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 CNS Story:

POPE-MERCY Aug-2-2013 (950 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Motherly tenderness: Pope says church must embody, mirror God's mercy

Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Mercy is a word Pope Francis uses often, and an attitude he believes the Catholic Church must embody and all Catholics must mirror.

"This is the time for mercy," Pope Francis told reporters July 28 during his flight back to Rome from Brazil. "The church is mother and must follow the path of mercy, and find mercy for everyone."

"This age is a 'kairos' of mercy," he said, using the Greek word for a special or particularly opportune moment.

The church has a special obligation particularly to the many who are suffering because "of the not-so-beautiful witness of some priests, also the problem of corruption in the church, and the problem of clericalism, for example, which have left so many wounds, so many wounded," he said. "The church, which is mother, must go and heal those wounds."

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told Vatican Radio July 30 that one of the things that strikes people most about Pope Francis is his "great effectiveness in helping people understand the theme of God's love and mercy, which reaches out to soothe and heal the wounds of humanity."

For Pope Francis the best place for an individual Catholic to experience God's mercy is in the sacrament of confession. But he has insisted that human repentance does not trigger God's mercy -- God already is waiting for his children to return.

When speaking about God's mercy, Pope Francis often uses the story of the Prodigal Son from the 15th chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, and he used it with the reporters as well.

"When the Prodigal Son returned home, the father didn't say, 'Sit down. Tell me what you did with the money.' No, he threw a party. Maybe later, when the son was ready to talk, he spoke. The church must be like that," the pope said. And like the father in the story, the church must not "just wait, but go out and watch" for those in need of mercy and forgiveness.

In his first Angelus address, just four days after his election March 13, he told a crowd in St. Peter's Square that "God's face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God's patience, the patience he has with each one of us? That is his mercy. He always has patience, patience with us, he understands us, he waits for us, he does not tire of forgiving us if we are able to return to him with a contrite heart."

In that same address, he said the book "Mercy" by retired Cardinal Walter Kasper "has done me so much good," particularly its insistence that the church needs to develop a stronger theological reflection on "this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient."

"Let us remember the prophet Isaiah who says that even if our sins were scarlet, God's love would make them white as snow," the pope said. "This mercy is beautiful!"

In one of his daily Mass homilies in late April, Pope Francis told Vatican employees that going to confession is not like going to "the dry cleaners," but is an encounter with "Jesus who waits for us as we are," helps people feel shame for the wrong they have done and embraces them with God's love so that they know they are forgiven and can go out strengthened in the battle to avoid sin in the future.

In his speech to Brazilian bishops July 27, Pope Francis said, "We need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of entering the world of 'wounded' persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love."

When he spoke to reporters on the plane, Pope Francis said the need for a new age of mercy was an intuition of Blessed John Paul II, who wrote an encyclical, "Rich in Mercy" in 1980, and instituted the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday on the Sunday after Easter.

Pope John Paul's encyclical, like Cardinal Kasper's book, recognized that many people assume that God's mercy is limited by God's omnipotence and justice, but -- as the late pope wrote -- even in the Old Testament God's mercy "is shown to be not only more powerful than justice, but also more profound."

Love and mercy, Pope John Paul wrote, condition God's justice and, "in the final analysis, justice serves love."

"No human sin can prevail over this power (of God's mercy) or even limit it," the late pope said. "On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent."

Cardinal Kasper wrote that mercy isn't God's response to a person's conversion; rather his mercy is "a grace that aims at conversion."

Although it's not an exchange or barter -- God saying he'll be merciful if one promises to repent -- Cardinal Kasper said God's mercy also isn't the "cheap grace" denounced by the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp.

"Mercy without truth would be a consolation lacking honesty," Cardinal Kasper wrote; it would be "empty chatter."

"On the other hand, however, truth without mercy would be cold, off-putting and ready to wound," he said. "The truth isn't a wet rag that you throw in someone's face, but a warm cape that you help him wrap around him" to protect and give strength.

All of the sacraments are sacraments of God's mercy, the cardinal wrote, but the sacrament of penance is the one where an individual actually hears God's voice say to him or her personally, "I absolve you."


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