A human quality
Where are we challenged to soften our hearts?
By Susanne Janssen
As this year of mercy continues, opened by Pope Francis on December 8, we might ask ourselves: is mercy something necessary, not only for Christians, not only for believers, but for every human being?
In his announcement, Pope Francis focuses on two aspects of a merciful love: that of forgiveness and that of putting the works of mercy into practice.
Finding freedom and peace in forgiving is something everyone can experience. Mahatma Gandhi, who brought about change through non-violence, said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Perhaps we can extend this to mean that mercy is stronger than revenge, compassion more fruitful than hate.
For believers, there is one more reason to show mercy. We find it in the Bible, where the Hebrews came to the knowledge that “the Lord, the Lord, [is] a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Ex 34:6). In the Quran, we find, “Those who are merciful have mercy shown them by the compassionate one. If you show mercy to those who are in the earth, he who is in heaven will show mercy to you.”
That said, even with the best intentions, we might “harden our hearts” (cf. Psalm 95). It could be even an expression of our zeal to change something for the better, or we can find ourselves with a hardened heart even though we are faithful believers. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who leads the Vienna archdiocese in Austria, said that even Jesus faced this situation, and among his closest followers. “We have to be frank: even the disciples of Jesus suffered a hardening of heart, and Jesus often had to ask them why their hearts were so hard,” said the cardinal, speaking at the gathering of the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy. “The callousness of the disciples with Jesus was probably the most terrible suffering for Jesus,” he said. “Not the hardening of the hearts of enemies, but the hardening of the hearts of the disciples.”
So how can one achieve a heart full of love and compassion? Going back to the two facets — forgiveness and the works of mercy — might be a good way. As forgiveness frees you from grudges and helps to heal wounds, the works of mercy are practical expressions of a merciful love. The Catholic Church lists seven corporal “works of mercy,” which are derived from the Bible: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned, bury the dead.
There’s no doubt that these acts are regarded as good in all great religions. And most people live them in their daily lives. Parents feed their hungry children, people visit sick neighbors, and most of the time a funeral brings family members and friends together.
Then there is the social dimension of these works of mercy. “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Good news to a hungry person is bread,” said social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu.
“Hunger is not a problem. It is an obscenity. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” wrote the young Anne Frank in her diary.
In that dimension, we are called to go to the roots and work toward eliminating the causes of poverty, an unjust legal system or lack of charity. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist,” wrote the late Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara.
Another important point is that poverty has more aspects than only the lack of money, and people are not only thirsty for water. Mother Teresa wrote, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
Besides that, there are the seven spiritual works of mercy: counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, pray for the living and the dead. Here I feel challenged every day. I might be the one who could help a coworker, or comfort a crying child, or patiently bear a wrong in the hope that others will do the same with me. I decide anew to be merciful every morning.
The actress Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) expressed it this way: “If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other, and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family. And that makes you at home in that world and not fearful.”
With Sarah Mundell
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