Religious Studies Faculty Reflect on the Year of Mercy

In December 2015, Pope Francis called for an extraordinary jubilee year, setting it apart from the ordinary cycle of jubilees, or holy years, which are called every 25 years in the Catholic Church.

In December 2015, Pope Francis called for an extraordinary jubilee year, setting it apart from the ordinary cycle of jubilees, or holy years, which are called every 25 years in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis called this particular extraordinary jubilee of mercy to direct our attention and actions "on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's actions in our lives … a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective.”

During the Advent season, some members of Manhattan College’s religious studies department took time to reflect on the call from Pope Francis to examine the effects of the jubilee year.

Brother Robert Berger, F.S.C., associate professor of religious studies

One of my favorite New Testament quotes is "Jesus said, 'I have come that you may have life and have it to the full."  Pope Francis reminded us during this Year of Mercy that life to the full involved mercy - really seeing the other person, responding with care for the other.   

Has this year changed me? I can safely say that it has reminded me. Has it changed our students? I often wonder what does change them. Our students continue to be young women and men who are smart, driven, compassionate and city-smart.

The official Year of Mercy ended with the season of Advent. The final exams were during the third week of Advent and, as I told my students, "Sorry, the year is over. There will be no mercy!"

Michele Saracino, Ph.D., professor and chair, religious studies

Mercy is more than just a single act; it is a disposition. Although the Pope’s “Year of Mercy” is officially over, Catholic Christians throughout the world are called to live with mercy, that is with a radical openness to all others, not just for a year, but for a lifetime.

We learn about God’s mercy first and foremost through scripture. In the Book of Micah, we meet of God of mercy: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression . . . He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our inequities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:18-19 NRSV). Here we have a portrayal of a magnanimous creator that discards all that is holding us back into the sea. We don’t need to say thank you or ask for help, rather all we creatures need to do is let all our burdens and woundedness go into the sea as God ordains. Throughout the gospels, we encounter a messiah showing compassion and mercy toward all others, outcasts and the elite. Plain and simple, mercy for Jesus is a way of being with others in community.

We humans are not God; and as such, grand acts of mercy are few and far between. Still we can practice mercy in our lives through showing openness to others through empathy. A complicated idea, empathy manifests as mercy when we stay with the other in need, even if being there catapults us out of our comfort zone. We all have opportunities to show empathy in our lives, to the sick, the needy, to those lonely, and even to those who have different perspectives on life than we do. Empathy is needed now more than ever as the world seems so divided about politics, religion, and the fate of creaturely existence. As we enter this new era, perhaps we can reflect a glimmer of God’s mercy in showing empathy to others in our everyday lives.

Kevin Ahern, Ph.D., associate professor, religious studies

The present political climate around the world presents a challenge to people of faith who are concerned about the common good. Since taking office, Pope Francis has challenged political leaders, citizens and the church to work for a different type of political discourse, based mercy, love and a recognition of our common interdependence as a human family.

On the day before the conclusion of the Church’s Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis offered a powerful homily to 2016 Consistory, which welcomed new cardinals into the church, including three Americans. The homily, offered less than two weeks after the presidential election, speaks volumes to the present context in the United States.

Based on the reading from St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:27-36), the Pope’s Homily offers both a sharp condemnation to the increasing state of polarization in politics around the world and the temptation to demonize, scapegoat, marginalize, and attack “the other.”

The Holy Father begins with a reminder of the powerful message of Jesus Christ to love. This is not a love of Valentine Day greeting cards or fairy tales; it is a deep and bold commitment to embody the very essence of the God, who is love, and who calls us to mercifully love everyone, including our enemies. As the Pope points out, this is not easy; mercy is not easy:

"Our first instinctive reaction in such cases is to dismiss, discredit or curse them. Often we try to “demonize” them, so as to have a “sacred” justification for dismissing them. Jesus tells us to do exactly the opposite with our enemies, those who hate us, those who curse us or slander us. We are to love them, to do good to them, to bless them and to pray for them."

He then continues to draw particular attention to the problem of political, social and economic polarization, which is growing throughout the world. As in his address to the US Congress last year, the pope highlights the links between polarization and the exclusion or demonization of minority groups, particularly refugees migrants and those of other faiths:

"We live at a time in which polarization and exclusion are burgeoning and considered the only way to resolve conflicts. We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy. An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs. An enemy because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class.  An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith."

It does not take much to see the relevancy of his words for the US political context. For many, there was a hope that the polarization and harsh discourse of the campaign trail would give way to deal making and a more conciliatory and merciful path for the new president-elect. Sadly, however, we have seen a rise in xenophobic discourse, by both politicians and citizens around the country, with several alarming anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

So what are we to do? How can Christians and all people of good will, model mercy in this indifferent age. The following are a few tips that might be helpful as we seek to address both the tendencies to polarize and demonize those who are not like us.

  1. Feelings matter. Listen to your own feelings, communicate them respectfully, and be open to the feelings and opinions of others. This is a minimum condition of mercy and love. Being attentive to one's feelings is also closely connected to many Christian spiritual traditions. Prayer and contemplation can help to discern what our hearts and minds are saying.
  2. Be careful of what Stephen Colbert has called truthiness. Just because it feels right does not mean it is true.  
  3. Confront the sins of racism and extremism.  While we are called to love our enemy, Christian mercy and love must never be used as a cover to accept, condone or normalize hateful attitudes or actions. In other words, the good of tolerance and inclusivity can never justify the evils xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Mercy demands justice.
  4. Search out the facts and truth. Get beyond the social media echo chambers and what Pope Francis described as “soap bubbles” – mercy and reconciliation demands an acknowledgment of truth and a realization that there is more to reality than our own experiences and points of view.
  5. Be attentive to the experiences and needs of those on the margins. This must be a hallmark or lens of any Christian embodiment of mercy. The preferential option or love for the poor, which is present throughout the teachings of Jesus Christ, demands that all Christians (no matter what status or rank) pay special attention to the experiences of the poor, those who are minorities, refugees, migrants, and anyone who has been excluded for whatever reason. Rather than objects, those on the margins must be welcomed as active subjects and agents in the conversation for the future.
  6. Organize for social change. Love and mercy are incomplete without action. We must find ways to mobilize and organize to overcome the polarization and exclusion that threaten human dignity and the common good today. It is not enough to just say we love our enemy or love the other; we must witness to that love in our lives, or in the words of Pope Francis to the 2015 Consistory, “we will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized.”

While the church has formally concluded the year of mercy, all Christians must not forget their call to witness to mercy and love in our daily lives and in our social structures so that we can overcome the tendencies of polarization and exclusion that threaten the common good today.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., associate professor, religious studies

Yesterday brought an exciting if unexpected new experience into my son’s life. He received the sacrament of reconciliation for the very first time. By accident.

Like most communication in my modern parenting journey, I found out about this momentous occasion via text message. It read:

“Mami I had my first confession and Ben found his sweatshirt!”

There, tucked right between “I’m home safe from school” and “don’t forget that my brother got in trouble for his forgetfulness yesterday” was my tween son, making an unexpected step on his sacramental journey. “What?!?” I replied. So many things rushed to my head at once—the nervousness I felt at my first confession, coupled with anxiety about what the school might think about an 11 year old (the child of two theologians, no less) who had not yet received the sacrament, and the genuine concern that it be a meaningful moment for him, all these emotions flooded my mind immediately. “How did I not know this was happening? Did you prepare for it or just go? Was the priest nice?”

My sardonic child replied simply, “Yeah, he was Dutch. Great accent! Got one Our Father for penance.”

That’s it?

No months of worry about what it would be like, no anxiety dreams about whether the priest would be angry or will shame him for his sins, no dwelling on possible eternal punishment, no fretting that the priest might actually tell Mami what he said in the confessional. The mercy of God rained down upon him, and his response was, “Yeah. Great accent!” Oh, and a small celebration that his penance wasn’t much of a penance at all.

When Pope Francis officially ended the Year of Mercy by closing the Holy Door in St. Peter’s in Rome on November 20th, I thought it was the worst possible timing for Americans. Our country had just been through an ugly, divisive election, and it seemed that mercy was more necessary than ever. How would we move forward without the witness of forgiveness? Even though Pope Francis stated that the doors of reconciliation would remain open, as Catholics we need the cognitive assistance of visual symbols. I needed that door open, for at least another year. Like many Americans, I was filled with doubt, anxious about the future, and as an educator I was worried about my students of all political persuasions. I wanted to be a professor who responded to my students’ needs, who met students where they were, as the founder and source of our charism, St. John Baptist de la Salle, exemplified so clearly. But I struggled with my own worry, my inability to name the present much less chart the future of the religious landscape in Catholicism and outside of it.

Then came my son’s message. His accidental reconciliation, his guerrilla sacramentality, reminded me of a much more fundamental lesson. God’s mercy awaits us, plainly and gratuitously. We are the ones who worry and dread, who think ourselves unworthy, who feel we don’t merit love or forgiveness. And we are also the ones who categorize the others in our midst as hopeless, or worse, invisible.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and famed Catholic author, shares a meaningful prayer in his book Thoughts in Solitude. It’s my favorite prayer, one I have glued to a bookshelf in my office so I am reminded of it daily. It reads:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Merton knew that God’s mercy cannot be earned. And if it could, we wouldn’t be capable of earning it. Instead, a merciful God awaits all of us penitents with open arms.  All we have to do is show up. When Pope Francis closed the door on the Year of Mercy and advised us to keep the doors of reconciliation open, he echoed Merton’s sentiments about trusting in God’s forgiveness and welcome always, even when we seem most lost. For it is precisely then that God awaits us with a warm embrace, and a great accent.

By Pete McHugh