Misericordia et misera

This Monday the Holy See released to the public an apostolic letter Pope Francis signed the day beforehand (the closing day of the Year of Mercy) entitled Misericordia et misera (Mercy and misery). He explained that he took the title from St. Augustine’s summation of the encounter of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery — Jesus is Mercy itself and the woman was in the misery of sin. “It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful or apt way of expressing the mystery of God’s love when it touches the sinner: ‘the two of them alone remained: Mercy with misery’ (St. Augustine). This narrative serves not only to throw light on the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, but also to point out the path that we are called to follow in the future.”

The media in reporting on this letter just focused on the pope’s permanent bestowal upon all priests with faculties to hear Confessions the power to remove the excommunication incurred for procuring an abortion. This document does do that, but also so much more.

The Year of Mercy was “a time rich in mercy [but] mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church,” the pope warns. Mercy “constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.”

Returning to the scene from John’s Gospel regarding the adulteress, Pope Francis wrote, “This is not an encounter of sin and judgment in the abstract, but of a sinner and her Savior. Jesus looked that woman in the eye and read in her heart a desire to be understood, forgiven and set free. The misery of sin was clothed with the mercy of love. To those who wished to judge and condemn her to death, Jesus replies with a lengthy silence. His purpose was to let God’s voice be heard in the conscience not only of the woman, but also in those of her accusers, who drop their stones and one by one leave the scene (cf. Jn 8:9). Jesus then says: ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again’ (vv. 10-11). Once clothed in mercy, even if the inclination to sin remains, it is overcome by the love that makes it possible for her to look ahead and to live her life differently.”

The Holy Father then brings up another occasion involving a female sinner — when Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee and the host was shocked because Jesus allowed a sinful woman to bathe His feet with her tears (cf. Lk 7:36-50). Jesus tells the Pharisee, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v. 47).

At Christmas we celebrate how God became visible for us. In this letter the pope wrote, “Forgiveness is the most visible sign of the Father’s love, which Jesus sought to reveal by His entire life. Every page of the Gospel is marked by this imperative of a love that loves to the point of forgiveness. Even at the last moment of His earthly life, as He was being nailed to the cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34).”

Returning to the two forgiven women, Pope Francis noted, “What great joy welled up in [their] heart[s]. Forgiveness made them feel free at last and happy as never before. Their tears of shame and pain turned into the smile of a person who knows that he or she is loved. Mercy gives rise to joy, because our hearts are opened to the hope of a new life. The joy of forgiveness is inexpressible, yet it radiates all around us whenever we experience forgiveness.”

There is a Spanish hymn entitled “La Alegria en el perdon” (The joy of pardoning), which states, “the most beautiful joy is the joy of pardoning, in Heaven there is a lot of celebrating (‘fiesta’) when a sinner returns.”

Touching on this joy, the pope wrote, “The experience of mercy brings joy. May we never allow this joy to be robbed from us by our troubles and concerns. We need to acknowledge the joy that rises up in a heart touched by mercy.”

In a timely note for us Americans celebrating Thanksgiving this week, Pope Francis called upon everyone to thank God for His mercy. “We feel the need above all to thank the Lord and to tell Him: ‘Lord, You have been favorable to Your land. You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people’ (Ps 85:1-2). So it is. God has subdued our iniquities and cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (cf. Mic 7:19). He no longer remembers them, since He has cast them behind His back (cf. Is 38:17). As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (cf. Ps 103:12).”

Pointing forward, the pontiff wrote, “It is time to look to the future and to understand how best to continue, with joy, fidelity and enthusiasm, experiencing the richness of God’s mercy. Our communities can remain alive and active in the work of the New Evangelization, shaped daily by the renewing force of mercy.”

In terms of what to do, the pope said that we should “celebrate mercy.” After discussing myriad references to mercy in the Mass prayers, he noted, “In a word, each moment of the Eucharistic celebration refers to God’s mercy.”

Next, looking at the two Sacraments of Healing (Penance and Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick), we see that both of those have prayers mentioning God’s mercy. “In the Church’s prayer, then, references to mercy, far from being merely exhortative, are highly performative, which is to say that as we invoke mercy with faith, it is granted to us, and as we confess it to be vital and real, it transforms us. This is a fundamental element of our faith, and we must keep it constantly in mind.”

We will return to this topic again, but as we enter Advent, it would be good to avail ourselves of the opportunities to receive mercy in the confessional and to give mercy to those who long for our pardon. Thus, we will be a greater sign of God’s joyful presence.

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