passing through a door which has been opened for the purpose, betokening entry into a new phase of life in Christ. The message is clear: whoever you are, whatever you have done, there is always a way back to Christ. The door is always open. Mercy is in this regard a close companion of hospitality – that our doors are open to anyone, anywhere, in an infinite number of contexts. I believe it was Augustine who said that there is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. 
As I look back over my life as a priest so far, I am both saddened and amazed by the number of times people have said to me that they felt themselves to be irrevocably cut off from God because of something they had done in their past, or because of something about them which they believed ruled them out either of entry into the church, or indeed, access to salvation, and to Christ himself. And I find myself asking ‘What have we done?’ How have we portrayed ourselves, both overtly and covertly, to make people of whatever history, walk of life, or disposition, believe that the church was not for them, that the mercy promised them by Jesus Christ was somehow not available? Either through action or inaction, words or silence, dispositions or through pure co-incidence, the church has done much that is wrong in the lives of individual people. We often have to cut through the misassumptions and misrepresentations among which people live if we are to offer people a wholly positive message – a message that they are loved by God, that God is anxious to show mercy to them, and that mercy is but one facet of the supreme and constant outpouring of grace which is the inheritance of those who seek to live close to him. Perhaps the first and most pressing connection between mercy and mission comes in our seeking of it as individual priests and as the church catholic. 
We might contend, then, that mercy is something which has to be sought, by ourselves and by others; for the dynamic of mercy and forgiveness to be fully effective, there needs to be acknowledgement of sin and the nature of the estrangement. It is indeed a two way process, and I wouldn’t want anything I say be taken to mean that I think there’s such a thing as cheap grace! Far from it. But sometimes, when a person is at the beginning of the journey towards divine mercy, they are not aware of the nature of the estrangement, nor have their lives been shaped by the moral norms and dispositions which we as a group of Catholic clergy take for granted. Indeed, the language we employ in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus is critical if we are to make any sort of headway with the estranged soul. We are well used to the stereotype of evangelism which preaches sin before it preaches mercy. There’s a reason why it doesn’t work, and that reason is that it starts from a negative assumption about the human condition. Good News, if it is to appear Good, needs to start from a far higher place, encompassing hope, optimism, love – God must love humans – he became one. It’s like the difference between First Aid and major surgery – what happens at the beginning of a process isn’t necessarily what needs to happen as the pilgrimage proceeds. Awareness of sinfulness, and the need for mercy, is generally a gradual process, an awakening, for the individual soul, and our preaching about mercy needs to touch on this simply, and to ensure that people know that support, love and mercy are present, both in the informal setting of the companionship of the community of faith and the more formal setting of the sacramental life of the church. 
The people we serve are very often people shaped by culturally malignant forces. Everywhere we are served up the rhetoric of corporations, consumption, propaganda, advertisement, and the constant and insistent white noise of social media. These in no small measure account for the swift abandonment of things that we would take to be moral norms and which have occasioned, in a generation, such a crisis of identity and confidence in the church and in western culture. Different parts of the church have answered this crisis in particular ways, either through cultural relativism, and trying to look as culturally relevant as possible, or through standing to one side, observing pharisaically the tendencies of a wayward world, and calling itself ‘counter-cultural’. Both of these paths are fraught with difficulties. Become indistinguishable from the world, and we have nothing distinctive or transformative to offer: become separate from the world, and we have no means of connection or communication with which to offer love and mercy to a world which is needy but does not know that need. There is a third way; the way of living in and being part of the world without seeing the world’s concerns as our prior claim. Rather, we are part of God’s plan of salvation for the world he loves, and longs for. We are in the world to reveal the Kingdom of God.
Our life is a joy-filled discovery of what it means to see the world through the eyes of the Living God. We as priests are called to seek that place of divine observation, of placing all our dispositions at the service of God, and to be part of the agency through which God works. This means modelling divine mercy in our lives, both as an indication of the present reality of God’s mercy and as a foretaste of the mercy to come within the realm of God’s judgement. We know and believe that God’s impulses are always prior to, and greater than, our own – the impulse of love, the impulse of joy, the impulses of mercy and forgiveness. We recall the words of the first epistle of John:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4.10-12)
Of course, all of God’s attributes are in fact God, one and the same. To say that God is ‘merciful’ is not to subdivide God according to attribute but rather to describe yet another wonderful facet of God. So we can say with St Faustina that ‘Love is the flower, mercy the fruit’ (Diary, 948).’

The story is told of a Bishop from the Southern Bible-belt United States spending Holy Week at a famous shrine of Anglo Catholicism in London (no names, no pack drill). At the gin fest which followed the High Mass on Easter Day, one of the rather nice young servers smarmed over the the Bishop on the pretext of refilling his glass, and said ‘I suppose, Father, that all of this has been a bit extreme for you?’ The Bishop didn’t skip a beat. ‘Son’ he said, ‘When I think of what ma Lord and Saviour did for me, nothing I could do for him could be too extreme.’
I tell that story because what the Bishop had done was to understand the length, the breadth, the height and the depth of God’s mercy towards him and towards the whole human race expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The side bar to it was that it was a tremendous put-down. Our own understanding of mercy depends on the same process, balancing our understanding of our sinful state against the overwhelming grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds the Romans that 
‘…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5.20-21)

So, however sinful we may be, there is, in Christ, always grace to cover it, to beat it. Accordingly, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. (Romans 8.31 foll).
 We will, as ever, assist others to recognise their own need of mercy by recognising ours: the tools given to us in the Society Rule enable us to do this. Frequent examination of conscience: frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One thing is for sure. This generation knows that priests are sinners, for the newspapers tell us so! That place on the pedestal of parish life never was a good place to be, but was where misguided idealists – lay and ordained – placed us. We need to vacate it, fast, if we haven’t already, because only Jesus belongs there. Our stewardship of the share of priesthood granted to us is best tended by humility, and by assisting others, gently and with sensitivity, to come to an understanding of their need for mercy. This manifests itself through a preaching ethos of encouragement, and through testimonies and stories from ourselves and from others. 

Mercy, then, is rooted and grounded in love. It cannot be otherwise. Samuel Crossman’s great hymn ‘My song is love unknown’ makes this point well with the wonderful lines in the first verse ‘love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. I remember meeting with a couple in Lancashire in the course of organising the funeral of his mother. They were delightful, and spoke in articulate fashion about Mother, her living and her dying. It transpired that they both visited her every day in the nursing home for a number of years, and had dog’s abuse from her every day in the process. She was hard-bitten, cynical, and thoroughly world weary, and he was most upset at the thought that he felt he had not, could not, love her as he should have done. I reminded him that the act of visiting, day in, day out, even in the face of an unpromising encounter, was a wonderful act of love. Had he not loved, he would have said ‘Well, stuff it’ (or similar) and not bothered. But bother they did, and visit they did. I quoted the Samuel Crossman lines to him. When we love those who are loveless, we embody divine mercy. Then we love our enemies, we embody divine mercy. When we love, and receive bile in return, but still love, that is divine mercy at work. 
This bring us back to our understanding of salvation history as being one overwhelming act of divine mercy. God did not have to create, but did so. He did not have to become human, but did so. God sis not have to send his Spirit, but does so. God pours out love, and grace, and mercy on us, his undeserving poor. The link between mercy and mission, therefore, lies in our capacity to recognise our own need for mercy, to so animate our communities with self-understanding that they might do the same, and hence for this to form the understanding in the wider community of what the church founded by Jesus Christ is about. Mercy is what happens when the Lord God makes the choice to overlook our sins, because of what his Son did, and because our sin in the end makes us love him all the more, as we become increasingly aware of the fact that ‘between our sins and their reward, we set The Passion of Thy Son our Lord.’ Mercy is what shapes and forms us in our understanding of the generosity of God – if we and our people know mercy, then we know what is the debt of love that we owe to God, and live our lives in the freedom of that love. 
Finally, I think there is a temptation when engaged in the language of business of mercy, that we must be careful with the emphasis of what we say. The Church, in proclaiming mercy, is emphasising a characteristic of God which people have not suspected. We hear tales of an angry God, a judgemental God, and tyrannical God. My experience of God, in scripture, in the Mass, and in the store of my life, is that he is merciful to a sublime degree. But how careful we must be not to sound as if this were merely some largesse which the church had decided to distribute to her people, as if we were the moral arbiters of the piece. All we can do is speak of God’s mercy, embody it in our relationships with parishioners and the wider community, and issue the invitations whereby those who see themselves as beyond mercy can in fact come and experience it for themselves. 
“Lord Jesus Christ, you are our merciful God become Man to redeem us from our sins. Open our eyes to the debt of love that we owe you for your unspeakable merciful love for us. Open our hearts to give ourselves to you through those whom you place into our lives, so that by our mercy toward them we may win mercy from you and, dear Jesus, cooperate with you in the redemption of a sinful world. Amen.”
Damian Feeney

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