Beyond mercy

I anxiously rushed through the martial arts ranks pursuing the coveted black belt as if it were the finish line in a marathon. After a few years of hard effort, I got there, but my instructor had some words which helped me change my perspective on my goal. “Now you can really begin,” he told me. “Finally, you know enough of the basics to start your real training.” Where I saw a finish line, he saw a starting point.

This is how I see this Jubilee Year of Mercy, which ends next month. Though I can be tempted to think that I’m now done with all this mercy “stuff;” it’s really only now, at the close of this year that I can begin making real progress.  I’ve finally read enough articles, attended enough events, ruminated enough reflections to believe in the importance of receiving and extending mercy to others.

Just as I had to think beyond the black belt, we must think beyond the Year of Mercy, and start thinking more about a time of mercy—a time with no end. To aid in this I’d like to share three reflections based on talks shared at the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy Celebration on the American Continent, which I recently had the honor of attending. The first two points are based on anecdotes shared by his Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro of Tunja, Colombia. The last point is a based on something Pope Francis touched on through a video message he recorded for the event.

20/20 vision

An experienced hunter got up early one morning to go hunting in the forest. All of a sudden, he saw an enormous shadow and thought to himself that it belonged to a ferocious animal. He prepared to shoot, but after pausing for a moment he noticed that the shadow actually had a human form. He thought that maybe it was an enemy who was trying to harm him so he kept his rifle firmly fixed on the threat. Upon even closer inspection, he was able to identify the owner of that shadow which had scared him so. It was none other than his own brother who had accompanied him on the hunting trip. He too had left the cabin early trying to catch himself some breakfast.

The initial work of mercy is first and foremost an internal task. We must permit God to adjust our perception of our surroundings so that we can go from seeing a world filled with animals, to seeing human beings, to seeing brothers in our neighbors. The fact that we have so many wars, abortions, suicides, etc. only helps to illustrate how far we are from our goal.

The price of mercy

There once was a man peacefully sleeping at the foot of a tree after a hard day’s work.  Meanwhile, a venomous snake slithered its way towards the unsuspecting man. Perched on a nearby branch above them were three mosquitoes watching the scene unfold beneath them.

The first mosquito malevolently delighted at the drama that was about to take place before his eyes. The second mosquito lamented in horror and shook his head at the fate that awaited the man. The third insect decided that something needed to be done, so he flew over and bit the man on the nose. The plan worked. The man awoke in time to avoid the impending death, but not everyone shared in the happy ending. For alas, when the mosquito bit the man, he instinctively swatted the bug and killed it on the spot. The moral of the story is that to be willing to be merciful means to be willing to embrace the cross.

From the heart to the hand

The last point is a warning against the inoculation of the conscience to which we, as people of “good will,” fall prey to when our mercy is much talk and no walk. We can become the second mosquito by commenting on the evil around us, liking and sharing on Facebook, and even when we exclusively pray about the evil in the world. A different incident that illustrates this point happened when I discovered that I weighed twenty pounds more than I thought I did. I immediately went out and bought an elliptical machine; I brought it home and placed it in my basement. The sense that I had “done something” for my health appeased my conscience and so I returned peacefully to my couch while my exercise equipment proceeded to collect dust for the next couple of years.

Pope Francis illustrated this point by speaking about how Paul describes his experience of God’s mercy toward him. Paul doesn’t say that God “treated him with” or “taught him” mercy, but rather that he was “shown mercy” (cf. 1 Tim 1:13). The world’s experience of our mercy has to be less of a platitude and more of a concrete act. That is what our Pontiff referred to by having our mercy move “from our heart to our hand.” That is the way in which Jesus has loved us, and that is the way in which He yearns to love the world, through us, in this Year of Mercy, and beyond.

Luis Alvarez is the executive director of Hispanic Ministry  for the Archdiocese of Denver and Centro San Juan Diego.

COMING UP: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

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“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327