Encyclical Letter of the Holy Father John Paul II
On Divine Mercy
Dives in Misericordia
IV. THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON
At the threshold of the New Testament, two voices resound in St. Luke’s Gospel in unique harmony about the mercy of God, a harmony which forcefully echoes the whole Old Testament tradition. They express the semantic elements linked to the differentiated terminology of the Ancient Books. Mary, entering the house of Zechariah, magnifies the Lord with all her soul for “His mercy,” which “from generation to generation” is bestowed on those who fear Him. A little later, as she recalls the election of Israel, she proclaims the mercy which He who has chosen Israel holds “in remembrance” for all time (Cf. Lk 1:49-54).
In both places it is a case of hesed, i.e., the fidelity that God manifests to His own love for the people, fidelity to the promises that will find their definitive fulfillment precisely in the motherhood of the Mother of God (Cf. Lk 1:49-54).
Afterwards, in the same house, when John the Baptist is born, his father Zechariah blessed the God of Israel and glorifies the mercy God promised to our fathers and for “remembering” His holy covenant (Cf. Lk 1:72). Here too it is a case of mercy in the meaning of hesed, insofar as in the following sentences, in which Zechariah speaks of the “tender mercy of our God,” there is clearly expressed the second meaning, namely, rahamim (Latin translation: viscera misericordiae), which rather identifies God’s mercy with a mother’s love.
In His teaching, Christ Himself draws on this inheritance of mercy from the Old Testament, simplifies it and deepens it. This is most clearly seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:14-32). Even though the word “mercy” is not used in the parable, the deepest meaning of divine mercy is described. The words of the Old Testament for mercy are not used, but the drama played out between the loving father and his two sons – a drama of love and prodigality – helps us to understand the “mystery of mercy.”
The younger son asks and receives from his father the portion of the inheritance that is due to him and leaves home for a faraway country and spends it all in a prodigal way, “in loose living.” This is a picture of every man in every age, beginning with Adam who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice. The analogy at this point is very wide-ranging. The parable indirectly touches upon every break of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin. In this analogy there is less emphasis than in the prophetic tradition on the unfaithfulness of the whole people of Israel, although the analogy of the prodigal son may extend to this also. “When he had spent everything,” the son “began to be in need,” especially as “a great famine arose in that country” to which he had gone, after leaving his father’s house. And in this situation “he would gladly have fed on” anything, even “the pods that swine ate,” the swine that he herded for “one of the citizens of that country.” But even this was refused him.
The parable then turns to the inner man. The inheritance that the son had received and wasted was merely a quantity of material goods, but more important than these goods was his dignity as a son in his father’s house. The situation in which he found himself when he lost the material goods should have made him aware of the love of that dignity. He had not thought of it earlier, when he had asked his father to give him the part of the inheritance, that was due to him, in order to go away. He seems not to be conscious of it even now, when he says to himself: “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough to spare, but I perish here with hunger.” He measures himself by the measuring stick of the goods that he has lost and “has not,” against the goods that the hired hands “have” in his father’s house. These words express, above all, his attitude toward material goods; yet, under their surface is hidden the tragedy of lost dignity, the consciousness of squandered sonship.
Then comes his decision: “I will arise and go to my father and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’” (Lk 15:18-19). These are words that reveal more deeply the real problem. The sense of a wasted dignity grew as a result of the whole situation over the material goods in which the prodigal son found himself because of his folly and his sin. When he decides to return to his father’s house, he asks his father to receive him no longer as a son but as an employee.
At first sight he seems to be acting because of hunger and poverty, yet his motive is permeated by a consciousness of deeper loss: to be a hired hand in his father’s house. This certainly is a great humiliation and shame. Nevertheless, the prodigal son is ready to undergo that humiliation and shame. He realizes that he no longer has any right except to be an employee in his father’s house. His decision is taken in full awareness of what he has already deserved and of what he can still have by right in accordance with the norms of justice. Exactly this reasoning shows that at the center of the prodigal son’s consciousness is found a sense of a lost dignity, a sense of that worth which comes from being a son of a father. And so, with his decision made, he sets out on his way.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the word “justice” is not used even once, just as the word “mercy” is not used. But justice is related to love, and is seen as mercy, and described with great precision in the gospel parable. It becomes evident that love becomes mercy when it is necessary to cross the precise bounds of justice – precise and often too narrow. The prodigal son, having wasted everything he had received from his father, felt he deserved, after his return to work in his father’s house as a servant, to be earning a living and gradually building up a certain provision of material goods, but never in the amount he had before he departed. This would be demanded by the order of justice, especially since as son he not only squandered his portion of inheritance, which he received from the father, but he also touched his father and offended him by his whole conduct. Because this conduct had in his own eyes deprived him of dignity as a son, it could not be a matter of indifference to the father. It had to hurt him. It had to involve him in some way. It was, after all, his own son, and that relationship could never be changed or destroyed by any kind of behavior. The prodigal son is aware of this; and this awareness makes him see clearly his lost dignity, and evaluate honestly his position, which he might still earn in his father’s house.
6. Special Focus on Human Dignity
This precise picture of the state of the soul of the prodigal son allows us to understand with similar precision what the mercy of God really is. There is no doubt that this simple yet penetrating parable reveals to us God who is Father. The conduct of the father in the parable, his whole way of acting, shows his inner attitude and the individual threads of mercy from the Old Testament in a new synthesis full of simplicity and depth. The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his own fatherhood, and faithful to his love which he had lavished on his son as son. This fidelity of the father shows itself first in his immediate readiness to welcome his son home when he returns with his inheritance squandered. Then this fidelity is even more fully shown in his joy, so generously lavished on the returned prodigal son that it stirs up the protests and jealousy of the elder brother, who never left the father and never abandoned his house.
This fidelity of the father to himself – known as hesed in the Old Testament – is at the same time charged with affection. We read that as soon as the father saw his prodigal son returning home he had compassion, ran t meet him, then threw his arms around his neck and kissed him (Lk 15;20). He certainly acted with a flood of deep affection and this explains his generosity toward his son, which so angered the elder brother. Yet, the fundamental reason for this emotion must be sought at a deeper level. Note that the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although he squandered the inheritance, his humanity is saved. Even more, it has been, in a way, found again. The words of the father to the elder son show this: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.” In the same chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, we read the parable of the sheep that was found (Lk 15:3-6), and the parable of the coin that was found (Lk 15:8-9). Each time there is an emphasis on the same joy as in the case of the prodigal son. So the fatherly fidelity is totally concentrated on the humanity of the lost son and his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son’s return home.
Going on, one can therefore say that love for the son, the love that springs form the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son’s dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: “Love is patient and kind ... love does not insist on its own way: it is not irritable or resentful ... but rejoices in the right ... hopes in all things, endures all things ... and never ends” (1 Cor 13: 4-8). Mercy – as Christ presented it in the parable of the prodigal son has the inner form of love, called agape in the New Testament. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, sin. When this happens, the person who is the receiver of the mercy doesn’t feel put down, but rather is lifted up and “restored to value.” The father first and foremost expresses his joy to him that he has been “found again” and that he has “returned to life.” This joy shows that a good has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal son he does not cease to be a real son of his father. Thus joy also shows that a good has been found again, namely, the return of the prodigal to the truth about himself.
What took place between the father and the son in Christ’s parable cannot be evaluated “from the outside.” Our prejudices against mercy are mostly the result of evaluating only from the outside. At times, by following this “outside” method of evaluation, we see in mercy above all an inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it. As a result, we are ready to conclude that mercy hurt the receiver because it hurts the dignity of man. The parable of the prodigal son shows us that the reality is in fact otherwise: the interplay of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is his by right. This common experience makes the prodigal son begin to see himself and his behavior in their full truth (such a vision of truth is real humility). On the other hand, by this same common experience, the son becomes a very special good to the father. The father sees so clearly the good, so perfectly accomplished by a radiation of truth and love, that he seems to forget all the evil which the son had committed.
The parable of the prodigal son expresses in a simple but profound way the reality of conversion. Conversion is the most concrete expression of the work of love and presence of mercy in this human world. The true and full meaning of mercy is not just looking penetratingly and even compassionately at moral, physical or material evil. Mercy is true and full when it restores to value, lifts up higher, draws good from all the forms of evil in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy is the fundamental content of the messianic proclamation of Christ and the real power of His mission. This is the way His disciples and followers understood and practiced mercy. Mercy never ceased to reveal itself in their hearts and in their actions, especially in the creative proof of love which does not allow itself to be “conquered by evil but overcomes evil with good” (Rom 12:21). The genuine face of mercy has to be constantly revealed anew. In spite of many prejudices mercy seems to be especially needed in our times.
V. THE PASCHAL MYSTERY
7. Mercy Revealed in the Cross and Resurrection
The messianic message of Christ and His entire activity among people and with the Cross and the Resurrection. We have to penetrate deeply into this final event which especially in the language of the Council is defined as the Paschal mystery if we wish to express in depth the truth about mercy as it has been revealed to the utmost in the history of our salvation. At this point of our considerations we shall have to draw closer still to the content of the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis. In fact, the reality of the redemption, in its human dimension, reveals the unheard of greatness of man, “which gained for us so great a Redeemer” (Exultet, Easter vigil liturgy). At the same time the divine dimension of the Redemption enables us, I would say, in the most experimental and “historical” way, to uncover the depth of that love which does not recoil before the extraordinary sacrifice of the Son. This sacrifice in its human dimension is offered to express the fidelity of the Creator and Father toward human beings, created in His image and chosen from “the beginning,” in this Son for grace and glory.
The events of Good Friday and, even before that, in the prayer in Gethsemane, introduce a fundamental change into the whole course of the revelation of love and mercy in the messianic mission of Christ. The one who “went about doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38) and “curing every sickness and disease” (Mt 9:35) now Himself seems to deserve the greatest mercy and to appeal for mercy when He is arrested, abused, condemned, scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross amid agonizing torments hands over His spirit (Mk 15:37; Jn 19:30). It is then that He especially deserves mercy from the people to whom He had extended only good, yet He does not receive it in return. Even those who are closest to Him cannot protect Him and snatch Him from the hands of the oppressors. At this final stage of His messianic activity the words which the prophets, especially Isaiah, uttered concerning the servant of Yahweh are fulfilled in Christ: “Through his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5).
Christ, as the man who suffers really and in a terrible way in the Garden of Olives and on Calvary, addresses Himself to the Father, that Father whose love He had preached to the people, to whose mercy He had borne witness through al of His activity. But He is not spared – not even He – the terrible suffering: “God did not spare his own Son,” but “For our sake God made him to be sine who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). St. Paul sums up in a few words the whole depth of the Cross and at the same time the divine dimension of the reality of the Redemption. Indeed this Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends toward it. In the passion and death of Christ, in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but “for our sake made him sin” (2 Cor 5:21), absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a “superabundance” of justice, for the sins of men are “compensated for” by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is true justice “in good measure,” is born completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. Precisely for this reason the divine Justice revealed in the Cross of Christ is “in God’s measure,” because it is born from love and is accomplished in love, bearing the fruits of salvation. The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by meeting our justice against sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man, thanks to which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that came from God. In this way redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.
The paschal mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world. The suffering Christ speaks in a special way to man, and not just to the believer. The non-believer also will be able to discover in Him the eloquence of solidarity with the human lot, a also the harmonious fullness of selfless dedication to the cause of man, to truth and to love. And yet the divine dimension of the paschal mystery goes still deeper. The Cross on Calvary, the Cross upon which Christ conducts His final dialogue with the Father, emerges from the very depth of love that man, created in the image and likeness of God, has been given a gift, according to God’s eternal plan. God, a Christ revealed Him, does not merely remain closely linked with the world as the Creator and the ultimate source of existence. He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom He called into existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is a love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For He who loves desires to give Himself.
The Cross of Christ on Calvary stands on the road of that admirabile commercium, of the wonderful self-communication of God to man. This includes the call to man to share in the divine life by giving himself, and with him the whole world, to God, and like an adopted son to become a sharer in the truth and love which is in God and proceeds from God. It is precisely on the road of man’s eternal election to the dignity of being an adopted child of God that there stands in history the Cross of Christ, the only-begotten Son, who, as “light from light, true God from true God” (Nicene Creed), came to give the final witness to the wonderful covenant of God with humanity, of God with every human being. This covenant, as old as man, goes back to the very mystery of creation. Afterwards many times renewed with one single chosen people, it is equally the new and final covenant. It was established there on Calvary, and is not limited to a single people, to Israel, but is open to each and every one.
What else, then, does the Cross of Christ say to us, the Cross that in a sense if the final word of His messianic proclamation and mission? And yet this is still not the last word of the God of the Covenant: the last word will be declared at dawn when first the women and then the Apostles come to the tomb of the crucified Christ, see the tomb empty and for the first time hear the words: “He is risen from the dead.” They will repeat this message to others and will be witnesses to the Risen Christ. Yet, even in the glorification of the Son of God, the Cross remains; that Cross, which through all the messianic testimony of the Son of man, who is absolutely faithful to His eternal love for man. “God so loved the world” that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Cf. Jn 14:9). It means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are entangled. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name. At the same time, mercy is the specific manner in which love is revealed and realized in the face of the reality of evil that is in the world, evil which touches and entraps man, penetrates even into his heart and can cause him to “perish in Gehenna” (Mt 10:28).
8. Love More Powerful than Death, More Powerful than Sin
The Cross of Christ on Calvary is also a witness to the strength of evil against the very Son of God. The Son of God who alone among all the sons of men was by His nature absolutely innocent and free from sin, and whose coming into the world was untainted by the disobedience of Adam and the inheritance of original sin. And here, precisely in Him, in Christ, justice is done to sin at the price of His sacrifice, of His obedience “even to death” (Phil 2:8). Him who was without sin “God made sin for our sake” (2 Cor 5:21). Justice is also brought to bear upon death, which from the beginning of man’s history has been allied to sin. Death has justice done to it at the price of the death of the one who was without sin and who alone was able my means of His own death to inflict death upon death (Cf. 1 Cor 15:54-55). In this way the Cross of Christ, on which the Son, consubstantial with the Father, renders full justice to God, is also a radical revelation of mercy; in other words, of love that goes against what constitutes the very root of evil in the history of man: against sin and death.
The Cross is the deepest condescension of God toward man and to what man, especially in difficult and painful moments, looks as his unhappy lot. The Cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the painful wounds of man’s earthly existence; it is the total fulfillment of the messianic program that Christ once formulated in the synagogue at Nazareth (Cf. Lk 4:18-21) and then repeated to the messengers sent by John the Baptist (Cf. Lk 7:20-23). According to the words once written in the prophecy of Isaiah (Cf. Is 35:5; 61:1-3), this program consisted in the revelations of merciful love for the poor, the suffering and prisoners, for the blind, the oppressed and sinners. In the paschal mystery the limits of the many-sided evil in which man becomes a sharer during his earthly existence are surpassed: the Cross of Christ, in fact, makes us understand the deepest roots of evil, which are fixed in sin and death; thus the Cross becomes a final (eschatological) sign. Only in the final (eschatological) fulfillment and the final renewal of the world will love conquer, in all the elect, the deepest sources of evil, bringing as its fully mature fruit the kingdom of life and holiness and glorious immortality. The foundation of this final fulfillment is already contained in the Cross of Christ and in His death. The fact that Christ “was raised the third day” (1 Cor 15:4) constitutes the final sign of the messianic mission, a sign that perfects the entire revelation of merciful love in a world that is subject to evil. At the same time it constitutes the sign that foretells “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death or mourning, no crying, no pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
In the final (eschatological) fulfillment, mercy will be revealed as love; while in the temporal phase, in human history, which is at the same time the history of sin and death, love must be revealed as mercy and must also be fulfilled as mercy. Christ’s messianic program, the program of mercy, becomes the program of His people, the program of the Church. At the very center there is always the Cross, for it is in the Cross that the revelation of merciful love attains its peak. Until “the former things pass away” (Cf. Rev. 3:20), the Cross will remain the “place” about which still other words of the book of Revelation can be applied: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me” (Rev 3:20). In a remarkable way God also reveals His mercy when He prompts man to have “mercy” toward His own Son, toward the Crucified One.
Christ precisely as the Crucified One, is the Word that does not pass away (Cf. Mt 24:35), and He is the one who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man (Cf. Rev 3:20), without restricting his freedom, but instead, seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of man, but also a kind of “mercy” shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father. In the whole of the revelation of mercy through the Cross, could man’s dignity be more highly respected and ennobled, for, in obtaining mercy, he is in a sense the one who at the same time “shows mercy”? In a word, is not this the position of Christ with regard to man when He says: “As you did it to one of the least of these ... you did it to me”? (Mt 25:40).
Do not the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7), constitute in a certain sense, a synthesis of the whole of the Good News, of the whole of the “wonderful exchange” (admirabile commercium) contained therein? This exchange is a law of the very plan of salvation, a law which is simple, strong and at the same time “easy.” Demonstrating from the very start what the “human heart” is capable of (“to be merciful”), do not these words from the Sermon on the Mount reveal in the same perspective the deepest mystery of God: that inscrutable unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in which love, containing justice, sets in motion mercy, which in turn reveals the perfection of justice?
The Paschal Mystery is Christ at the summit of the revelation of the inscrutable mystery of God. It is precisely then that the words pronounced in the Upper Room are completely fulfilled: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). In fact, Christ, whom the Father “did not spare” (Rom 8:32) for the sake of man and who in His passion and in the torment of the Cross did not obtain human mercy, has revealed in His Resurrection the fullness of the love that the Father has for Him and, in Him for all people. “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk 12:27). In His Resurrection, Christ has revealed the God of merciful love, precisely because He accepted the Cross as the road to the Resurrection. And it is for this reason that when we recall the Cross of Christ, His passion and death, our faith and hope are centered on the Risen One: on that Christ who “on the evening of that day, the first of the week, ... breathed on them, and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn 20:19-23).
Here is the Son of God who in His Resurrection experienced in a radical way mercy shown to Himself, that is to say, the love of the Father which is more powerful than death. And it is also the same Christ the Son of God, who at the end of His messianic mission and in a certain sense, even beyond the end, reveals Himself as the inexhaustible source of mercy (like a well that cannot be emptied), of the same love that, in a subsequent perspective of the history of salvation in the Church, is to be everlastingly confirmed as more powerful than sin. The paschal Christ is the definitive incarnation of mercy. The living sign of the Paschal Christ is salvific in history and in the final times (in eschatology). In the same spirit, the liturgy of Eastertide places on our lips the words of the Psalm: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever” (Ps 88:2).
9. Mother of Mercy
These words of the Church at Easter: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever,” re-echo the full prophetic content of the words Mary uttered during her visit to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah: “His mercy is ... from generation to generation.” At the very moment of the Incarnation, these words opened up a new perspective of salvation history. After the Resurrection of Christ, this perspective is new on both the historical and final (eschatological) level. From that time onwards, there is a succession of new generations of individuals in the immense human family, in ever-increasing size; there is also a succession of new generations of the People of God, marked with the sign of the Cross and of the Resurrection and “sealed” (Cf. 2 Cor 1:21-22) with the sign of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the radical revelation of the mercy that Mary proclaimed on the threshold of her kinswoman’s house: “His mercy is ... from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50).
Mary is also the one who experienced mercy in a remarkable and exceptional way, as no other person has. At the same time, still in an exceptional way, paid for her share in revealing God’s mercy by the sacrifice of her heart. This sacrifice is intimately linked with the Cross of her Son at the foot of which she was to stand on Calvary. Her sacrifice is a unique sharing in the revelation of mercy, that is, a sharing in the absolute fidelity of God to His own love, to the covenant that He willed from eternity and that He entered into in time with man, with the people, with humanity; it is a sharing in that revelation that was decisively fulfilled through the Cross. No one has experienced to the same degree as the Mother of the Crucified One the mystery of the Cross, the overwhelming encounter of divine transcendent justice with love: that “kiss” given by mercy to justice (Cf. Ps 85:11). No one as much as Mary has accepted into their heart that mystery, that truly divine dimension of the Redemption accomplished on Calvary by means of the death of her son, together with the sacrifice of her maternal heart and with her final “fiat.”
Mary, then, is also the one who knows to the fullest the mystery of God’s mercy. She knows its price, she knows how great it is. In this sense we call her the Mother of mercy, God’s Mother (Theotokos) of Mercy or the Mother of the God of Mercy. Each one of these titles contains its own deep theological meaning. Each of them expresses the special preparation of her soul, of her whole personality, so that she was able to see through the complex events, first of Israel, then of every individual and the whole of humanity, that mercy “from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50) in which people share, according to the enteral design of the most Holy Trinity.
The above titles which we attribute to the God-bearer speak of her above all, however, as the Mother of the Crucified and Risen One; as the one who experienced mercy in an exceptional way, and in an equally exceptional way “merits” that mercy throughout her earthly life and particularly at the foot of the Cross of her Son. Finally, these titles speak of her as one who, through her hidden and at the same time incomparable sharing in the messianic mission of her Son, was called in a special way to bring close to people that love which He had come to reveal. That love finds its most concrete expression in all of the suffering, the poor, those deprived of their own freedom, the blind, the oppressed and sinners; just as Christ spoke of Isaiah, first in the synagogue at Nazareth (Cf. Lk 4:18) and then in response to the question of the messengers of John the Baptist (Cf. Lk 7:22).
Mary shared precisely in this “Merciful” love, which proves itself above all in contact with moral and physical evil. She shared singularly and exceptionally by her heart as the Mother of the Crucified and Risen One. This “merciful” love does not cease to be revealed in her and through her in the history of the Church and all mankind. This revelation is especially fruitful, because it is based on the remarkable docility of the maternal heart of the God-bearer, on her unique sensitivity and fitness to reach all who accept this merciful love most easily from a mother’s side. This is one of the great life-giving mysteries of Christianity, a mystery intimately connected with the mystery of the Incarnation.
“The motherhood of Mary in the order of grace,” as the Second Vatican Council explains, “lasts without interruption from the consent she faithfully gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without hesitation under the Cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. In fact, being assumed into heaven she has not laid aside this office of salvation but by her manifold intercession she continues to obtain for us graces of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she takes care of the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home” (Lumen Gentium, 62).
VI. “MERCY FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION”
10. An Image of Our Generation
We have every right to believe that our generation too is included in the words of the God-bearer when Mary glorified that mercy shared in “from generation to generation” by those who are guided by the fear of the Lord. The words of Mary’s Magnificat carry a prophetic content that concerns not only the past of Israel but also the whole future of the People of God on earth. In fact, all of us now living on earth are the generation that is aware of the approach of the third millennium and that profoundly feel the turning point that is occurring in history.
The present generation considers itself in a privileged position: progress provided it with countless possibilities that only a few decades ago were undreamed of. Man’s creative activity, his intelligence and his work, have brought about profound changes both in the field of science and technology and in that of social and cultural life. Man has extended his power over nature and has acquired deeper knowledge of the laws of social behavior. He has seen the obstacles and distances between individuals and nations dissolve or shrink through an increased sense of what is universal. There is a clearer awareness of the unity of the human race, an acceptance of mutual dependence in authentic solidarity, and a desire and possibility of making contact with one’s brothers and sisters beyond artificial and geographic divisions and racial limits. Today’s young people, especially are conscious that the progress of science and technology can produce not only new material goods but also a wider sharing in their mutual understanding. The extraordinary progress made in the field of information and data processing, for instance, will increase man’s creative capacity and provide access to the intellectual and cultural notes of other peoples. New communication techniques will encourage greater participation in events and a wider exchange of ideas. The achievements of biological, psychological and social science help man to penetrate deeper the riches of his own being. It is true that too often this progress is still the privilege of the industrialized countries, but it cannot be denied that the prospect of enabling every people and every country to benefit from it has long ceased to be pure utopia when there is a real political desire for it.
But side by side with all this, or rather as part of it, there is also the difficulties that appear whenever there is growth. There stands out a lack of peace (anxiety) and a powerlessness regarding the profound response that man knows that he must give. The picture of the world today presents deeper recurring shadows and imbalances. The pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican Council Gaudium et Spes is certainly not the only document that deals with the life of this generation, but it is a document of special importance. “The dichotomy affecting the modern world,” we read in it, “is, in fact, a symptom of a deeper dichotomy that is in man himself. He is the meeting point of many conflicting forces. In his condition as a created being he is subject to a thousand shortcomings, but feeling untrammeled in his inclination and destined for a higher form of life. Torn by a welter of anxieties he is compelled to choose between them and repudiate some among them. Worse still, feeble and sinful as he is, he often does the very thing he hates and does not do what he wants. And so he feels himself divided, and the result is a host of discords in social life” (Gaudium et Spes, 10).
Towards the end of the introductory exposition we read: “... in the face of modern developments there is a growing body of men who are asking the most fundamental of all questions or are glimpsing them with a keener insight: What is man? What is the meaning of suffering, evil, death, which have not been eliminated by al this progress? What is the purpose of these achievements, purchased at so high a price?” (Ibid.)
In the span of fifteen years since the end of the Second Vatican Council, has this picture of tensions and threats that mark our epoch become less disquieting? It seems not. On the contrary, the tension and threats, that in the Council document seem only to be outlined, not showing their real degree of danger hidden within them, have revealed themselves more clearly these years; they have in a different way confirmed that danger, and do not permit us to cherish the illusions of the past.
11. Sources of the Lack of Peace
Pope John Paul in this section #11 and in other places uses the word “Niepokoj” in the Polish text, literally meaning non-peace or better non-shalom. It is a rich word carrying the meaning of a lack of shalom, the lack of right order with God and man and the good associated with such a life. The dictionary translates “niepokoj” as: trouble, disquiet, anxiety, unrest, uneasiness, restlessness, concern, worry, agitation. The word carries with it the sense of evil and anxiety referred to in the prayer that follows the Lord’s Prayer in the Eucharist: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” The Latin translation uses a series of words to translate this one word “niepokoj,” used repeatedly in this section, the English equivalent being: solicitude, trepidation, anxiety, anguish, inquietude, conturbation. The Vatican Poligot Press translation uses one, “uneasiness.” In this present translation “lack of peace” is used.
The lack of peace in men’s hearts and in the world is the central issue of the encyclical, and the answer to this lack of peace is mercy. The use of “lack of peace” is important in order to relate the message of this encyclical to the Gospel message of peace (Jn 20:20-21), to the embolism after the Lord’s Prayer in the Roman liturgy, and to the message of Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima and other places. The problem in the modern world is lack of peace; the answer is mercy.
As a result of the situation, the feeling of being under threat is growing in the world. There is a growing fear grounded in experience that is connected with the prospect of a conflict that in view of today’s atomic stockpiles could mean the partial self-destruction of humanity, as said in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis. But the threat does not merely concern what human beings can do to human beings through the means provided by military technology. The threat also concerns many other dangers produced by a materialistic society which in spite of “humanistic” declarations accepts the primacy of things over persons. Modern man rightly fears that by the use of the means invented by this type of society, individuals and the environment, communities, societies and nations can fall victim to the abuse of power by other individuals, environments and societies. The history of our century offers many examples of this. In spite of all the declarations on the rights of man in all his dimensions, that is to say, in his bodily and spiritual existence, we cannot say that these examples belong only to the past.
Man rightly fears falling victim to an oppression that will deprive him of his interior freedom, of the possibility of expressing the truth of which he is convinced, of the faith that he professes and of the ability to obey the voice of conscience that tells him the right path to follow. The technical means at the disposal of modern society conceal within themselves, not only the possibility of self-destruction through military conflict, but also the possibility of a “peaceful" subjection of individuals of environment, of entire societies and nations that for one reason or another might prove inconvenient for those who possess the necessary means and are ready to use them without scruple. Let us not forget the continued existence of torture practiced with impunity, systematically used by authority as a means of domination and political oppression.
Then, alongside the awareness of biological threat, there is a growing awareness of yet another threat, even more destructive of what is essentially human, what is intimately bound up with the dignity of the person and their right to truth and freedom.
All this is happening against the background of the gigantic remorse caused by the fact that side by side with wealthy and surfeited people and societies, living in plenty and ruled by consumerism and pleasure, the same human family contains individuals and groups that are suffering from hunger. There is no scarcity of entire areas of poverty, shortages and underdevelopment in various parts of the world, and in various socio-economic systems. This fact is universally known. The state of inequality between individuals and between nations not only exists; it is increasing. It still happens that side by side with those who are wealthy and living in plenty there exist those who are living in want, suffering misery, and often actually dying of hunger; and their number reaches millions, even hundreds of millions. This is why a moral lack of peace is destined to become even more acute. It is obvious that a fundamental defect, or rather a series of defects, indeed a defective machinery is at the root of contemporary economics and materialistic civilization, which does not allow the human family to break free from such radically unjust situations.
This picture of today’s world is filled with much evil, both physical and moral, so as to make of it a world entangled in contradictions and tensions, and at the same time full of threats to human freedom, conscience and religion. This picture explains the lack of peace felt by contemporary man. This lack of peace is experienced not only by those who are disadvantaged or oppressed, but also by those who possess the privileges of wealth, progress and power. Although there is no scarcity of people trying to understand the sources of the lack of peace, or trying to react against it with emergency measures offered by technology, wealth or power, still in the depth of the human spirit this lack of peace is stronger than all emergency measures. This lack of peace concerns the fundamental problems of all human existence as the analysis of the Second Vatican Council rightly pointed out. This lack of peace is tied to the very meaning of man’s existence in the world and is a lack of peace about the future of man and all mankind. This lack of peace reaches out for decisive solutions, which now seem to be confronting the human race.
12. Is Justice Enough?
It is not difficult to see that in the modern world the sense of justice has been reawakening on a vast scale. Without doubt, this sense of justice emphasizes that which goes against justice in relationship between individuals, social groups and “classes,” between individual peoples and states, and finally between whole political systems; indeed, between what are called “worlds.” This deep and multiple trend, at the basis of which the contemporary conscience has placed justice, gives proof of the ethical character of the tensions and struggles pervading the world.
The Church shares with the people of our time this profound and ardent desire for a life which is just in every aspect. She dos not fail to examine the various aspects of the sort of justice that life of people and society demands. This is confirmed by the field of Catholic and social doctrine, greatly developed in the course of the last century. In line with this teaching proceed the education and formation of human consciences on the spirit of justice, and also individual undertakings especially in the sphere of the apostolate of the laity, which are developing in precisely this spirit.
And yet, it would be difficult not to notice that very often programs which start from the idea of justice and which ought to assist its fulfillment among individuals, groups and human societies, in practice suffer from distortions. Although they continue to appeal to the idea of justice, nevertheless, experience shows that other negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice, such as spite, hatred and even cruelty. In such cases, the desire to annihilate the enemy, limit his freedom or even force him into total dependence, becomes the fundamental motive for action. This contrasts with the essence of justice which by its nature tends to establish equality and harmony between the parties in conflict. This kind of abuse of the idea of justice and the practical distortion of it show how far human action can deviate from justice itself, even when it is being undertaken in the name of justice.
Christ did not challenge His listeners in vain, faithful to the doctrine of the Old Testament, for their attitude which was manifested in the words: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 38). This was the form of distortion of justice at that time. Today’s forms continue to be modeled on it. It is obvious, in fact, that in the name of alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights. The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions. It has been precisely historical experience that, among other things, has led to the formulation of the saying: summum ius, summa iniuria (The highest justice is the highest offense). This statement does not detract from the value of justice and does not minimize the significance of the order that is based upon it; it only indicates, under another aspect, the need to draw from the powers of the Sprit which condition the very order of justice, powers which are still more profound.
The Church, having before her eyes the picture of the generation to which we belong, shares the lack of peace of so many of the people of our time. Moreover, the Church is troubled by the decline of many fundamental values, which constitute unquestionable good not only for Christian morality but simply for human morality, for moral culture: These values include respect for human life from the moment of conception, respect for marriage in its indissoluble unity, and respect for the stability of the family. Moral permissiveness strikes especially at this most sensitive sphere of life and society. Hand in hand with this go the crisis of truth in human relationships, lack of responsibility for what one says, the purely utilitarian relationship between individual and individual, the loss of a sense of the authentic common good and the ease with which it is alienated. Finally, there is the “desacralization” that often turns into “dehumanization”; the individual and the society for whom nothing is “sacred” suffer moral decay in spite of appearances.
VII. THE MERCY OF GOD IN THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
In connection with this picture of our generation, a picture which must awake a deep lack of peace, there come to mind once more those words which, by reason of the Incarnation of the Son of God, resounded in Mary’s Magnificat, and which sing of “mercy from generation to generation.” The Church of our time, taking these inspired words deeply to heart and applying them to her own experience and to the suffering of the human family, must become especially and profoundly conscious of the need to bear witness in her whole mission to God’s mercy, following in the footsteps of the tradition of the Old and the New Testament, and above all of Jesus Christ Himself and His Apostles. The Church must bear witness to the mercy of God reveled in Christ, in the whole of His mission as Messiah, professing it, in the first place as a salvific truth of faith and as necessary for life in harmony with faith, and then seeking to introduce, it and to incarnate it in the lives of both her faithful and as far as possible in the lives of all people of good will. Finally, the Church professing mercy and not stepping back from it in the life has the right and duty to call upon the mercy of God, imploring mercy in the face of all the manifestations of physical and moral evil, before all the threats that cloud the whole horizon of the life of humanity today.
13. The Church Professes the Mercy of God and Proclaims It
The Church must profess and proclaim God’s mercy in all its truth, as it has been handed down to us by revelation. We have sought, in the foregoing pages of the present document, to sketch at least an outline of this truth, which finds such rich expression in the whole of Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition. In the daily life of the Church, the truth about the mercy of God, expressed in the Bible resounds like a continuous echo through the many readings of the Sacred Liturgy. The authentic sense of the faith of the People of God witnesses to this truth as is shown by various expressions of personal and community piety. It would be difficult to make a list or summary of them all, because most of them are vividly written in the depths of people’s hearts and consciences. If some theologians claim that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God, then to this the Bible, Tradition and the whole faith life of the People of God provide unique proof. It is not here a question of the perfection of the inscrutable essence of God in the mystery of the divinity itself, but the perfection and attribute whereby man, in the inner truth of his existence, meets the living God ever so closely and ever so often. According to the words of Christ to Philip (Cf. Jn 14:9-10), “seeing the Father,” the “seeing” of God through faith, finds in this very meeting with His mercy a unique moment of inner simplicity and truth. It is a meeting with mercy similar to the simplicity and truth that we find in the parable of the prodigal son.
“He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). The Church professes the mercy of God Himself, the Church lives by it in her wide experience of faith. She also lives by it in her teaching, constantly contemplating Christ, concentrating on Him, on His life and on His Gospel, on His Cross and Resurrection, on His whole mystery. Everything that contributes to “seeing” Christ in the Church’s living faith and teaching brings us nearer to “seeing the Father” in the holiness of His mercy. The Church seems to profess and venerate the mercy of God in an extraordinary way when she turns to the Heart of Jesus. In fact, it is precisely this drawing close to Christ in the mystery of His Heart which allows us to stop and dwell on this central point. The Heart of Christ is the point at which it is the easiest for mankind to preach the revelation of the Father’s merciful love, a revelation which makes up the central content of the messianic mission of the Son of God.
The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and Redeemer and when she brings people close to the sources of the Savior’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser. Of great significance in this matter is the constant pondering on the Word of God, and above all a conscious and mature participation in the Eucharist and in the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. The Eucharist brings us ever nearer to that love which is more powerful than death: “for as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup,” we proclaim not only the death of the Redeemer but also His Resurrection, “until He comes in glory” (Cf. 1 Cor 11:26 an acclamation of the Roman Missal). The same Eucharistic rite celebrated in memory of Christ who in His messianic mission revealed His Father to us by means of His Word and Cross, witnesses to the inexhaustible love, in whose strength He unceasingly wants to unite Himself with us and make us one, going out to meet every human heart. The road for this meeting and writing is cleared for everyone, by the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament every person can experience in an extraordinary way, mercy, that is, that love which is more powerful than sin. This has already been spoken of in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis; but it will be fitting to return once more to this fundamental theme.
It is precisely because sin exists in the world, which “God so loved that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16), that God who “is love” (Jn 4:8), cannot reveal Himself otherwise than as mercy. This mercy declares not only the deepest truth about love, the love which is God and is God’s, but this mercy also declares the inner truth of man and the world, which is man’s temporary homeland.
Mercy in itself, as a perfection of the infinite God, is also infinite. So too then is the Father’s readiness infinite and inexhaustible to receive the prodigal children, who return to His home. Infinite are the readiness and power of forgiveness which flow continually from the inexpressible value of the sacrifice of the Son. No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it! On the part of man only a lack of goodwill can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words, persistence in obstinacy, oppressing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
For this reason, the Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always depends upon discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind (Cf. 1 Cor 13:4) as only the Creator and Father can be. This love of the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 1:3) is faithful down to the uttermost consequences in the history of His covenant with man: even to the Cross, the death and Resurrection of the Son. Conversion to God is always the fruit of the “rediscovery” of this Father, who is rich in mercy.
Genuine knowledge of the God of mercy, the God of tender love, is a constant and inexhaustible source of conversion, not only a single inner act but also as a permanent capability, as a state of the soul. Those who come to know God in this way, who “see” Him in this way, can live only in a state of being continually converted to Him. They live, then, in statu conversionis in a state of conversion which marks out the deepest element of the pilgrimage of every man and woman on earth in statu viatoris (in the state of a pilgrim). It is obvious that the Church professes the mercy of God, revealed in the crucified and risen Christ, not only by the word of her teaching but above all through the deepest pulsation of the life of the whole People of God. By means of this testimony of life, the Church fulfills the mission proper to the People of God, the mission which is a sharing and, in a sense, a continuation of the messianic mission of Christ Himself.
The contemporary Church is profoundly conscious that only by relying on the mercy of God will she be able to carry out the tasks that arise from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, above all the ecumenical task which aims at uniting all who confess Christ. As she makes many efforts in this direction, the Church confesses with humility that only that love which is more powerful than the weakness of human divisions can ultimately bring about that unity which Christ implored from the Father and which the Spirit never ceases to beseech for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
14. The Church Seeks to Put Mercy into Practice
Jesus Christ taught that mankind not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that it its also called “to practice mercy” towards others: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). The Church sees in these words a call to action, and she tries to practice mercy. If all the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount indicate the way of conversion and of reform of life, then the one referring to those who are merciful is particularly eloquent in this regard. Mankind attains to the merciful love of God, His mercy to the extent that he himself is interiorly transformed in the Spirit of that love toward his neighbor.
This most essential evangelical process is not just a single breakthrough of heart but a whole style of life, an essential attribute of the Christian vocation. It consists in the constant discovery and persevering practice of love as a unifying and elevating power despite all difficulties of psychological or social nature. It is a question, in fact, of a merciful love which, by its essence, is creative love. In mutual relations between persons, merciful love is never a one-sided act or process. Even in the case in which everything would seem to indicate that only one party is giving and offering, and the other only receiving and taking, (for example, in the case of a doctor giving treatment, a teacher teaching, parents supporting and bringing up their children, a benefactor helping the needy), in reality the one who gives is always also a beneficiary. In any case, he too can easily find himself in the position of the one who receives, who obtains a benefit, who experiences merciful love; he too obtains mercy.
In this sense, Christ crucified is for us the loftiest model, inspiration and encouragement. When we base our life on this impressive model, we are able with all humility to show mercy to others, knowing that Christ accepts it as if it were shown to Himself (Cf. Mt 25:34-40). On the basis of this model, we must also continually purify all our actions and intentions in which mercy is understood and practiced in only one direction, that is, as a good done to others. An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment of performing it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us. If this two-directional and mutual quality is absent, our actions are not yet true acts of mercy, nor has there yet been fully completed in us that conversion to which Christ has shown us the way by His words and example, even to the Cross. We are not yet sharing fully in the magnificent source or merciful love that has been revealed to us by Him.
Thus, the way which Christ showed to us in the Sermon on the Mount about the blessing of the merciful is much richer than what we sometimes find in ordinary human opinion. These opinions see mercy as a one-sided act or process, presupposing and maintaining a certain distance between the one practicing mercy and the one benefitting from it, between the one who does good and the one who receives it. Hence this approach attempts to free interpersonal and social relationships from mercy and to base them solely on justice. Such opinions about mercy, however, fail to see the fundamental link between mercy and justice spoken of by the whole biblical tradition, and above all by the messianic mission of Jesus Christ. True mercy is the deepest source of justice. If justice is in itself suitable for judging between nations and distributing among them objective goods in an equitable manner, than love and only love (including that kindly love we call “mercy”) is capable of restoring man to himself.
Equalizing mercy that is truly Christian is also in a certain sense the most perfect incarnation of “equalizing” between people, and therefore, also the most perfect incarnation of justice as well, insofar as justice aims at the same result in its own sphere. However, the “equalization” brought about by justice is limited to the realm of objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring about that people meet one another in that value which is man himself, with dignity that is proper to him. At the same time, this “equalizing” of people through “patient and kind” love (Cf. 1 Cor 13:4) does not take away differences. The person who gives becomes more generous when he or she feels at the same time benefited by the person accepting his or her gift. Also the person who accepts the gift with the awareness that, in accepting it, he or she too is doing good, is in his or her own way serving the greater cause of the dignity of the person. This most profoundly contributes to uniting people among themselves.
Thus, mercy becomes an indispensable element for shaping mutual relationships between people, in a spirit of deeper respect for what is human, and in a spirit of mutual brotherhood. It is impossible to establish this bond between people, if they wish to regulate their mutual relationships only according to the measure of justice. In every sphere of interpersonal relationship, justice must experience a profound “correction” by that love which as St. Paul proclaims “is patient and kind” or, in other words, possesses the characteristics of the merciful love which is so much of the essence of the Gospel and Christianity. Let us remember, furthermore, that merciful tenderness and sensitivity so eloquently spoken of in the parables of the prodigal son (Cf. Lk 15:11-32), the parable of the lost sheep and in the lost coin (Cf. Lk 15:1-10). Consequently, merciful love is especially indispensable between those who are closest to one another; between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends; and it is indispensable in education and in pastoral work.
Its sphere of action is not limited to this. Paul VI more than once indicated the “civilization of love” (Cf. close of the Holy Year, December 25, 1975) as the goal toward which all efforts in the cultural and social fields as well as in the economic and political fields should tend. It must be added that this good will never be reached if in our thinking and acting concerning the vast and complex spheres of human society we stop at the criterion of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38) and do not try to transform it in its essence, by complementing it with another spirit. Certainly, the Second Vatican Council also leads us in this direction, when it speaks repeatedly of the need to make the world ever more human (Gaudium et Spes, 40; AAS 58, 1966 Paul VI; Paterna cum benefolentia, 1-6 SSD 61, 1977 pp 7-9, 17-23), and says that the realization of this task is precisely the mission of the Church in the modern world. Society can become ever more human only if we introduce into the many-sided setting of interpersonal relationships, not merely justice, but also that “merciful love” which constitutes the messianic message of the Gospel.
This human world can become “even more human” only when we introduce into all the mutual relationships which form its moral aspect, the moment of forgiveness, which is so much of the essence of the Gospel. Forgiveness demonstrates the presence in the world of the love which is more powerful than sin. Forgiveness is also the fundamental condition for reconciliation, not only in the relationship of God with man, but also in relationships between people. If we eliminate forgiveness from this world, then it would be nothing but a world of cold and unfeeling justice, in the name of which each person would claim his or her own rights vis-a-vis others; the various kinds of selfishness latent in man would transform life and human society into a system of oppression of the weak by the strong, or into an arena of permanent strife between one group and another.
For this reason the Church must acknowledge as her chief duty the proclamation and introduction into life, the mystery of mercy, so perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ at every stage of history, especially in our modern age. Not only for the Church herself as the community of believers but also in a certain sense for all humanity. This mystery is the source of a life different from the life which can be built by human beings who are exposed to the oppressive forces of the threefold concupiscence active within them (Cf. 1 Jn 2:16). It is precisely in the name of this mystery of mercy that Christ teaches us to forgive always. How often we repeat the words of the prayer which He Himself taught us, asking “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” which means those who have committed an offense against us (Mt 6:12). It is difficult, frankly, to express the deep value of the attitude which these words describe and form. How much these words say to everyone about others and at the same time about themselves! The consciousness of usually being debtors to each other goes hand in hand with the call to fraternal solidarity, which St. Paul expressed in his concise exhortation to “forbear one another in love” (Eph 2; Cf. Gal 6:2). What a lesson of humility is to be found here for man, for both one’s neighbors and oneself! What a school of good will for each day in the various situations of our life. If we were to ignore this lesson of forgiveness, what would remain of any truly “humanist” program of life and education?
Christ emphasizes so insistently to the need to forgive others that when Peter asked Him how many times he should forgive his neighbor He answered with the symbolic number of “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22), meaning that he must be able to forgive everyone every time. It is obvious that such a generous requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. Properly understood, justice is, so to speak, the goal of forgiveness. In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean tolerance toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult. In every case reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions of forgiveness.
Thus the fundamental structure of justice always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, shows that over and above the process of “equalizing” and “truce” which is specific to justice, love is necessary, so that persons may affirm themselves as human. Fulfillment of the conditions of justice is especially indispensable in order that love may reveal its own image. In analyzing the parable of the prodigal son, we have already called attention to the fact that he who forgives and he who is forgiven meet one another at a vital point, namely, the dignity or essential value of the person, a point which cannot be lost. The confirming of this point of dignity of the person or finding it anew is a source of the greatest joy.
The Church rightly considers it her duty and the duty of her mission to guard the authenticity of forgiveness, both in life, behavior and in educational and pastoral work. She protects it simply by guarding its source, which is the mystery of the mercy of God Himself as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The basis of the Church’s mission, in all the spheres spoken of in the numerous pronouncements of the most recent Council and in the centuries old experience of the apostolate, is none other than “drawing from the wells of the Savior” (Cf. Is 12:3): this is what provides many guidelines for the mission of the Church in the lives of individual Christians, of individual communities, and also of the whole People of God. This “drawing from the wells of the Savior” can be done only in the spirit of poverty to which we are called by the words and example of the Lord: “You received without pay,” (Mt 10:8). Thus, in all the ways of the Church’s life and ministry through the evangelical poverty of her ministers and stewards and of her whole People which bears witness to “the mighty works” of its Lord – the Lord has all the more revealed Himself as the God who is “rich in mercy.”
VIII. THE PRAYER OF THE CHURCH IN OUR TIMES
15. The Church Appeals to the Mercy of God
The Church proclaims the truth about God’s mercy which is made known in the crucified and risen Christ and she makes it known in various ways. The Church also tries to be merciful to people through people because she considers this to be an indispensable condition for a better, “more human” world, today and tomorrow.
And yet at no time and in no period of history – especially at a turning point like ours – can the Church forget about prayer, which is a cry for the mercy of God in the midst of the many forms of evil that weigh upon mankind and threaten it. This imploring of mercy is precisely the fundamental right and at the same time the duty of the Church in Christ Jesus. It is the right and duty of the Church toward God and at the same time toward humanity.
The more the human conscience succumbs to secularization and loses its sense of the very meaning of the word “mercy,” the more it moves away from God and the mystery of mercy. Therefore the Church has all the more the right and the duty to appeal to God’s mercy with “loud cries” (Heb 5:7). Such “loud cries” ought to be the cry of the Church of our times to God for mercy as she announces and proclaims the certainty of that mercy in the crucified and risen Christ, that is, the Paschal Mystery. This mystery carries within itself the fullest revelation of mercy, namely, that love is more powerful than death, more powerful than sin and every evil, that love lifts man from his deepest falls and frees him from his greatest threats.
Modern man feels these threats. What has been said on this point is only a beginning. Modern man often asks about the solutions of these terrible tensions which have built up in the world between peoples. And if at times he lacks the courage to utter this word “mercy,” or if his conscience is empty of religious content and he does not find the equivalent, so much greater is the necessity for the Church to utter this word, not only in her own name but also in the name of all people of our time.
It is necessary that everything that I have said in this present letter on mercy be continuously changed and transformed into an ardent prayer: into a cry for mercy on the people of the modern world with all their needs and threats. May this cry be filled with that truth about mercy which has found such rich expression in the Sacred Scriptures, in Tradition, and in the authentic life of faith of countless generations of the People of God. Like the sacred writers let us cry out to God who cannot despise anything that He has made, (Gen 1:31; Ps 145:9; Wis 11:24), Him who is faithful to Himself, His fatherhood and His love. And like the prophets, let us appeal to that love which has maternal characteristics – and, like a mother, goes after each of her children, after each lost sheep, even if the lost are in the millions, even if the evil in the world outweighs honesty, even if mankind deserves, because of its sins, a kind of modern “flood,” as did the generation of Noah.
Let us then appeal also to that kind of fatherly love revealed to us by Christ in His messianic mission, which reached its ultimate expression in His cross, in His death and in His resurrection! Let us appeal to God through Christ, mindful of the words of Mary’s Magnificat which proclaims “mercy from age to age.” Let us cry out for God’s own mercy for this present generation! May the Church, which like Mary continues to be the spiritual mother of humankind, express in this prayer her total maternal concern, as well as that trusting love from which is born the most burning need for prayer.
Let us cry out, guided by that faith, hope and love that Christ grafted in our hearts. This cry for mercy is at the same time an expression of our love of God, from whom modern man has distanced himself and made of Him a stranger, proclaiming in various ways that he doesn’t “need” God. This then is mercy, the love of God whose insult – rejection by modern man – we feel deeply and are ready to cry out with Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34 RSV).
This cry for mercy is at the same time love for all of mankind. Mercy is love for all peoples without exception or division: without difference of race, culture, language, or world-view, without distinction between friends and enemies. This cry for mercy is love for all people. Mercy desires every true good for each individual and for every human community, for every family, for every nation, for every social group, for youth, adults, parents, and for the elderly and the sick. It is love for everyone, without exception or division. This cry for mercy is love for all people, the care which ensures for everyone all true good, and removes and drives away every sort of evil.
And if any of our contemporaries do not share the faith and hope which bid me, as servant of the mysteries of God (Cf. 1 Cor 1:1), to implore the mercy of God Himself for mankind in this hour of history, then may they understand the reason for my concern. It is dictated by love for mankind, for all that is human and which, according to the intuitions of many of our contemporaries, is threatened by an immense danger.
The same mystery of Christ, which reveals to us the great vocations of mankind, which obliged me to proclaim in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis mankind’s incomparable dignity, also obliges me to announce mercy as God’s merciful love revealed in that same mystery of Christ. This mystery of Christ also obliges me to appeal to this mercy and implore this mercy on our difficult and critical times of the Church and of the world as we approach the end of the second millennium.
In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead, in the spirit of His messianic mission, which endures in the works of mankind, we lift up our voice and plead: that the love which is in the Father, may once again be revealed at this stage of history; and that, through the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit, this love which is in the Father, may be once again shown to be present in our modern world as more powerful than evil and more powerful than sin and death. We plead this through the intercession of Mary, who does not cease to proclaim “mercy ... from generation to generation,” and also through the intercession of the saints in whom have been completely fulfilled the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." (Mt 5:7).
It is not permissible for the Church, for any reason to withdraw into herself as she continues the great task of implementing the Second Vatican Council. In this implementing we can rightly see a new phase of the self-realization of the Church – in keeping with the age in which it has been our destiny to love. The reason for her existence is, in fact, to reveal God, that Father who allows us to “see” Himself in Christ (Cf. Jn 14:9). No matter how strong the resistance of human history may be, no matter how estranged the civilization of the world, no matter how great the denial of God in the human world, so much the greater must be our closeness to that mystery which, hidden for centuries in God, was then truly shared with man, in time, through Jesus Christ.
With my Apostolic Blessing.
Given in Rome, at St. Peter’s, on the thirtieth day of November, the First Sunday of Advent, in the year 1980, the Third of my Pontificate.
John Paul II, Pope