My brothers and sisters,
I want to reflect with you today on Pope Francis’ message of mercy and what it means for the continental mission of the new evangelization here in the Americas.
I want to follow a simple outline.
First, I want to suggest that Pope Francis’ program of mercy is rooted in a deep spiritual reflection on the prophetic vision of St. John Paul II.
Second, I want to show how — in restoring mercy as the heart of the Church’s proclamation — Pope Francis is offering us an evangelical and pastoral strategy that is uniquely suited to the realities on our continent at this moment in history, which is marked by radical secularization and de-Christianization and a widespread loss of hope in God’s Providence and nearness.
Finally, I want to suggest that the Holy Father’s canonization of the apostle to the New World St. Junípero Serra, gives us a patron saint who embodies the merciful love of God that must become the face of our continental mission.
1. Recovering mercy
I want to begin by stating a simple fact that I think we all know: Pope Francis did not “invent” mercy.
This might not be obvious if the secular news media is your only source of information about the Pope. Since the evening of his election in 2013, the secular media has insisted on a narrative that presents Pope Francis as a sharp break from the popes who preceded him and a radical reformer of outdated Church teachings and tradition.
Of course as we know this narrative of “discontinuity” is not true.
Mercy has been at the heart of the Christian kerygma from the beginning. In his dying and rising, Jesus Christ revealed the truth that God is a Father who is rich in mercy. The good news that the Church proclaims is the “knowledge of salvation … in the forgiveness of sins, through the tender mercy of our God.” The Father’s mercy is the blessing promised to those who are merciful as he is merciful.1
If the Pope did not “invent” mercy, it is nonetheless true that he has been prophetic in recognizing that mercy is the “word” that men and women long to hear in our world today.
Pope Francis believes “this is a time for mercy.” In his first interviews, he offered the image of the Church as a “field hospital.” For Francis, the mercy of God — proclaimed by the Church and expressed in the concrete practice of Christians — is the medicine needed by a humanity that is deeply wounded by modernity.
Mercy is healing medicine —not only for the physical wounds inflicted by the many wars, injustices and slaveries of body and mind we find in modern society. Mercy also speaks to the existential woundedness of people living in a culture where the memory of God is dimming, where people are no longer able to feel God’s presence and activity in the world.2
As I see it, the Pope’s vision is that of a priest who has spent many hours in the confessional — both as a penitent and as a confessor. One of the striking things to me about his pontificate is how much the Pope speaks about the priesthood and about the confessional.
His priestly vision of the world and the Church’s mission is reflected in his episcopal motto, Miserando atque eligendo, (“By having mercy and by choosing him”). Pope Francis knows that life truly begins in the soul’s encounter with the mercy of God — when the Lord looks upon us in mercy and calls us to follow him.3
In all this, of course, the Holy Father stands in continuity with his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who called mercy the core of the Gospel message and the face of God revealed in Christ.4
But in a deeper way I believe the Holy Father’s vision is rooted in his discovery of a spiritual “key” to the pontificate of St. John Paul II. I think this point needs further study, but I do believe that we can see the key pastoral priorities and perspectives of Pope Francis anticipated in the final section of this saint’s great encyclical, Rich in Mercy.
In the beautiful, almost mystical passage that concludes the encyclical, Pope John Paul sees mercy as a prophetic answer to “the many forms of evil which weigh upon humanity and threaten it.” He calls on Christians to “practice mercy towards people through people.” He urges the Church to rediscover the “maternal characteristics” of God’s love for his children and to follow “the example of Mary” and seek to be “the spiritual mother of mankind.”5
As we know, these are all themes that have come to characterize the preaching and witness of Pope Francis.
From the earliest days of his pontificate, the Holy Father has been leading the Church to a kind of “return to the sources” —a recovery of mercy as the key to the Scriptures and salvation history and as the foundation of the Church’s pastoral activity and the life of every Christian.
The Pope has made mercy central, not only to his “message” in homilies, speeches and writings. He has also made mercy the key to his pastoral style and priestly identity — visting prisoners and refugees, hearing confessions, embracing the sick and diseased, lifting up those rescued from slavery and forced prostitution, consoling women suffering from abortion.
In all of this, I believe Pope Francis is showing us a new way, marking out a path for the Church to follow in a world that stands at a critical moment in history.
2. Mercy, gateway to the culture of encounter
Secularization and de-Christianization are dominant realities in the countries of the Americas and throughout the West.
In my opinion, this is the great test for the Church here in our continent. In fact, I am not sure that we in the Church have fully come to terms with the extent to which secularization and de-Christianization pose an “existential” threat to our institutions and the consciences and even the souls of our faithful.
I speak from my perspective in the United States. But I think all of us can agree that the elites who govern and shape the direction of our societies are deeply secularized and hostile to religion, religious values and traditional culture.
We do not see violent persecution in our societies, as our brothers and sisters are suffering in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. But more and more in our countries we see our elites using the raw power of law and public policy to impose their views and priorities and to deny the rights and freedoms of those who disagree with them.
We are confronting in our societies a powerful and false “humanism” — a dangerous set of beliefs about what it means to be human and what makes for human happiness and flourishing. This false vision is rooted in materialistic and hedonistic assumptions that are completely opposed to the truth revealed in Christian tradition — that human person is created in the image of God and destined for holiness and communion.
As I said, the Church faces an “existential” threat in this new post-Christian environment. How do we live and love, work and create? How do we raise our families, educate our children and carry out our Christian mission? How do we serve our God in a “strange land” that sees the Church and her teachings and institutions as a mortal enemy?6
I want to suggest here again — that Pope Francis is showing us the way forward.
He is showing us the way to make mercy the language of our mission — a language that speaks not only in words but also in “works.”
Witness is always more powerful and more persuasive than words, as we know. But this becomes even more crucial in a society that denies the reality of God, the relevance of faith and the liberty of conscience. In a post-Christian society, mercy — lived through works of love — becomes the best “proof” for God’s presence and power.
By our love and tenderness, by our joy, we attract others to the cause of our joy, to the person of Jesus Christ. By our love and tenderness, we make God’s own mercy a reality that our neighbors can believe in and give their lives to.7
Pope Francis stresses that mercy is not a passive virtue, not a “defensive” strategy for the Church in the face of a hostile culture. Mercy is missionary. It is driven by a universal love for humanity, by desire for the salvation and liberation of the human person. Mercy aims to draw men and women out of their solitude and into an encounter of brotherhood and sisterhood in fellowship with the living God.
The call to mercy requires that the followers of Christ enter into the reality of those who are broken and wounded — those in our society who feel abandoned by the Church and those who have drifted away or grown indifferent to God.
When mercy becomes the fundamental outlook and practice of the Christian disciple, we begin to see the outlines of an entirely new culture. A culture of encounter rooted in compassion — especially for the poor and dispossessed, for the lonely and those left discarded on the “peripheries.”
Through our practice of mercy, we encounter the “other” as a brother, a sister — one who is like us; a son or a daughter of our Father in heaven, a child created in the image and likeness of God.
Our practice of mercy leads to a transformation of outlook, as we begin to see the world through the merciful eyes of Christ. And in this, we see the beginnings of a culture of encounter that is the gateway to a new world of faith, a city of love and truth.
3. Giving credible witness to mercy
This “new world,” this culture of encounter that we seek in mercy — is far different from the world we are living in today.
Nearly a generation ago, St. John Paul II wrote: “The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy.”
Pope Francis quotes these words in his Bull for this Holy Year.8 And sadly, I think these words ring even more true today.
In a world where it seems that war and violence are constant, a world that confronts us daily with tragic examples of spiritual and material poverty, injustice and human suffering, many of our neighbors can find no “evidence” for a God of mercy, no “proof” that creation is being guided by a loving hand.
And as our world’s belief in God is fading, the hope for mercy — even the very idea of mercy — is disappearing from our public life.9
In my country, I see signs of this disappearance every day. There is a growing coldness of heart, a harsh and fearful rhetoric in our media and politics, a growing inability of ordinary people to empathize with the humanity of others. I see this reflected in the cruel treatment of refugees and undocumented migrants, in deportations that break up families and place women and children in detention. I see it also in the debates over social programs for the poor and homeless, in increasingly severe punishments for criminals and in the poor conditions in some of our prisons.
And I don’t think the disappearance of public compassion and mercy is limited only to the United States. Pope Francis speaks of the “globalization of indifference.”10 It is sad to say, but I think we are becoming a world of no mercy.
In these times, Pope Francis is telling us that we — the Church and each one of us as followers of Christ and missionary disciples — must give a “credible witness to mercy.”11 And he is right. Mercy alone is credible in a world that no longer feels the warmth of God or the gentle touch of his love.
One of the prophetic signs of this pontificate has been the Pope’s witness of mercy for criminals and prisoners. As we know, during his pilgrimages to the Americas — in the United States, Mexico and Bolivia — Pope Francis made a point to visit jails and to speak personally to those incarcerated.
This is a beautiful and credible witness to mercy.
Pope Francis has also called for the abolition of the death penalty — an appeal to mercy that is likewise rich with missionary and evangelical possibilities.
In appealing for mercy for those condemned to die — those whom our society has condemned as unworthy to live — the Pope is giving a powerful testimony to the truth that God’s forgiveness and mercy are available to everyone; that there is no one who lies beyond the embrace of his love and the possibility of his redemption.
In this way, abolishing the death penalty becomes far more than a political act. It becomes a beautiful witness to the power of mercy as spiritual healing for men and women who have lost hope in the possibility of redemption, who no longer believe that their sins can be forgiven or that their lives can be made “whole” and “right” again. It becomes a testimony that God’s mercy is stronger than every evil and that there is no one who cannot be touched by God’s mercy and changed by his love.
4. “Complete mercy … towards all people”
I want to conclude by holding up one of our newest saints — St. Junípero Serra, the great apostle of California and one of the heroes of the first evangelization of the Americas.
In canonizing St. Junípero last fall in Washington, D.C., I believe Pope Francis has given us an intercessor and model as we continue our continental mission of mercy and the work of the new evangelization.
St. Junípero was a true missionary of mercy. He defended the rights of women and the native peoples, he was a voice for the voiceless and powerless. He was also probably the first person in the Americas to seek to stop an execution, appealing instead for mercy for the condemned killer.
In one of his sermons, St. Junípero said:
“God is complete mercy, complete love, and complete tenderness toward all people, even toward the most ungrateful sinners. … The Lord wishes all people to attain the ends for which he compassionately created us. He yearns that we might believe that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that we might advance toward the salvation he wills for us.”12
My brothers and sisters, this is our mission now.
Like the first missionaries to this continent, we need to proclaim the beautiful reality of God’s compassion and tenderness. The glad tidings of God’s complete mercy and love — and his desire that everyone might find the salvation he wants for us.
May this Jubilee Year of Mercy renew us and give us new courage to proclaim the good news that God’s love is stronger than the evil and death in the world today and that his mercy may be found in the mercy that we show to one another.
May Our Lady of Guadalupe — Mother of Mercy and the Mother of the New Evangelization — help all of us to be missionary disciples and messengers of divine mercy.
1. Exod. 33:19; Eph. 2:4; Luke 1:77–78; Matt. 5:7; Luke 6:36.
2. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 17, 25; The Name of God is Mercy (Random House, 2016), 8, 15–16.
3. The Name of God is Mercy, 11.
4. Regina Caeli (March 30, 2008).
5. Dives in Misericordia, 15.
6. Ps. 137:4.
7. Pope Francis, Address to Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (October 14, 2013).
8. Dives in Misericordia, 2; Misericordiae Vultus, 11.
9. See generally, Tuckness and Parrish, The Decline of Mercy in Public Life (Cambridge University, 2014).
10. Evangelii Gaudium, 54.
11. Misericordiae Vultus, 25
12. Beebe and Senkewicz, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, 427