Orlando R. Barone
is a writer in Doylestown
I was walking alone along Sansom Street in Philly when a man approached me and asked for a dollar because he "needed something to eat." My response in these situations is wildly inconsistent. I often wave the person off, and we go about our business. This time I opened my wallet, fished around, found a ten spot, and handed it to the man who called me a "blessing."
My faith tells me that this act of mercy should have been done in secret, so I just blew that out of the water. I begin to realize as well that such acts, the giving of alms, donations to the poor, a tenner to a beggar, are acts available mainly to the more powerful. I had money; he, presumably, didn't.
Mercy is what the powerful get to show the powerless. As is cruelty. Some time ago, a person familiar with the history of our country's once-thriving slave trade explained a crucial aspect of that institution: "The planter might be kind to his slaves. He might also be unrelentingly cruel. The problem is, he has the option."
The evil of slavery, in other words, is the evil of one human's power over others, the power to capture them, move them to the forced labor camps known as "plantations," and treat these persons any way you wish, with or without mercy - with or without cruelty. The only justice is God's own.
Pope Francis has just announced a one-year jubilee, "The Holy Year of Mercy." Certainly, he is calling on all of us to extend the hand of mercy. I also sense that, in keeping with his papacy's theme, he is calling out the powerful, those with an extra ten spot in their pockets, and issuing a special challenge to us.
The year starts Dec. 8, the much misunderstood feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is Francis at his most ironic. His call is for us to understand mercy as the act of sinners. We show mercy precisely because we need mercy. We forgive precisely because we require forgiveness. We are sinners.
The Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Mary, the one human being, apart from Jesus himself, who was conceived without sin. In other words, folks, if you are worthy to bear the son of God in your womb, you are exempt from showing mercy. Any takers?
We can't help recalling gospel exhortations like, "Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful," or Jesus' required prayer, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." We are called upon to use our privileged position, our power, to emulate the most powerful. We are told to let our mercy and forgiveness bottom out as soon as God's does.
Much has been written about just what the pope is changing in the Catholic Church. Well, here it is. We Catholics tend to be kind, pretty friendly, and reasonably generous. We do have a habit, however, of shaking our fingers at wrongdoers. We have a lot to say to sinners about their sordid little sins.
We listen to the Prodigal Son story and relate better to the son who never dissed his dad and got upset that the fatted calf went to the reprobate. We listen to the story of the woman caught in adultery and focus on the fact that Jesus said, "Go and sin no more," rather than the story's point: Only the sinless get to throw stones, and, since the Virgin Mary isn't one for stone-throwing, then none of us is qualified. Drop the rocks!
Francis has redefined "evangelizing." We spread the gospel, not so much by converting unbelievers but by showing them divine mercy and love, using our talents, our power, and our money to heal, to feed, to clothe, to lift up. What they believe after that is in God's hands.
In other words, we talk a lot to sinners. Francis is recommending, instead, that during the Holy Year of Mercy, we stop talking to sinners and start talking as sinners. Then maybe we will start using the power we have to forgive and to show mercy. We will realize that no matter how often we do forgive, no matter how often we show mercy, we need it more.
Try this. The next time you are tempted to render judgment on the sin of another, whisper this prayer: "Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Then see what comes out of your mouth.
Full disclosure: That little recommendation came from Jesus, not me.