Beyond mercy

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 8: Priests and deacons process into the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception for the Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass as Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila (C) looks on December 8, 2015, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

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: Q&A: Christopher West reflects on the Passion ‘like you’ve never heard before’

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Christopher West has never been one to play it safe.

His talks on Pope St. John Paul II’s revered Theology of the Body go against basically every modern-day notion of human sexuality, and it speaks to the work’s relevance that West is always able to tie it into some element of pop culture. He recently released a free eBook titled Theology of the Body at the Movies that points out examples of JPII’s teachings on sexuality in modern films.

On Wednesday, April 12, West is paying a visit to St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen for a free talk and Q&A session titled “A Reflection on the Passion, Death & Resurrection of Jesus Like You Have Never Heard Before.” Denver Catholic caught up with West ahead of his visit.

Denver Catholic: Without giving too much away, why will your talk on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ be “like you’ve never heard it before”?

Christopher West: Few of us have heard the passion of the Lord presented as so many of the saints and mystics describe it – as the consummation of a marriage. Saint Augustine, for instance, describes the Cross as Christ’s marriage bed. And the Byzantine Church, in fact, calls Holy Week the “Week of the Bridegroom.” Saint John Paul II lamented how this spousal vision of the most important event in human history has been largely lost in the modern view of Christianity, and he sought to reclaim it for the whole Church. In this presentation, we’re going to reverently pull back the veil and enter into what Pope Benedict XVI described as the “mad Eros” of Christ the Bridegroom loving his Bride, the Church, from the Cross.

DC: What can the culture today learn from JPII’s “Theology of the Body,” especially when it comes to hot-button topics such as gender ideology and same-sex relations?

CW: We live in a world that is telling us our gendered bodies are meaningless. Christ not only reveals that our bodies have a meaning, but that the human body is a message from God that reveals Ultimate Meaning … This is what Christmas means. If you believe in the Incarnation, if you believe that God took on flesh to reveal himself to the world, you believe that the human body reveals Ultimate Meaning. You believe the human body is not only biological; it is, as Saint John Paul II proclaimed to the whole world, theological.

We’ve been blinded to the meaning of gender in the modern world, and this can be traced back in large part to the 20th Century embrace of contraception. Contraception is a direct attack on the meaning of gender. Gender shares the same root as words like generous, genesis, generate, genitals, progeny, genealogy. The word “gender” means the manner in which one generates. When we fail to respect the fact that our genitals are meant to generate, we eventually degenerate. This is what we are now living through. For such a time as this have we been given Saint JP II’s Theology of the Body.

DC: You recently published a free eBook called Theology of the Body at the Movies. Where did the idea come from, and what’s the aim of the book?

CW: I’ve always been a bit of a movie buff. It’s one of the most powerful modern art forms, and I’ve been drawing from my favorite movies for years in my courses, lectures, books and blogs. I’ve finally collected all that I’ve written about movies over the years into this one new resource. Hollywood produces a lot of awful films. It also produces some real gems with incredibly powerful lessons. You can get Theology of the Body at the Movies for free at my ministry’s website corproject.com.

DC: Anything else you’d like to add?

CW: For readers not familiar with the beautifully liberating vision of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, there are lots of ways you can learn more. You can begin just by Googling the term and doing some reading. We offer ongoing formation at The Cor Project (cormembership.com) and an annual TOB-themed pilgrimage. This July we’re going to Ireland (corproject.com/Ireland), and a few spots are still open.