By Father Michael Della Penna, OFM.
What exactly does being ‘merciful like the Father’ mean and what am I called to do during this Jubilee Year of Mercy that began on December 8th? While Mercy is essentially a personal characteristic of care for the needs of others, the biblical concept of mercy, which is considered the greatest attribute of God, is much richer and constitutes a relational dimension that always involves help to those who are in need or distress. The Year of Mercy challenges us to not only reflect on but to LIVE what the Catechism (CCC 2447) speaks of in doing the works of mercy; defined as charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. The motto of this Holy Year, Merciful Like the Father (Lk 6:36) serves as more than an invitation, but rather as an obligation to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure.
Pope Francis wrote in his Bull:
“It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy.”
Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy are charitable actions oriented especially to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God:
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise…If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”
With an estimated 795 million people undernourished around the world (just over 1 in 9) we seek to alleviate poor nutrition, which causes nearly half of the deaths in children under 5—more than 3 million children annually. Pope Francis commented “If there are children in so many parts of the world with nothing to eat, that is not news, it seems normal. It cannot be so!” The Letter of James challenges each of us:
“My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, ‘God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!’—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.” (James 2:14-16)
Mercy is, therefore, not only a virtue that influences a person’s compassion for another and inspires the will to ease another’s misfortunes or suffering in either body or soul, it is a MEANS of extending God’s compassion and mercy to those in need. Why must we rediscover the works of mercy, which give Christians a concrete way to live according to Jesus’ Great Commandment? Because it is the very heart of the Gospel, the hinge on which our very salvation depends, serving as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45). We as the Church therefore are called above all to be authentic and credible witnesses of her primary task of convincingly professing the mystery of mercy and living it as the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ. The poignant words of Saint John XXIII at opening the Council pointed out the path to follow: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity…” The walls of the Church, which for too long have made it a kind of fortress, must be torn down in order to proclaim the Gospel in a new way, especially to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates.
Mercy is the force that can reawaken us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope, empowering us to heal the wounds of the brokenhearted, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. The Holy Father exhorts us with a heartfelt plea:
“Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!”
Born in Boston, Fr. Michael Della Penna, OFM completed Bachelors’ degrees in Psychology and Philosophy and a Masters of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology before being ordained a priest in 1999 as a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate Conception Province. He studied at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, and later completed a licentiate and a doctorate degree in Franciscan spirituality from the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome. He has served as Associate Pastor, Retreat Director, Formation Director and Definitor for his province. He is currently the Director of Valley of the Angels Orphanage in Guatemala, the Director of Ongoing Formation for his province and leads pilgrimages to Assisi for the Franciscan Pilgrimage Program. Fr. Michael finds joy in leading others to come to a greater knowledge and love of Christ through retreats and pilgrimage, and he has generously agreed to share with us some thoughts on the Holy Year of Mercy.