Year of Mercy, Year of Justice

A guest post by Matthew Rensch of the Diocese of Burlington:

Franciszek Sobiepan, The Good Samaritan (1828)
Franciszek Sobiepan, The Good Samaritan (1828)

“Mercy and truth have met, justice and peace have kissed.”
~Psalm 85:10

“. . . for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with its healing rays;
and you will gambol like calves from the stall.”
Malachi 4:2

Last month, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, December 8th, Pope Francis celebrated the opening of the year of Mercy. I would like to explore particularly the concept of mercy in human terms, and see what light this sheds on divine mercy and its greatness.

Immediately a danger faces us. It is the same dangerous temptation that faced Socrates’ acquaintances at one of the most famous dinner parties of history. Asked to give a speech about love, they succumbed to praising it in the most extreme terms possible. Though the orators paraded many beautiful phases in love’s praise, Socrates points out that no real understanding of what love really is was made or even attempted. Before we praise mercy, then, we first have to ask what it is. What makes it unique?

The first essential characteristic of mercy that I would like to focus on is that it implies inequality. It is the act of one who has to a has-not. The seven corporal works of mercy are expressed in just these terms of inequality: to feed one without food, to provide drink to one without drink, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to bury the dead.  In all these cases, the one who has food, water, clothes, money, or life gives to the one who has been deprived of, or who perhaps never had these things. In this way the act of mercy always have the quality of a gift.

This characteristic is so essential to mercy that the recipient, recognizing it, may reject mercy on just these grounds: “I don’t need your handout!” The merciful free-will gift implies that the recipient receives something that he cannot otherwise provide for himself. It is, in a word, a humbling experience to be the recipient of mercy. It is an implicit declaration of bankruptcy.

God bestows mercy to the bankrupt in two main ways: creation and recreation. In the beginning, God creates.  He gives creation to itself, so to speak. He bestows its very existence that it did not have before and cannot give to itself. It is completely gratuitous. In a second moment, God recreates the world. In the redemption of the world, God re-gives his gift, and thereby shows his mercy yet more extravagant. In response to sin’s refusal of God’s original gift, God’s merciful redemption bestows again his gift.  In one of the greatest insights of language, we learn that forgiveness and pardon are formed from fore-give and per-donare – two etymologies that simply mean to give most greatly. Redemption, recreation, forgiveness: these are mercy and gift at its most extreme!

Now there are two main kinds of mercy: there’s the quick fix handout and the restructuring option. The band aid and the operation.  The duct tape job and the carpenter’s refashioning. We can measure these by how interiorly the gift or mercy penetrates into the recipient. Let me give an example: a son asks his father to give him a bike ride. The father can do one of two things. He can put his son on the back of a bicycle built for two and give his son a ride. Or he can teach him to ride a bike. Or take a teacher: a student might ask her teacher to “have mercy on her.” And the teacher can either increase the student’s grade, or work to increase the student’s capacity to merit that good grade. We all recognize that the second method of bestowing mercy is better and in fact more merciful, because it bestows its gift more interiorly in the student. The student does not just have a good grade, but now deserves a good grade.  In a more general way, we can say that mercy is more perfect when it is capable of penetrating more interiorly. The truly merciful teacher is the one who is willing to work with you.

But the teacher works with you only if you’re willing to work. This brings us to a further point about real mercy. Real mercy, whether it is practiced by a teacher’s work with a student, or by the father’s teaching his son to ride, or by God’s forgiving the sinner, is real because this gift penetrates to who the person is, not merely what he or she has. And this interiority requires the cooperation of recipient. The son needs to be willing to learn, to fall, to try again. The student needs to be willing to work hard, try again, invest time. This willingness is the first step to being recreated. This humble recognition of dependency, together with the willingness to receive the merciful help, is the beginning or redemption. If we apply our example cases to God, then, we can say that God is most merciful because his gift penetrates us and recreates us. This penetration, of course, presupposes our asking and willingness to cooperate, just like the student and the son. But this is joy: that we are receiving not simply an undeserved good grade or a free ride or a free pass, but being transformed into new creatures.  This is the greatness of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is great because it makes us just.


  1. This is a good overview of mercy. Another aspect of it is that by giving mercy in a way that raises the other up, is an acknowledgment that their neediness is, in a certain way, an offense against their inherent dignity in the first place. By accepting the mercy humbly is to acknowledge that there is value in themselves that goes beyond their present neediness. In other words, it’s not their neediness that defines them “as one lacking” but the act of mercy towards them defines their ultimate dignity.

  2. Matthew, this is a superb post, and the best analysis on the topic of ‘Mercy’ that I have heard in this year of Mercy so far; and I belong to a Dominican parish that usually has outstanding preaching and catechesis. You are a profound spiritual writer, and should continue producing deep spiritual analysis like this. This would also make a great bulletin insert for parishes during the year of Mercy, so that more regular Catholics could get a better idea of what the holy year is all about. Keep up the good work, and I hope you write on the other virtues as well someday.

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