A Jesuit, Filipino, and Asian Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology

Thursday, January 18, 2018
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The title of this talk, “The Quality of Mercy”, comes from one of the most famous of Shakespeare speeches, lines that perhaps many of us learned off by heart at school. And in this year when the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s birth is being celebrated, as a kind of initial scaffolding, I want to mix these celebrated words with some statements of Pope Francis on mercy. As we all know it has been a keyword in the Pope’s pastoral vocabulary right from the beginning. Let us recall that on his very first Sunday as Pope, Francis surprised people at the Church of St Anna with an off the cuff homily on the woman taken in adultery, the gospel of that day. It was short, just about 500 words, and the core emphasis was typically on mercy. Perhaps the most revealing statement was this:   “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy”. And a little later: “It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension. But we must!”.


The emphasis on mercy at that first public Mass is now recognised as a characteristic of the Pope’s pastoral spirituality, past and present. That first spontaneous homily obviously came from the heart, and from a personal vision matured over many years. But, to enrich our horizon, let us move back in time to Shakespeare and then come back to another important light from Pope Francis.


The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown:

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore…

consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.


A liberal paraphrase of Shakespeare’s great speech from The Merchant of Venice could go like this: mercy is a free flow of generosity that can never be forced. It is one that brings a blessing to both giver and receiver. When it comes from the heart, it is greater than any exercise of power. In fact it is the key characteristic of God, and we ourselves become more like God when our justice transcends itself in mercy. And which of us can hope for salvation unless we pray for mercy, and indeed live mercifully ourselves?


Not bad, we might say, for a writer without much theological background. In Ben Jonson’s famous words he had “small Latin and less Greek”.  But Portia’s speech manages to capture at least three aspects of mercy, crucial for our theological reflection: it is an attitude before it is an action; it can be seen as a principal attribute of God; and we are called not just to receive mercy but to incarnate it in our own wounded history.


Mercy Larger Than Forgiveness


Let us return then to Pope Francis, who by coincidence commented the same gospel of the woman taken in adultery on a Monday in Lent this year. During one of his unscripted morning homilies, he offered a perhaps surprising insight into the difference between mercy and forgiveness. In the approach of Jesus to the woman, the Pope said, we find “something more than forgiveness”.  He doesn’t tell her that adultery is not a sin. The key  to this scene is that he does not condemn her with the law and in this, said the Pope, we find the “mystery of mercy”, something “difficult to understand”. Then in his down to earth style Pope Francis went on to invent a conversation:  “But Father, mercy wipes out sins.” “No, it is the forgiveness of God that wipes out sins.” “Mercy is the way in which God forgives”.  He went on to explain that the “merciful attitude” of Jesus defends the sinner against enemies and that mercy is like the arrival of the sun into the night-time sky: the result is that we do not see the stars any more once this great “light of tenderness” shines.  In other words the central reality of mercy captures God’s whole response to human vulnerability and pain, whereas pardon is a more definite act that heals the self-destructiveness we call sin.


Quite simply mercy is larger than forgiveness, because mercy is the divine birthplace of forgiveness and indeed of compassion. Mercy feels for the afflictions of people, the self-inflicted troubles called sin and the many other kinds of innocent suffering brought about by tragedy, injustice or the evil of others. If God is love, that love transforms itself into mercy because of us, because of our neediness and fragility, because of our multi-layered need for salvation.  Then, to use an old distinction, the indicative of mercy becomes an imperative but the order is crucial. God’s extraordinary mercy towards us comes first but seeks to teach us ordinary mercy towards others.


Summary and Structure


An aside on the term mercy: the English language is at a disadvantage, compared to the Latin languages. Our term “mercy” echoes the French for thanks and the Latin “merces” for reward. The Latin misericordia has clearer and richer resonances, implying someone with sensibility of heart for the poor or suffering.


This presentation will fall into two major sections. On the basis of what we have just seen, I want to explore the theology of mercy, drawing on three texts, an encyclical of Pope John Paul, on Evangelii gaudium, and on Cardinal Kasper’s recent book called Mercy. Later I hope to offer some reflections on how our contemporary culture sometimes can distort and avoid mercy, and yet how this central image of God can become real and transformative in people’s lives, both for believers and non-believers. In other words the first part seeks to summarize a convergence of theological lights on this theme and the second part will ask about the challenges to this vision in today’s world and how it might best be communicated or inculturated.


Pope John Paul II: Rich in Mercy


From Pope John Paul II’s second encyclical, Dives in misericordia (1980), there are many rich insights to be gathered. What I want to do here is not so much quote this text as paraphrase some of its important lights on the nature of mercy. What emerges strongly is that mercy is the key language of divine love when that love encounters the sufferings and the sins of human history (# 3). Indeed God’s love is the inner form of which mercy is the embodiment (# 6). In salvation history the earliest initiative of God’s mercy came when God saw the suffering of his people “reduced to slavery” and “decided to deliver them” (# 4). Then in the New Testament Christ gives to this long tradition “a definite meaning”, incarnating mercy in his own person, and expressing it in so many gestures, words, and especially in parables (#2). Of course the climax of the revelation of God’s mercy is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus, because, according to Pope John Paul, by raising Him from the dead “the love of the Father” shows “in a radical way” mercy to His Son (# 8). Here once again “love is revealed” over against “the reality of evil” in the world and thus mercy becomes “as it were love's second name” (# 7). Within the conflictual drama of human history, divine love shows itself as mercy, whereas beyond this life love will show itself simply as love (# 8).


Pope John Paul, with his typical Christian humanism, insists that mercy cannot be understood just as compassion before suffering,  but also as a restoration of essential human dignity:  here we rediscover, he says, “the common experience of that good which is man” (# 6). Some twenty years later Marilynne  Robinson’s great novel Gilead evoked mercy as “the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves”. It is not impossible that this theologically alert Calvinist writer had been reading that papal encyclical.


Pope Francis: The Joy of the Gospel


Although the major text of Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, does not try to deal with mercy in the same detail or theological depth, in fact it mentions this term 32 times. Here a more pastoral emphasis emerges, giving special attention to three aspects: mercy in evangelization, in sacramental ministry and in serving the poor of the world. Francis sees the evangelizing mission of the Church as rooted in  “an endless desire to show mercy” (# 24) and the Church itself is called to be “a place of mercy freely given” (# 114). This means seeking to make the sacrament of reconciliation in particular “an encounter with the Lord’s mercy”  and not a “torture chamber” (# 44). Concerning “mercy towards the poor”, the Pope’s tone becomes typically eloquent and urgent: the biblical call to mercy is so “clear and direct”, how can we “complicate something so simple” (# 194)? He evokes the core of mercy as reaching and transforming hearts: “We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others”, and significantly for our second part here, he goes on to recall that in the early centuries this lived characteristic of Christians “helped create a prophetic, counter-cultural resistance to the self-centered hedonism of paganism” (# 193). I will come back later to the related question of culture in this text of Pope Francis.


Cardinal Kasper’s Book


At his first angelus, Pope Francis praised a new book on mercy by Cardinal Kasper, saying in Italian that he was a theologian “in gamba”, literally “in leg”. The official English translation on the Vatican website is “clever theologian” but that does not do justice to that colloquial Italian expression: it would be more like “alert”, “sprightly”, or, better still, “on the mark”. And Kasper’s book is probably the best theological treatment of mercy available. Pope Francis, in that same angelus address, picked out one key aspect: “feeling mercy…. changes everything…. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” (17th March 2013).


For a few minutes therefore I want to draw on the riches of Cardinal Kasper’s book, and, as with Dives in misericordia, not so much quoting as translating for our purposes some of the main insights. As might be expected from more than two hundred pages, the German cardinal draws on philosophy, biblical studies, systematic theology and church history. But what he stresses throughout is the centrality of mercy as our deepest and most crucial image of God, adding that it has been “criminally neglected” in theology and that this strange forgetfulness has been a “catastrophe”: this disregard, he argues, led to many distorted images of God and indeed to various kinds of atheism. Therefore we need to retrieve the primacy of mercy as our richest, or least inadequate, Christian glimpse of God. It is mercy that distinguishes God from human beings, and reveals his “holy essence” (51). Paradoxically it is mercy that makes God “other” from us and yet “close” to us (52). In a striking expression of Aquinas, mercy is the primordial root, the prima radix, of all divine attributes (98).


And of course there is a rich Biblical background for all this. Even before the term mercy or hesed enters the vocabulary of the Bible, Walter Kasper reminds us that Genesis pictures God “making clothes out of skins” for the fallen Adam and Eve (Gen 3: 20). And indeed the whole story of the Bible is one of God being “faithful to himself and to his people despite their infidelity” (49).


Needless to say, all kinds of questions can arise, for instance about omnipotence or justice or divine anger, which cannot be dealt with here. More relevant for our purposes is Kasper’s claim that mercy is God’s fundamental option for the poor, a divine reaching out to all our poverties (56) and hence that the “Church’s first task” (159) is to proclaim and to embody this transformative revelation of God.  Indeed he goes on to voice cultural and ethical questions that will reappear in the second part of this presentation, for instance: “how can we measure up to the standard of divine mercy in our own actions?... what does the message of mercy mean for the praxis of the church”? (19).


Transition to Contemporary Cultures


Having seen something of theological reflection on mercy, it is time to bring in another perspective, to ask about how the quality of mercy is recognized or else avoided in today’s culture. At the outset of Dives in Misericordia, Pope John Paul commented that  “the present-day mentality” tends “to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy”, adding that it seems to “cause uneasiness” in people today (# 2). He goes on to suggest that this disquiet may come from our modern sense of mastery of so many area of life. So we have to ask, could our narratives of progress deceive us into evading the cry of suffering all around us and indeed escaping our own permanent vulnerabilities?


In this connection, as I said, we can devote some attention to Pope Francis’ vision of culture. It may come as a surprise that Evangelii gaudium uses the term “culture” 76 times, thinking mainly of lived rather than high cultures. In tune with its title, it indicates culture as the zone where gospel joy needs to be inculturated, and of course any such inculturation will involve a critique and a purification of dehumanizing aspects of our cultures. The Pope insists that every culture can enrich the gospel and be a source of living water (139), and especially what he likes to call a culture of encounter (220). But he is typically blunt about dangers. Let me list them briefly. The opposite of a culture of encounter is a culture of anonymity (169), where a “practical relativism” (80) reigns, more dangerous, he says significantly, than doctrinal relativism. Thus people become disposable, cynicism about religion dominates the media (79), a culture of prosperity (54) becomes morally weak, and interestingly the Pope mentions explicitly that external and superficial influences on Asian cultures (62) can undermine the wisdom of ancient religious traditions in your continent. Then he also adds that theology, and not just pastoral theology, needs to enter into real dialogue with these new cultural contexts (139). Otherwise it will remain desk-bound, or as Lonergan once said, living in a world that no longer exists.


In all this we can discern I think a certain influence of Ignatian spirituality. The mercy theme is of course central for the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, and that needs no development here. The theme of cultural conflict is the core of the key exercise on the Two Standards in the so-called second week, where we are invited to recognize a struggle between true and false values, between self-deception and discipleship. In this light Pope Francis, in Evangelii gaudium, and elsewhere, can be surprisingly emphatic in alerting us to a battleground of our images and of our hearts, rather than a battle of pure ideas.


Imagination as Battleground


In this light where can we diagnose some cultural blockages to mercy in the contemporary situation. Obviously I am more aware of Western rather than Asian contexts. There is an implicit invitation to the respondents to this presentation to qualify and correct my perspective. With the innocence of a visitor, my intuition is that Asian culture and Asian Christianity suffers less from the individualism that in complex ways dominates the West. My hope is that you have preserved stronger roots of community than in Europe or North America, and hence that what Pope Francis calls a globalized culture of indifference may be less present here as an enemy to mercy.


With that qualification and hope, let us at least list some of common ills diagnosed in our postmodern context, and obviously this largely Western cultural tendency can have its own global impact in other continents. Commentators tell us of fragmentation, fluidity, fragility, fear of the future and so on. They also stress a privatisation of sensibility, a decline in social conscience, a retreat to the isolated self. Even accepting for the moment these over-simple labels, we become aware of a cultural blockage to the quality of mercy, as a human or Christian sensibility.


But another question arises: where exactly can we locate this challenge? And where can it best be answered? Let us consult the wisdom of John Henry Newman. In a famous controversy with the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, Newman wrote: “the heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination”. For Newman imagination was more existential than reason, because one function of imagination was literally to “realise” faith, in the sense of making God real in one’s life. The danger he discerned was that if imagination is not touched or nourished, the great realities of faith, such as mercy, can remain vague, conceptual, or “unreal” (a favourite negative word of his). In this light I want to argue that the battleground of our culture lies in the field called by Newman “religious imagination”. It is here that mercy, like faith itself, will either remain a “notional” or pious exhortation or else take fire and flesh, becoming a source of conversion and, as Newman would insist, of action.


Reductive Self-Images


In brief I am suggesting that the rich theological vision of mercy struggles for social credibility today less on the level of explicit ideas or philosophies than on the level of what Charles Taylor likes to call our social imaginary. It is on this level that we find our lived and operative anthropology. For instance, a simple but key question about our self-images: what comes first, the individual or the community, the separate self or the self in relationship? The fallout of Western modernity has drastically changed our perspectives here. It tells us that not only are we alone without God but we ourselves are fundamentally alone, independent from one another, and hence any relationships are secondary,  like temporary exits from our solitude.


This influential image inherited from modernity and often central to John Wayne movies implies that the self-made man is the human norm. Thus Charles Taylor speaks of “disembedded individuals” (Dilemmas and Connections, 2010, 149) insensitive to social ties or obligations. On the contrary the Christian tradition gives priority to relationship, with God and others, as the normal and necessary birthplace of identity and personal growth. As in the key zone of mercy, gift here is prior to achievement.  Let one striking example stand for a whole tradition. Hans Urs von Balthasar invites us to ponder our first moment of freedom, which he identifies with an infant’s first smile. This moment of human miracle reveals for Balthasar the core of faith. It is a response to a love already received from mother and father and others. The word infant in Latin means speechless, but the smile is the first pre-verbal speech. If we give it verbal subtitles it would be something like: thank you, I recognize that I am loved. This anthropology of receiving a relationship rather than of isolated self-construction, offers a self-image at variance with the lone ranger.


So the question of images of God and images of ourselves is vital to the retrieval of mercy at the heart of God and of Christian living. Often our culturally induced images can be unworthy of God and of our Christian calling. The Irish philosopher, William Desmond, finds it “disturbing” that there is no much atheism “entirely undisturbed about itself”, and invites us to ask which God did modernity assume (GB, 1). In his view it was God as a distant sovereign which went hand in hand with an image of humanity as sovereign power. This image of God without mercy as a core quality, often produced a religion of individual moral duty but without any transforming source of divine compassion.


In Desmond’s words, “autonomous freedom does not free us” (GB 13) and therefore we need to dismantle our images of lonely self-determining. We do so when we allow the surprise of revealed mercy to shatter “the self-closures” (GB 278) we have inherited and when we open doors to “compassionate service” (277). Ultimately we seek to imitate the “measureless love” of a merciful God (300).


Lifestyles and Dominant Cultures as Sources of Indifference


We saw earlier that God’s Love becomes mercy because of us. Because of our wounded history, the dominant note in the chord of divine love becomes God’s healing mercy. But it is not just our self-images that can numb our sensibility to the cry of suffering. The German theologian Metz asks us to question our life-styles as potentially blocking the wellsprings of mercy through a culture of apathy. He also accuses some of our theology of running away from the pain of history (Passion for God, 33, 39).   Our excited society keeps us busy with trivia and incapable of pausing to hear the cries of others. Or else our security-obsessed society builds walls against danger, including the danger of being touched by difference.


In this same spirit the American novelist George Saunders has an essay called “The Brain-Dead Megaphone”, asking about how we moderns differ from people of a thousand years ago. He answers with a sort of parable, asking us to imagine a party where people are talking about all sorts of topics, until a man walks in with a megaphone.  He dominates the party so much that everyone begins to talk only about issues that he raises. The sheer volume of his voice will eventually silence other topics. The implication is clear: for Saunders we have a cultural crisis in the quality of our imagining, when we are bullied by the media and allow a superficial life-style to kidnap our energies and cause an amnesia of our conscience over both faith and justice.


So, if mercy is to be genuinely Christian, it needs to resist this cultural numbness and to emerge from cosy religiousness to meet and embrace the pain around. There is a danger that our image or idea of mercy might become a little soft or even sentimental. It could be reduced to compassionate feelings and to charitable actions. This would be to shrink the whole question from the social to the individual. It would be in danger of forgetting both the hugeness of suffering in history past and present and indeed the centrality of the memory of Christ’s suffering. There can be a tendency to rush into Resurrection and therefore to preach a trivialized optimism for a psychologized public. But both Cross and Resurrection give flesh and drama to divine mercy.


Sources of Hope and Healing


We have seen that our culture can seem afraid to believe in mercy, or to show mercy. But is this the whole story? Is apathy really so widespread as a paralysis of the heart? If we look more deeply a strange paradox comes to light. It can be true that our culture is tempted to close itself in private life, to be allergic against strangers, to imprison imagination with nonsense,  and hence as Metz would say, we can suffer from a massive loss of perception of the suffering of people.  But on the other hand the witness of real mercy in action reaches people in this culture. Hearts are touched by images of dedication and compassion.  The mask of indifference is pierced or interrupted by embodiments of mercy. This is a key to the huge impact that Pope Francis has had on the secular world. His words on mercy are strong but his gestures of mercy are stronger. One has only to think of his long embrace of the man with the visibly terrible illness of the skin, image that went “viral” as they say.


We can surely see the Pope’s witness to mercy in the light of another moment of the Spiritual Exercises, where St. Ignatius insists that love is shown more in actions than in words. Of course the words of Pope Francis have had a great impact on people, but the effect of his actions has been even deeper, and this is true of people outside the Church as well. One American writer, herself an atheist, commented that the impact of Pope Francis goes beyond anything that a public relations genius could imagine: she finds him moving and powerful because so transparently authentic.


Hence a less pessimistic cultural possibility emerges. Perhaps the roots of generosity are not so totally stifled in people’s hearts. When tragedy strikes people come together in generous caring. The quality of mercy is like a sleeping beauty that needs only the right touch to awaken. If mercy finds a body, then (literally) embodied mercy can melt suspicious hearts and stir indifference from its cultural slumbers.


By way of summary, what shape might fruitful embodiment of mercy take? Perhaps one or other of two possibilities. If people are out of contact with the pain of others – as can happen in our individualist culture – then the answer is obvious: can they risk an encounter with human need and can they enter a real relationship with people different from themselves? For such a possibility the Church offers a privileged meeting point, with its long and varied tradition of active charity. The Church  is also an ideal place for a second possibility, which involves the witness of mercy in action. As already mentioned, even for our skeptical culture, the effect of figures like Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier or again Pope Francis, and many others less known, has a liberating influence on people’s imagination. In fact both of these roads – real encounter and inspiring witness – liberate people’s imagination for new possibilities, including the possibility of glimpsing the mercy of God through the mercy of believers. Perhaps our postmodern cultural shields are more penetrable than is often thought.


Of course the battleground of mercy has a longer history still. It involves an ancient and permanent fight between the God of mercy and humanity forgetful of mercy received or mercy lived. That spiritual tussle goes on in every life, between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh. It is captured beautifully in the Book of Jonah, the story of a fugitive who eventually decides to obey his call and preach repentance or destruction. But his God is made in Jonah’s image, and so he gets angry with the intolerable mercy of God, even though in his rage he admits “I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion”.  Here the divine pedagogy about mercy enters in comic fashion: Jonah is soothed and delighted with the shade of a plant but when it withers he enters another suicidal sulk. And the final words of this shortest of texts are an ironical and unanswered question challenging all our pettiness with the hugeness of God’s mercy: “Am I not right to have mercy on this city where people cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of the animals?” This sums up everything: if our picture of God is too small, our own mercy will be too mean. So we are on a long and permanent journey out of smallness and towards enlargement of heart.


For all this theology needs not only to escape from the desk into social reality, but from its sometimes lazy jargon, learning from the poets, dramatists and novelists. In this spirit we began with a literary evocation of this journey from Shakespeare. Let us end with another embodiment of it from the Catholic fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. An alert theologians, in fact she died young exactly 50 years ago this month but is now recognized as possibly the greatest Catholic writer in English of the last century. In a story, set in her own deep south of the United States, with the now embarrassing title “The Artificial Nigger”, she narrates the comic erosion of pride and prejudice in an old man called Mr Head. We do not need to know the details. He brought his grandson to the city for the first time but everything went wrong. He even, like St Peter, denied that he knew the grandson. But here is an eloquent passage from the end of the narrative.


“Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it… He understood that it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it”.



Talk delivered at Loyola School of Theology on August 27, 2014


Fr. Gallagher is professor emeritus of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he served as dean of the faculty of theology from 2005-2008. He is also Rector of the Collegio San Roberto Bellarmino, a Jesuit community for post-graduate students in Rome.