The Meaning of Mercy

12-20-2015This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has declared this new liturgical year, beginning December 8 (the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception), as a “year of mercy.” As the “motto” for this new liturgical year, Pope Francis has chosen the Latin phrase, Misericordes Sicut Pater, meaning, “Merciful like the Father.” He has asked that we spend this next year reflecting on what it means to have a merciful Father, and how we can integrate God the Father’s merciful love into our daily lives. In his Apostolic Bull inaugurating the year of mercy, Pope Francis said, “At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” As a response to Pope Francis’ call for a year of mercy, I would like to offer a few thoughts to assist us in our endeavor to discover anew God’s merciful love for us. 

As we begin our contemplation of God’s merciful love, it would be fruitful for us to begin with an analysis of the Latin word chosen to capture the essence of God’s love. A linguistic breakdown of the Latin word, misericordia (mercy), provides for us an insightful glimpse into what is meant when we describe God’s love as, “merciful.”

Misericordia finds its roots in two different Latin words, miser and cor. The first word, miser, literally means, “wretched.” Miser is likely a word that is already familiar to us. In Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, the primary character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is described as an “old miser,” or an old wretched man who loves money more than he loves people. His disordered attachment to money causes him to live purely for himself and never for others. Miser also finds its way into the title of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Miserables (or, in English, “The Miserable Ones”). Hugo chose this title to accurately reflect the identity of the characters in the story, and the struggle of the primary character, Jean Valjean, in his quest to live his life for others in the midst of people who live only for themselves. 

The second word of misericordia is cor, or heart. This is the same root word found in the English word, cordial. Someone who is cordial is someone who acts in a heartfelt or loving manner. This is also why we call a heart doctor a “cardiologist.” He is literally an expert on the biological organ of the heart.

However, it is important for us to understand that the use of the word, “heart,” when in reference to love, carries with it a deeper implication than what the modern mind tends to realize. In the modern English language, we often use the word, “heart,” to refer to the emotions or affections we experience towards another person when we are in love. How many times have we heard people in love say something along the lines of, “My heart belongs to you,” as a way of describing their feelings for another person? How many Valentine’s Day cards have we given out with hearts on them?

Although it is true that the heart can be a beautiful symbol reflecting someone’s strong emotions toward another, the image of the heart carries with it so much more symbolism than that of mere feelings or affections. The heart is also the image of, “the will,” the human faculty responsible for, “choice.”

As human beings, we are distinct from all the other animals in the world by the fact that we have the particularly human faculties of reason

and choice (or intellect and will). In other words, we have the ability to reflect upon our experiences and the freedom to make choices based on our reflections. The “will” is the human faculty responsible for decision-making. Thus, when the heart is used as a symbol for the “will,” it is meant to convey more than just mere emotions, but actions. Love is more than a feeling, it is a choice. Love manifests itself in more than just sentiments. It manifests itself in actions intentionally chosen for the good of another.         

Thus, the combination of miser and cor as the formation of the word, misericordia, reveals to us that mercy is essentially concerned with God’s free choice to, “have a heart for the wretched.” Merciful love, then, is a love ordered towards those who are wretched and know only how to live for themselves and not for others.

The Wretched For Whom God Has Given His Heart

Now, all this talk about having a heart for the wretched begs the question, “Who then are the wretched?” If God is merciful, then it logically follows that He has a heart for the wretched, but who are they? The answer to the question is, “us.” We are the wretched ones for whom God has given His heart.

It is no secret that there is much brokenness in the world. Where does this brokenness come from? Sin. Our brokenness comes from sin. Like a shattered iPhone screen, sin has fractured the human person in every direction. Sin has fractured us from God, from ourselves, from other people, and from the world around us. We exist in brokenness. Sin has left us wretched. In sin we only know how to love ourselves and are unable to truly love others.

This is where the good news of God’s merciful love comes into play. God demonstrates His merciful love for us by the choice to assume humanity to Himself through the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, God demonstrates in the flesh that His heart is for us. In his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), Pope St. John Paul the Great says, “Not only does He [Jesus] speak of it [mercy] and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him - and finds it in Him - God becomes ‘visible’ in a particular way as the Father who is rich in mercy.” In other words, Jesus Christ is mercy incarnate – mercy in the flesh. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ (and the life, passion, and death that follow it) is the most substantial act of merciful love the world has ever seen. 

How can we know that God has a heart for us, His wretched sinners? We know it by the gift of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis said, “Jesus Christ is the face of mercy…Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth.” God the Father made the free choice to send His Son to become one with us so that we do not have to remain in our wretchedness. This is what is meant by the year of mercy “motto,” Misericordes Sicut Pater (Merciful like the Father). God the Father is merciful because He has given us God the Son – His heart, His treasure, His life.