When we think of Pope Francis, what comes to mind? Hopefully you are thinking about mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. These are all characteristics of his papacy and in fact, Pope Francis declared a Jubilee of Mercy that began on December 8, 2015.
How can we apply Pope Francis’ vision of mercy in our daily life? A good place to start are the corporal works of mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, and bury the dead) or the spiritual works of mercy (instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead). Before we can truly engage in the works of mercy, something more fundamental is needed.
In the papal bull Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy), Pope Francis’ declaration of a Jubilee of Mercy is profound. He stated that, “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it.”
He goes on to define mercy as revealing the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, the supreme act by which God comes to meet us in the incarnation of Christ, “the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life,” and “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” In order for us to fully enter into the works of mercy, we must first enter into the joy and peace that comes from experiencing and sharing in God’s mercy.
Share God’s mercy
By first experiencing God’s mercy, we can learn what mercy is and how to share it. God’s mercy can be seen throughout salvation history from the first pages of Genesis through the latest revelations of Divine Mercy to St. Faustina. In fact, in the Old Testament alone the word mercy appears 169 times. Mercy began way back at the beginning of time with God’s mercy being shown to Adam in the book of Genesis. God was so struck with compassion for Adam’s plight of not finding a suitable partner for himself that, out of mercy, God created Eve to be his helpmate. Here God shows us one of the first components of mercy, compassion.
Compassion of Christ
Compassion is when we let our hearts reach out to feel another’s pain and joy. It is not sympathy from a distance; it’s being with and for another person on a personal and emotional level. This requires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and hurt with them. In a sense, the Incarnation was the ultimate act of compassion of God. As St. John Paul II said in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), “In Christ and through Christ, God also becomes especially visible in his mercy…above all he himself makes [mercy] incarnate and personifies it” (DM, 2).
Christ not only demonstrates compassion to us by taking on our humanity and even our suffering in his own passion, he commands it from us when he gives us the Golden Rule in the Sermon on the Mount to “do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). His admonition of “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) is also a plea for compassion from us.
Not only does Christ command us to have compassion for others, but psychology has shown us its benefits as well. There was a study done in which a person was placed in an fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine and given a shock and then asked to register his pain level. When the person was alone, the pain level was high. When the person held the hand of a stranger, the pain level went down slightly. When the person held the hand of a loved one, the pain was felt as significantly lower, even though the person received the same level of shock all three times. This shows how compassion and love can decrease physical pain. If compassion can decrease felt physical pain, it can also decrease felt emotional pain.
Healing your relationships
Through this lessening of pain brought on by compassion, we can begin to heal relationships. Through sin and imperfections, hurt can enter into our relationships with God and others. When we insist on justice for our hurts instead of using compassion, hurts can grow deeper instead of being healed. St. John Paull II states it this way, “thus, mercy becomes an indispensable element for shaping mutual relationship between people, in a spirit of deepest respect for what is human, and in a spirit of mutual brotherhood. It is impossible to establish this bond between people if they wish to regulate their mutual relationships solely according to the measure of justice” (DM,14).
Forgive those who hurt you
Here we see a second component of mercy that is essential, forgiveness. In the face of sin and hurt, it is forgiveness, not justice which heals. Forgiveness is a conscious choice to replace negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions such as empathy, compassion, and love. It is not condoning, forgetting, excusing, or justifying bad behavior. It is offering mercy to those who need it most. It is when we sin that we are most aware of our need for mercy, as David stated, “I am greatly distressed. But let us fall into the hand of God, whose mercy is great, rather than into human hands” (2 Samuel 24:14). It is mercy, and not justice that can heal the hurt of sin.
As with compassion, Jesus provides us the ultimate example of forgiveness as he forgives those who crucify Him when he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). It is this forgiveness that heals the relationship between fallen man and God. Here too, Jesus not only demonstrates forgiveness to us, he requires it of us.
In the Our Father, Jesus states that our being forgiven depends on us forgiving others (cf. Mt. 6:12). St. James in his letter goes on to say, “So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13).
In the aspect of forgiveness, psychology again backs up the commands and example of our Lord. Forgiveness is known to promote better physical health as it increases immune system functioning, improves cardiovascular health, and decreases chronic cortisol levels. Forgiveness also promotes better mental health and relationships by decreasing anger and ruminating on negative experiences, and it allows for better connections with others. Finally, forgiveness promotes better spiritual well-being as people who are angry and resentful find their spiritual lives to be difficult and unsatisfactory.
While it is great to realize that not only does Christ command us to forgive, but that it will bring about our own healing, how do we accomplish forgiveness when the emotional and spiritual pain of our hurts is so great? How can we achieve forgiveness when our emotions are often so set against it? One way to reach emotional forgiveness with Christ involves using visualizations to move our inner emotions from pain to forgiveness and even compassion for the other. Visualizations connect the head with the heart and are used by many athletes and musicians to increase their performance internally and externally. Visualizations that include Christ can be called meditations. Especially, when we use the Ignatian meditation methods of experiencing the scene with all of our senses. The first half of the meditation that will help decrease our negative unforgiving emotions is as follows:
Close your eyes and see the situation or person who has hurt you. Use all your senses to put yourself in that place or with that person. What do you see? What do you physically feel? What do you hear? What do you smell or taste? Now add in your emotions. What do you emotionally feel while in that scene? Imagine Christ hurting with you, imagine him weeping with you and for you, imagine his sorrow for your experience. Take all those difficult emotions and hurts and see yourself putting them into a little pine box and closing the lid over them. Now imagine giving the box over to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and watch it burn up in his flames of love. Then finally imagine Christ comforting you. What does he say? What do you feel in his comfort? What emotions do you feel as you see Christ comforting you and telling you that he loves you? Then after sitting with those positive feelings of love and compassion Christ has for you, move to the second half of the meditation which will help you connect with the other person in a compassionate way.
Now imagine Christ hurting with the other person while still staying connected to you. Imagine Christ reaching out to both you and the other person at the same time. Imagine Christ’s compassion for you both. Imagine Christ forgiving the other person and you yourself forgiving them with Christ. Imagine Christ in the middle of the two of you connecting you together with compassion and forgiveness. Then see the three of you walking off together and open your eyes.
Theses kinds of meditations where you engage all of your senses and your emotions can be very healing. They are a way of letting go of the difficulties and embracing the good that Christ has to offer. Often people will need to do the same meditation several times before they notice a change in their emotional reaction. As you engage in the meditations over time you will likely notice that the emotional charge that the person or event elicited in you will diminish. In fact, as you move from the first half of the meditation to the second half, you will likely notice a sense of peace coming over you and your relationships with others.
Pope Francis at the prayer vigil for the Festival of Families (Sept 26, 2015) stated, “in families, there are difficulties, but those difficulties are resolved by love. Hatred doesn’t resolve any difficulty. Divided hearts do not resolve difficulties. Only love is capable of resolving difficulty. Love is a celebration, love is joy, love is perseverance.” Thus the ultimate expression of love involves compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. May God grant us the loving heart we need to show mercy to others in our daily lives.