Homily theme: Communicating the meaning of mercy in the Year of Mercy
In the English language we have managed to somehow condense our words so as they have to really work hard for us. If you think of the word love and how it us used by us in an average day: “I love you”, “I would love a cup of tea”, “I love what you are wearing”, “I love the new song from Beyonce”. The same word but very different meanings. If we look at the word mercy and what it means.
Mercy is a concept integral to an understanding of God’s dealings with humankind. In English translations of the Bible, it comes to expression in phrases such as “to be merciful ” “to have mercy on” or “to show mercy toward.” The corresponding term, “merciful” describes a quality of God and one that God requires of his people. The noun denotes compassion and love, not just feelings or emotions, as expressed in tangible ways.
Merciful Like The Father is the theme we are all hearing during this Year of Mercy. Lord. Have Mercy are words we hear each time we celebrate Mass. But do we really every take time to reflect on these words? Do we really understand what the word Mercy means in the context of our relationship with God and our relationship with others?
If we look up the word mercy in the English dictionary it is defined as follows: compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.
Other meanings described in the dictionary are: leniency, clemency, compassion, grace, pity, charity, humanity. There we go again – we have a small word and we really make it do so much for us because it can mean so many different things, depending on how it is used and who is using it.
In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for mercy is eleos. This word is familiar to us from the prayer Kyrie eleison, which is a call for the Lord’s mercy. Eleos is the usual translation in the Greek version of the New Testament for the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is one of the most beautiful words in the Bible. It is often translated simply by love.
Hesed, mercy or love, is part of the vocabulary of the covenant. On God’s side, it stands for an steadfast love, one able to keep alive a relationship forever, regardless of what happens: “My love will never depart from you” (Isaiah 54:10). But since God’s covenant with his people is a story of broken promises and new beginnings from the very start (Exodus 32–34), it is evident that such an unconditional love includes forgiveness; it must of necessity be merciful.
Mercy in the biblical sense is much more than simply one aspect of God’s love. Mercy is in some sense God’s own being. God speaks his Name three times to Moses. The first time, he says “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). The second time: “I am gracious to whom I am gracious, and show mercy to whom I show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). The rhythm of the phrase is the same, but graciousness and mercy are substituted for being. For God, being who he is means being gracious and showing mercy. This is confirmed by the third proclamation of the divine Name: “The Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, rich in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).
This last formula was taken up by the prophets and in the psalms, particularly in Psalm 103, verse 8. In the central part (verses 11-13), this psalm marvels at the incredible scope of God’s mercy: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is God’s mercy…” : mercy is thus God’s loftiness, his transcendence. But it is also God’s humanity, if we can put it that way: “As a father has compassion on his children…” So transcendent and at the same time so close, it is able to take away all evil: “As far as the East is from the West, so far he removes our faults from us.”
Mercy is what is most divine in God, but also what is most sublime in human beings. “He crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,” says Psalm 103. This verse should be read in the light of another verse from Psalm 8 where it is said that God crowns human beings “with glory and honor.” Created in the divine image, human beings are called to share in God’s glory and beauty. But it is steadfast love and mercy that enable us to participate truly in God’s own life.
Jesus’ words: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) echo the ancient commandment “Be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus imparted the face of mercy to God’s holiness. Mercy is the purest reflection of God in a human life. “Through mercy to your neighbour you resemble God” (Saint Basil the Great). Mercy is God’s humanity. It is also the divine future of human beings.
Pope Francis in his World Communications Day Message says: “In a broken, fragmented and polarised world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.”
Pope Francis chose that phrase: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) as the theme for the Jubilee Year of Mercy ‘Merciful Like the Father’.
Homily theme: Social networks and relationships
Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message: “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarisation and division between individuals and groups.”
A word on social media and modern technology from Amoris Laetitia:
Family life as an educational setting
(AL 274) The family is the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom. Certain inclinations develop in childhood and become so deeply rooted that they remain throughout life, either as attractions to a particular value or a natural repugnance to certain ways of acting. Many people think and act in a certain way because they deem it to be right on the basis of what they learned, as if by osmosis, from their earliest years: “That’s how I was taught”. “That’s what I learned to do”. In the family we can also learn to be critical about certain messages sent by the various media. Sad to say, some television programmes or forms of advertising often negatively influence and undercut the values inculcated in family life.
(AL 275) In our own day, dominated by stress and rapid technological advances, one of the most important tasks of families is to provide an education in hope. This does not mean preventing children from playing with electronic devices, but rather finding ways to help them develop their critical abilities and not to think that digital speed can apply to everything in life. Postponing desires does not mean denying them but simply deferring their fulfilment. When children or adolescents are not helped to realize that some things have to be waited for, they can become obsessed with satisfying their immediate needs and develop the vice of “wanting it all now”. This is a grand illusion which does not favour freedom but weakens it. On the other hand, when we are taught to postpone some things until the right moment, we learn self-mastery and detachment from our impulses. When children realize that they have to be responsible for themselves, their self-esteem is enriched. This in turn teaches them to respect the freedom of others. Obviously this does not mean expecting children to act like adults, but neither does it mean underestimating their ability to grow in responsible freedom. In a healthy family, this learning process usually takes place through the demands made by life in common.
(AL 276) The family is the primary setting for socialization, since it is where we first learn to relate to others, to listen and share, to be patient and show respect, to help one another and live as one. The task of education is to make us sense that the world and society are also our home; it trains us how to live together in this greater home. In the family, we learn closeness, care and respect for others. We break out of our fatal self absorption and come to realize that we are living with and alongside others who are worthy of our concern, our kindness and our affection. There is no social bond without this primary, every day, almost microscopic aspect of living side by side, crossing paths at different times of the day, being concerned about everything that affects us, helping one another with ordinary little things. Every day the family has to come up with new ways of appreciating and acknowledging its members.
(Amoris Laetitia 274, 275 and 276)
- A related theme to look at in connection with social media might be behaviour and cyberbullying.
Homily theme: Year of Mercy
Pope Francis in WCD message: “I pray that this Jubilee Year, lived in mercy, may open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; and that it may eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.
“In a broken, fragmented and polarised world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.”
We are all charged with communicating the Gospel of Mercy. How might we do this in our day to day life, in our interactions with others?
Homily theme: The Creative and Destructive Power of Words
Have you ever noticed how people talk of winning arguments, losing arguments, demolishing arguments, attacking arguments, defending arguments? Why do we link arguments with “shooting down”, with “right on target”, with winning, losing, demolishing, attacking, and defending? Isn’t it because, without even being explicitly aware of the fact, for many of us arguments are often warlike? They are conflictual, they are battles, involving winners and losers, where we can gain or lose ground, where the reward is victory, and the big fear is of being totally wiped out. And don’t you think the many aggressive words we use when we argue are going to affect our actions as well? If you don’t believe me, insert the words “argument led to murder” in your Google Search Engine, and within 0.42 seconds, you’ll have a list of seventy-nine million, two hundred thousand results!
I’d like to reflect with you a little more about arguments, because this kind of reflection can bring us closer to the heart of what I’m talking about today: the creative and destructive power of words.
If we view arguments as wars, then they’ll involve bad-mannered back and forth comments. Sooner or later someone will take offence, and things may quickly become ugly and nasty, devolving into ad hominem attacks and the trading of insults. One party may just sue the other, and both could be left nursing grudges for life. Or at the very least, they’ll metaphorically shoot one another down in flames with high-powered rational bullets. And at the end of all this massive mutual display of testosterone-fuelled aggression, neither side will have persuaded the other, but each will have made a new enemy instead.
Words can be destructive. We all know that technology has given bullies a much wider platform through online name-calling, and we know this can emotionally destroy children and teenagers. As a child, I remember repeating the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Back then, I unthinkingly accepted the truth of this phrase. As Saint Paul would have put it: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” (1 Corinthians 13: 11). Now that I’m an adult, I see how intimidating the world of childhood has become because of things like cyber-bullying. Words can be used as weapons. They can be as sharp as knives, or even sharper: the pen is mightier than the sword.
Words can cause irreparable damage. So I’ve now rewritten the second half of this nursery rhyme: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will really hurt me.” The reason words can unleash such havoc is because words are extraordinarily powerful. As the Letter of Saint James tells us: “Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire.” (The Letter of James 3:5-6).
Let’s imagine for a moment that we could change the way we visualize arguments, that we could move away from understanding arguments in terms of war, and instead view them as collaborative journeys toward the truth.
In fact, we already talk about arguments as journeys, though we don’t go so far as seeing them as collaborative journeys toward the truth. How do we grasp arguments as journeys? Well, in an argument, there is often the notion of a starting point, a road to follow, and a destination. We set out to prove something, the argument can go through various stages, and ideally has a clear step-by-step logic to it, leading to a certain conclusion. Of course we can also veer off in the wrong direction, stray from the point, lose the thread of an argument or talk in circles.
The great thing about speaking of an argument in terms of a journey is that it predisposes us to think of the progress we are making and whether we’re approaching our goal. Moreover, if we build on this foundation by additionally seeing an argument as a collaborative journey toward the truth, then we won’t be inclined to see the argument as something to win or to lose, we won’t feel impelled to attack or to defend. We won’t find ourselves driven toward aggression or domination. It will be about teamwork, and about the truth winning out, not either of the arguers. If the argument becomes bogged down, both parties will feel frustrated, since it is a collaborative journey. We’ll want to work together to find a solution. And perhaps even the term “argument” might not be the best way to describe what is happening, because it would be a matter of collaborative teamwork.
If we don’t visualize disagreements in hostile terms, we may just be humble enough not to wilt in the face of a withering ad hominem attack. I’m reminded of a saintly Jesuit priest whose humility enabled him to deftly outmanoeuvre an attack against his character and reputation.
Fr. John Hyde was born in Ballycotton, County Cork. Already an excellent student at secondary school, he was awarded the prestigious Honan Scholarship to UCC, but did not take it up, entering the Society of Jesus instead in 1927. Father Hyde began to teach theology to Irish Jesuit students when the actual professor became ill. They called upon Father Hyde as a stopgap, to fill in for a limited time. He turned out to be an excellent teacher, even though theology was not his specialty, a fact of which he was wont to remind his superiors. But he was so good that they kept him in that job for the rest of his working life. To meet him you’d never think he was such a brilliant mind, because he was a quiet, retiring, self-effacing man, someone of few words, and then they were always simple words.
Now, some of the details of this revealing little story may be inaccurate, because it’s a long time since I heard it, and Father Hyde himself died 30 years ago, in 1985. Anyhow, here’s how the story goes: Father Hyde wrote a review of a book by a well-known theologian. Since Father Hyde was a man of few words, the book review was correspondingly brief. Basically it went something like this: “the author makes important points on pages 25-28, again on pages 51-54, and finally on pages 111-115. But otherwise there is nothing of great substance in this study.”
The author was infuriated and wrote a letter to the periodical, in which he said: “how dare Father Hyde criticize my book like that when he isn’t even properly qualified to teach theology!”
Father Hyde wrote a letter of reply, addressed to the editor of the periodical. Like his review, it was anything but long-winded, and amounted to the following: “the eminent professor asserts that I am not a qualified theologian…that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell my superiors for the last 30 years.”
It’s evident from this story that Father Hyde did not see an argument as a war to be won or lost. He was a humble man, and he did not feel it was a loss of dignity on his part to admit the truth publicly, the fact that he was not a properly qualified theologian.
Words are so creative that in the first chapter of Genesis God speaks and the world comes into being. Now, that’s power! From the dawn of creation, God has communicated with us through words. The Word of all words is the Word of God: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1: 1). The Prologue of John’s Gospel goes on to tell us: “Through him all things were made.” (John 1:3). It is through the creative Word of God that the world comes into being. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “God…has spoken to us through the Son…through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Jesus is not simply a Word of God. Everything was created not through any words, but through the Word, the Logos, who is the Son, and in the Spirit who is Love. Jesus Christ is the Word of God: this is a clear sign of how important words are. Words are creative because of the Word.
The unique overflowing, sparkling, self-giving, life-giving Divine Word is mirrored in myriad ways in our life-giving human words. The 19th century English Jesuit poet who died in Dublin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, strove to capture the sheer “thisness” of things, their unique God-given energy. In the sonnet often called “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (from May 1877) Hopkins wrote:
“For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
When we speak creative words, it is as though Christ were really speaking in us, playing in us to the Father, with such radiant beauty and dynamic energy that it makes (as Hopkins would put it), “kingfishers catch fire” or “dragonflies draw flame”.
The gift of speech is the most useful gift that God has given us. With this gift, we can turn to God in praise and thanksgiving, we can make God known and loved to those around us; we can reassure them, raise their spirits, and express our affection for them.
The above text on creative and destructive words is from a speech delivered by Father Thomas Casey SJ to the 40th anniversary conference of the Catholic Communications Office in November 2015.