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: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.