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The Pope of Mercy? Yes, and there's more to that message

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 02, 2013

In his weekly column for the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen argues that if the message of Pope Francis can be summed up in a single word, it is “mercy.” He’s right.

Something is lost, of course, when a Pope’s message is boiled down to a single word. So while I wholeheartedly endorse Allen’s suggestion that Francis could tentatively be dubbed “The Pope of Mercy,” let me offer a few thoughts on how other key themes of this pontificate might fit into that one overarching message.

First, however, let Allen explain his point. (I strongly recommend reading his entire column; this summary will not do it justice.) He observes that for a quick understanding of the pontificate of John Paul II, the single key phrase was “Be not afraid;” for Benedict XVI it was “faith and reason.” As for our new Pontiff:

The revolution under Francis is not one of content, but of tone. He believes it's time for the church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the harsh and unforgiving temper of the times. This is a pope who will look for every chance to express compassion, steering clear of finger-wagging unless it's absolutely necessary.

Like John Allen, I was fascinated by the Pope’s remark to reporters that we are living in “a time of mercy,” which was, he said, no less than a “change of epoch.” During that airborne question-and-answer session, the Pope explained that it is a time for the Church to heal wounds. How will the wounds be healed? “With mercy,” the Pope said simply.

Yes, mercy is the leitmotif of this papacy. In his homilies at daily Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Holy Father consistently speaks of God’s mercy. He tells his congregations that the Lord not only will forgive our sins, but wants to forgive us—that He delights in showing his mercy. In his role as a priest, the Pontiff himself takes delight in acting as a minister of God’s mercy. Allen remarks—again quite accurately—“it's quite possible that when he went to Rio de Janeiro's Boa Vista Park to hear five confessions that morning, in his own mind, it was the most important thing he did all week.”

Within a few weeks after Pope Francis took office, Vatican-watchers began to notice that the new Pope spoke frequently about the Devil, about sin, and about the need for confession. But as I observed at the time, Pope Francis could not be characterized as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He speaks of sin as a reality which every human person must confront. The facile claim that “I’m OK, You’re OK,” will not do; we know ourselves too well. Left to ourselves we cannot possibly escape the confines of our own fallen nature.

But here is the essence of the Pope’s message: With God’s help we can escape! This is why Pope Francis can speak joyfully, even when he speaks about sin; it is why so many people feel encouraged even when he talks of the Devil. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that in order to understand a Christian’s hope for salvation, one must first recognize the need for salvation. Pope Francis now presents that doctrinal teaching in the form of pastoral advice. We need help, he tells us, and—the Good News—help is available!

However, Pope Francis is not content to preach this message by himself. Again and again he exhorts his fellow Christians to join him in bringing the Good News to the world. If the offer of God’s mercy is the most important message of this pontificate, a close second is the Pope’s insistence that the Church must go out into the world, bringing the message of mercy to those most in need. He has repeatedly criticized the “self-referential Church,” the tendency to think of the Church as a human institution, as an organization rather than an organism. The Church, he tirelessly reminds us, exists to serve, to fulfill Christ’s mandate, to extend God’s mercy to the world.

Thus far in his pontificate, Francis has chosen not to make public statements on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. When pressed on these issues he has made it unmistakably clear that his beliefs match those of his predecessors, he embraces the enduring doctrines of the Church. Yet it is not his top priority to re-state those doctrines. He will hold the line, but he will not waste ammunition firing at fortified enemy positions. He has a different battle plan.

Rather than continuing the trench warfare against secularism, Pope Francis has chosen to launch a new offensive, appealing directly to the countless millions of people searching for spiritual sustenance. He has concentrated on offering—and urging other believers to offer—an exciting possibility that secularists cannot match: the offer of God’s mercy.

One final point: Pope Francis has captured public attention through his simplicity of style, but the Holy Father’s humility is not a bid for public approval. Quite the contrary. He wants to live simply in order to discourage the perception that he is a grand figure who can teach on his own personal authority. He wants to streamline the Vatican so that no one slips into the error of thinking that something is true simply because important bureaucrats in Rome say that it is true. He longs for “a Church that is poor, for the poor,” because he wants the world to realize that the Church has nothing to offer but God’s immeasurable gifts. In short he lives simply to guide the world toward the real story about the Catholic faith. It’s not a story about a Pope, not a story about the Vatican, but a story about God’s mercy, a story about Jesus Christ, a story about salvation.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Aug. 03, 2013 9:24 AM ET USA

    A strict constructionist view of scripture would also support the Church's possible change to acceptance of divorce/remarriage. Matt 16 gives Church loosing power, Matt 19 Jesus says no MAN may put asunderr, almost as if saying 'thats for the Church to decide.' Then John 20:23 could be seen as Jesus saying "(I'm breathing the H. Spirit on you, so remember now, the Church may forgive divorce like Moses did.)" & note Matt puts binding 1st, but John puts loosing 1st. Sounds kosher to me, doesn't it

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Aug. 02, 2013 7:02 PM ET USA

    Mercy has always been a hallmark of the Church. She was endowed by Christ with the power to bind perpetually, and yet She has always chosen NOT to bind any souls that the rest of us know could have been bound for all the evil they did in this world. Instead the Church chose to loosen the bounds of many saints, but leave it to Christ's more perfect mercy to make the final call on the very worst of us. But She never gets any credit for that. The world truly is a tough town.

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