Church of MercyThe Church of Mercy
by Pope Francis

This was my companion book for Lent and Easter this year, an encouraging and hope-filled series of reflections. Especially for someone like me, who suffers from such a troubled mess of uneasiness and fear, the refreshing assurance of mercy comes as a fountain of welcome relief, like cool clean water on a hot and difficult day.

Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord

That sentence at the beginning of the book is the groundwork for all the rest. We need to actually receive mercy — to know it by experiencing it — before we can stop being afraid of God. We trust him because we know his mercy is solid. When I sing ♪ The Lord has promised good to me — His word my hope secures ♪, this is what I am singing about.  All through Lent this year, the recurring hymn reminded me ♪ The name of our God is The Keeper of Word ♪. With humans, we are anxious, asking ourselves whether this or that relationship will be okay, whether I’m going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and lose someone’s friendship as a result. With God, we are always secure — nothing I say or do will change his steady presence.

Mercy is what gives us that security. But what is mercy? We know it by trusting it, but describing it is harder. Mercy is love, mercy is humility, mercy is patience, mercy is service, mercy is acceptance. When God is presented as a distant judge, we are being frightened away from his embrace by a lie. God is the one who let go of himself to serve his creation, who accepted the limitations of being human, who washed the feet of confused lost struggling people. He asked nothing of us except to let ourselves be loved. Once we accept that love, and become secure in trust, how can we help wanting to say — “Teach me to be like that, too. I want to love like that.”

Beginning in 1987, and intensifying in the early 2000’s, my relationship with God has had its roots in the lived experience of encounters with him. When the people around me share understanding of those experiences, when they also have “been there”, then being with others as Church becomes another way to experience that loving presence, flowing through all of us who want to learn, together, how to love like that. When I’ve found God’s life coming to me through Church, it has been in those times and places where mercy is strongly present, in all its forms — love, patience, forgiveness, understanding, solidarity, humility.

Through all my life, though, I’ve struggled against a darkness that comes over me when I feel shut out by a different kind of churchiness. There has been a church of closed doors and inflexible demands that I earn the right to a place inside, that I do a thousand and one things correctly. Discouragement and anxiety are the fruits of this vine, and yet I’m told that discouragement and anxiety are good for me, that they are making me strive harder to be what I ought to be. But do they inspire me to love more? That’s the stumbling block for me. Even if anxiety makes me try harder to do better, to aim higher, to become perfect — does it make me more loving? I examine myself honestly, and I say truthfully that it doesn’t. In fact, it distracts me from the whole question of love altogether, by demanding that I focus all my efforts on behavior and performance.

I ask myself, then — what does it take to inspire in me a desire to love better? And looking back on the evidence of experience, I have to answer — receiving mercy, receiving love, receiving generously with nothing asked in return, with no rules and expectations as prerequisites for that love. Yes, that is what works unfailingly and without any coercing needed. Being loved is the only thing that makes me want to love. Being forgiven is the only thing that makes me want to forgive. Being trusted with freedom is the only thing that makes me trust in return.

This, then is where Pope Francis is coming from. Here I’ve found a fellow companion, like the companions of my own familiar parish, someone who shares with me the experience of mercy, and by sharing it intensifies it for me, brightens my vision of what it means. Here is someone speaking from a place where I never expected it, saying what makes sense about God. I turn the pages and drink words like a thirsty woman being offered clean cold water. The truth isn’t a list of theories about God, or a list of rules to be followed. Pilate asked “What is truth?”, as though truth were a theoretical thing. Jesus answered “I am truth” — that is, Truth is a person, a relationship to be lived, an encounter with our lover.

We are all called, then, to love. We are called, especially, to express the mercy of love, the aspect of love which humbly accepts another person as the expression of God’s love. The person who is most in need of mercy, that is the person I am called most to nourish by mercy. Like a plant most dry and in need of water, that’s where the water has to be carried first and most plentifully. It’s not hard to discover where to go with love. We just look around and carry it like water wherever we see withering and drooping and thirst. We recognize the thirst because we ourselves have been thirsty. We appreciate the mercy we have received, we can remember the taste of that water, and we can see with our own eyes its effect when we offer the drink to someone else.

Faith is born of an encounter with the living God — He reveals his love, upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, we realize that God’s love is a promise, which will be fulfilled. The promise is a gift for the future, trustworthy. It lights our way, opens the way.