Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy – Catechesis on Mercy at the Local Launch of WYD16
It is a great pleasure to join you tonight for the launch of our pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2016 in Kraków. (Let's all try pronouncing that…). Tonight we begin the adventure of a life-time as we go to meet Christ in company with the young people of the world and our Holy Father Pope Francis, in the home-town of St John Paul II. You know that much of my life and passion has been devoted to young people, to listening to their hopes and struggles and sharing with them, culminating in WYD 2008. Now I'll get a chance to be a pilgrim beside you at a WYD. Whether you come with me via the Holy Land, or take one of the other exciting pilgrim packages that have been designed with you in mind, the journey to the Holy City of Kraków is a journey to God and to greatness. To accompany you is an enormous privilege! It will be great fun! For some of us, at least, it will turn out to be the turning point in our lives! One way or another I am relying on you, my young friends, to be my comrades in bringing Christ to Sydney and Sydney to Christ in the years ahead.
Doctor of Mercy: John Paul II
Wednesday 13 May 1981 in Rome was a sunny spring day. The Pope was due to give his weekly General Audience. He was about to announce a new push to support marriage and family life in the Church, including establishing the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in several countries, of which I was destined to be the first Aussie director. Travelling through St Peter's Square in his Popemobile, John Paul II smiled and greeted the throngs, picking up and blessing young children. Then, a flock of pigeons suddenly flew into the air. The reason for this soon became clear: at 5:13pm a Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca, fired a gun from point blank range at the man dressed in white. The future saint could have been a martyr at that very moment. Struck in the abdomen, he sunk into his secretary's arms and was rushed to hospital.
Amidst the sirens and chaos on the streets, the close-to-death pontiff prayed. He later remembered having had a premonition that he would be saved. It was the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima and he sensed that though one hand had fired the gun, another hand, Mary's, had guided the bullet away from his heart.
On arrival at emergency he was given the Last Rites and prepared for emergency surgery. The chief surgeon commenced a five-hour-long surgery, patiently opening the strong Polish athlete and prelate up, stitching wounds to the colon, removing part of the intestines, and so on. The bullet that had come so close to killing him, that had just missed the heart, the abdominal artery, the spinal cord, was extracted. It is now in the crown of Our Lady's statue at Fatima.
The Pope gradually recovered. When at last he could speak again he declared: “I pray for that brother of ours who shot me, whom I have sincerely pardoned. United with Christ, Priest and Victim, I offer my sufferings for the Church and for the world. To you, Mary, I repeat: Totus tuus ego sum.” On the feast of St John the Beloved Disciple in 1983, JPII celebrated Mass and then visited Agca in prison. The superstitious Agca had become fearful of Our Lady of Fatima, whom he knew had saved the Pope from his expert assassin's bullet; he was convinced that she was a “goddess” who was now going to wreak revenge on him. The saint explained that Our Lady is Jasna Góra, as they call her in Poland, the Mother of God. She loves all people, including Agca, and he need not fear her.(1) Again and again John Paul II assured his would-be killer that he forgave him.
Pope Francis has chosen as the theme for next year's WYD one of the Beatitudes from Christ's Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). John Paul II forgiving his assassin embodied this beatitude: this concrete act of mercy and reconciliation came from a man who knew God's mercy and wanted to manifest it others. JPII suffered much in his life, losing his mother at an early age, enduring the jackboots of the Nazis and the sickle of the Communists, studying for the priesthood in an underground seminary in danger of being arrested and killed at any moment, leading an Archdiocese and nation out of the scourge of atheistic communism, heading the Universal Church at a time of great challenge to people of faith, suffering Parkinson's disease and a slow, painful very public decline…
Yet he radiated joy, perhaps never more obviously than when he was with young people. And he radiated forgiveness, perhaps never more obviously that when confronted by enemies. In this he embodied God's mercy. When he canonised St Faustina as the first saint of the new millennium, introduced the Feast of the Divine Mercy on Low Sunday after Easter, and promoted that devotion, he was revealing something of his own deep piety towards Christ as Mercy. Indeed some now propose that he be known as the Saint of Mercy or even the Doctor of Mercy.(2)
Two key concepts are in play in our WYD theme, two concepts JPII well understood: 'Blessed' and 'Merciful'. 'Blessed' refers to a state of being blessed – holy, fortunate, happy. When we call the Eucharist the 'Blessed' Sacrament we mean it is consecrated, set aside for God, sanctified. When we call Mary the 'Blessed' Virgin we mean she enjoys God's favour (Lk 1:30). When we say someone had a blessed life, we mean if was privileged and providential and fulfilled. It suggests that those who are 'blessed' enjoy something of the divine favour and that those who follow the Beatitudes have the plan for a happy life.
Christ often beatifies people – that is, declares them Blessed – as He does the poor (in spirit) or humble, the pure-heated, the grieving, the meek, the needy, those who are persecuted, reviled or hunger for justice and for peace, those to whom the Father reveals things, those who do the things Jesus commands, those who see God, those who have not seen Him but believe, those who hear the word of God and keep it, those ready for the Lord when He comes (Mt 5:3-11; 11:6; 13:16; 16:17; Lk 6:20-23; 11:28; 12:43; Jn 13:17; 20:29; cf. Lk 1:42,48; Mt 21:9). When He beatifies these people Christ is saying they are, of will be, holy, fortunate, happy. And this goes to the heart of Catholicism. Indeed you might say that is what it is for. Put simply: so people will be blessed; lead a blessed life; experience blessedness; be numbered amongst the Blessed. Catholicism is so you will be holy, fortunate, happy!
In his message for this year's World Youth Day, Pope Francis points out that we are made for happiness.(3) In this he was channelling his inner Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, the three big A's. Aristotle taught that the end of human living and so of all choices, all ethics and politics and the rest, is happiness. Augustine thought that the end of human living is not this life at all, but eternal happiness with God, and that our hearts are restless till we get there. And Aquinas taught both: the purpose of our lives is our imperfect beatitude on earth and our perfect beatitude in heaven and both require that we live the good life, the happy-making life, here and now. Like those three big A's, Pope Francis knows that we have an inner urge to be happy and that this, underneath all the frenetic activity, all the secret desires and thoughts, all the fun and the dissatisfaction, this is the most pressing concern for human beings: happiness.
Papa Franky also knows that young people, in particular, wonder about the meaning of life – of God, the universe, themselves – and what to do with your life, whether you'll ever really be happy and how. Power, sex, money, honours, substances: these are the means to happiness the culture proposes, the substitutes for happiness the world promotes. The excessive desire for these are perennial temptations of the human heart and the age of the new media – of tweeting and Facebooking and eBaying and the rest -magnifies the tendency to think happiness comes from easy friending, ruling the roost, accumulating things and satisfying all your passions. But aren't we made for more?
Blessed are the merciful
The preaching of Jesus suggests that key to real happiness – not just fleeting gratification, passing warm feelings of pleasure or pride, but deep and lasting fulfilment – are receiving and giving things like humility, purity, resilience, justice, faith, and hope. A key quality on that list is mercy. Mercy is something we have to receive and become and then give and in fact it helps unite all the other qualities. Mercy stops purity and meekness and grief becoming too inward-looking and turns it outwards to others who suffer the effects of too much or too little of these things; it stops the hunger for righteousness being cold and calculating and judgmental, and stretches it into that justice of the kingdom of God that gives more than people are due; it sees those who hunger and thirst and gets in there to do something about it; it delights in faith and insights received but then reaches out to those who have not seen that they might believe. When we receive mercy, we become merciful, and in the joy of mercy received want to mediate that to others too.
And here we meet some of those paradoxes at the heart of Christianity. That life comes through death, that it is only in giving that we receive, that it is the weak who turn out to be the really strong ones, that happiness is not about getting your own way but about putting other people first. Christ is telling His hearers – that's us, right now – that we can't build heaven on our own, even with the best will in the world, let alone our own indifferent wills; not with all the technology and know-how and government planning and billion dollar foundations in the world: no, at the heart of the best and most crucial human experiences is gift, grace, gratuitousness, things we don't achieve, not deserve, but simply receive, from strangers, from friends, from God. And Christ is telling His hearers – that's us, right now – that we can't achieve happiness on our own, but only in and through human solidarity, relatedness, concern for each other's wellbeing. As Pope John Paul II, the Saint of Mercy, taught in his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, Rich in Mercy, this beatitude “blessed are the merciful” is at the very heart of the Gospel. People's lives need to be guided by receiving and giving mercy; we must practice mercy, be practitioners of mercy, mercy-men, and so become mercy.(4)
For they will receive mercy
Our beatitude goes on: blessed are the merciful for they will have mercy shown them. You might say that's back-to-front. As I've already said, it's only because we've received mercy, from others, especially from God, that we learn, have the wherewithal, to give mercy. When we recognize how wonderful God has been to us in giving us the gifts of life, love and the universe, of time, place and future, of the Church, Word and sacraments, of forgiveness and grace to make sinners into saints, and that He keeps giving us these things, pouring Himself out completely for us on the cross – when we acknowledge all this, then with all our being we cry out: Wow! He loves me that much! He wants my happiness, my blessedness, that much! But it doesn't stop there. When we then show mercy to others, so they experience divine mercy through us, we don't lose what we give: we get back more! JPII told us that “Blessed are the merciful” sums up the “wonderful exchange” revealed in the Gospel: God gives and we receive; we give and just get more!(5) Jesus is the compassion of God, God-with-us not as a passive observer or a laughing audience at a play: Jesus is God-with-us in the good bits and the hard bits, com-passio suffering with us, and redeeming our sin and suffering through His suffering love.(6) “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin”, for our sake he was nailed to the Cross.(7) Faith in the crucified and risen Christ is a faith in the power of love to be mercy, so that in overcomes evil.(8) And the more we receive mercy and give mercy we become mercy too.
So why go to WYD?
So, why would you want to work and save and otherwise fundraise, why would you want to fork out several thousand dollars, why would you want to travel to the opposite side of the earth, to attend World Youth Day in a city you have trouble pronouncing? Because it means you can be part of something good, something that bring blessedness, will make you holy, fortunate, happy; because it means that you can be part of something better, better than you have been till now, better than your experience of God and Church till now; because it means that you can be part of something best, a journey to God and His saints in company with your friends in faith, where you can delight in being a Catholic rather than having to keep quiet about it, where you can encounter Divine Mercy and thereby become more merciful yourselves.
No doubt you would have all heard by now that Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Papa Franky has taken up Good Pope John XXIII's words to the Second Vatican Council that the Church is “a loving mother to all; patient, kind, moved by compassion and goodness toward her separated children”.(9) He wants that arms-wide-open kind of Church. That's why mercy has been a strong theme of his pontificate. He wants us to contemplate the mercy of God in order “that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives”.(10)
It is fitting, then, that WYD16 should be a celebration of mercy in a Year dedicated to mercy, in the city of Kraków, city of St Faustina Kowalska and of St John Paul II, two great apostles of mercy. To go to that city is to open our hearts to becoming apostles of mercy also! Faustina's vision of the Divine Mercy, with rays of blood and water representing the life of souls and that which makes them righteous,(11) has become famous the world over. Her motto, “Jesus, I trust in You”, rings in our ears. As we make our way there together, be ready for your own radical experience of receiving mercy and then giving it. Come closer to Our Lady of Mercy, to St Faustina of Mercy, to St John Paul of Mercy, above all to the Divine Mercy, to Jesus.
Let me suggest a few ways to get ready:
- Go often to the Sacrament of Mercy, Confession, and experience the weight coming off your shoulders, your heart, your life; like when you stop after carrying a heavy pack a long way and someone lifts it off, and you feel so light that you could fly
- Celebrate the mercy you have received by attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion and adoring Jesus the Divine Mercy in the Blessed Sacrament
- Cultivate dispositions of mercy, by letting go of grudges and forgiving others, by giving of yourself to others, especially those in need of love or kindness
- Learn more about the Faith that is such a treasure by reading the Holy Scriptures, such as the beatitudes and Sermon of the Mount, and the rest of Jesus' words, and studying the Compendium of the Catechism; for the more you get to know the One you love, the more you will love Him
- Share that faith with others: the call of this Pope is for us to be 'missionary disciples'
- Pray hard and save hard, fundraise and get others to fundraise with you, so you can join this great adventure!
Come to Kraków with me, the road to faith, to mercy, to unending blessedness!
1 Foregoing based on George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005 (London: HarperCollins, 2005), 412-4, 474.
3 Message for the Thirtieth World Youth Day 2015, 31 January 2015, 1: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/youth/documents/papa-francesco_20150131_messaggio-giovani_2015.html
4 3, 14.
6 Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 39.
7 7 citing 2Cor 5:21.
9 Misericordiae Vultus – Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 11 April 2015, 4.
11 Diary 299.