More deaths, more mercy needed

As you can read below in his Angelus address, Pope Francis decried last Sunday’s attack on two parish churches, one Catholic and one Anglican, in Lahore, Pakistan. He expressed his solidarity with the living and dead, implored help from God, and reminded the world of its failure to take the persecution of Christians seriously (although one could say that the world is quite serious about persecuting Christians, doing so effectively in a variety of countries, using various means for multiple reasons, but always viewing believers as the enemy).

Later in the week, on Tuesday, the pope wrote to the bishops of Nigeria, the land beset by Boko Haram (now officially an affiliate of the “Islamic State” or ISIS). After beginning the letter mentioning Nigeria’s positive attributes, he got to the darkness that it confronts. “Your nation has had to confront considerable problems, among them new and violent forms of extremism and fundamentalism on ethnic, social and religious grounds. Many Nigerians have been killed, wounded or mutilated, kidnapped and deprived of everything: their loved ones, their land, their means of subsistence, their dignity and their rights. Many have not been able to return to their homes. Believers, both Christian and Muslim, have experienced a common tragic outcome, at the hands of people who claim to be religious, but who instead abuse religion, to make of it an ideology for their own distorted interests of exploitation and murder.”

The pope then reminded the bishops of our need to truly work for peace. “Every day I remember you in my prayers and I repeat here, for your encouragement and comfort, the consoling words of the Lord Jesus, which must always resound in our hearts: ‘Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you’ (Jn 14:27). Peace — as you know so well — is not only the absence of conflict or the result of political compromise or fatalistic resignation. Peace is for us a gift which comes from on High; it is Jesus Christ Himself, the Prince of Peace, Who has made of two peoples one (cf. Eph 2:14). And only the man or woman who treasures the peace of Christ as a guiding light and way of life can become a peacemaker (cf. Mt 5:9). At the same time, peace is a daily endeavor, a courageous and authentic effort to favor reconciliation, to promote experiences of sharing, to extend bridges of dialogue, to serve the weakest and the excluded. In a word, peace consists in building up a ‘culture of encounter.’”

The “culture of encounter” is a favorite theme of Pope Francis. Vatican observer John L. Allen Jr., now of the Boston Globe, noted back in December 2013 in the National Catholic Reporter that these three words kept popping up in the pontiff’s talks. Allen wrote, “Like many sound bites, the ‘culture of encounter’ is elastic enough to embrace a wide range of possible meanings, but in general Francis seems to intend the idea of reaching out, fostering dialogue and friendship even outside the usual circles, and making a special point of encountering people who are neglected and ignored by the wider world. ‘Encounter’ is thus, in some ways, a proxy for ‘mercy’ — placing the emphasis on compassion rather than, in the first instance, judgment.”

What Allen noticed fits well in the other theme about which Pope Francis focused this week — mercy, especially God’s mercy towards us, which we need to receive and then pass on to other people. In his homily last Friday at the Vatican penance service (the one in which he announced the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy — see page 13 for more on that), the pope reminded us, “The call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable.”  Here we see how mercy and encounter are tied together.

The pope praised Catholics and other people of good will in Nigeria: “in the midst of so many trials and sufferings the Church in Nigeria does not cease to witness to hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. We give thanks to the Lord for them, as for so many men and women of every social, cultural and religious background, who with great willingness stand up in concrete ways to every form of violence, and whose efforts are directed at favoring a more secure and just future for all. They offer us moving testimonies, which, as Pope Benedict XVI recalled at the end of the Synod for Africa, show ‘the power of the Spirit to transform the hearts of victims and their persecutors and thus to re-establish fraternity’”(Africae Munus, 20).

We cannot fight “fire with fire” by fighting hatred with hatred. We need to engage in a Spiritual combat, fighting hatred with love. The international community (and individual governments, including our own) must do what they can to protect the innocent and stop religious persecution, while we Christians continue to pray, offer sacrifices and see how we can be signs of God’s mercy to all the people we encounter.

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