of popes and mercy


Pope Francis never tires of promoting a church of mercy. His recent announcement of a Holy Year of Mercy  has cemented his title as “the Pope of Mercy”. But, wait. Shouldn’t Pope John Paul II be called the Pope of Mercy? After all, didn’t he promote the Divine Mercy devotion and officially proclaim the first Sunday of Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday?

Both popes preached of mercy but their style and approach was different.

In my opinion, the Polish Pope’s personal devotion to the writings and visions of St. Faustina Kowalska should have remained just that. A personal devotion. The church has a healthy skepticism and caution regarding personal revelations and visions. Catholics are never obligated to believe them. Yet, here was the Pope not only actively promoting a devotion, but also fast-tracking its founder to sainthood. It’s unfortunate that the devotion and the message of God’s divine mercy were so closely woven together, for the former often overshadowed the latter.

There was also an irony in all the talk of God’s mercy while the church, herself, was becoming increasingly clerical, authoritarian, and focused on maintaining doctrinal purity within her ranks. During the previous two papacies, there were many who felt the church’s wrath, not her mercy.

And then along came Pope Francis. From the moment he stepped onto the papal balcony, he exuded mercy in both word and deed. He nudged us to go beyond church walls and did so himself. He never tired of writing about and speaking about not just God’s mercy for us sinners, but also the mercy that WE must show as a church. In his March 17th homily at Domus Sanctae Marthae he stressed the importance of mercy and not judgment toward those who had left the church and are now seeking to return,

“And how many times today in Christian communities [they] find closed doors: ‘But you cannot, no, you cannot,'” said the pope, imitating someone who prevents such people from reentering the community.

“‘You have done wrong here and you cannot,'” Francis continued the imitation. “‘If you want to come, come to Mass on Sunday, but stay there, but do not do more.'”

 Summing up how he feels about such a situation, the pontiff said: “That which the Holy Spirit does in the hearts of people, Christians with the psychology of doctors of the law destroy.”

 Francis reflects Jesus’s impatience with the Pharisees of his own day. Over and over again Jesus stressed that the law of love and mercy must always be above man made laws and traditions. Over and over again Francis, too, speaks of the need to show mercy before judgment.

 When this Pope calls us to a much needed Jubilee year of mercy, there is a feeling of optimism that mercy and compassion might begin to flow more freely within our church, and out into the world.

This is the Psalm (145)  in today’s liturgical readings. The response is “The LORD is gracious and merciful”. If the church began to genuinely reflect God’s mercy, what would she look like?

Here is the same Psalm reworded. A vision of a merciful church indeed!

The Church is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and of great kindness.

The Church is good to all

and compassionate toward all God’s people.


The Church is faithful in all her words

and holy in all her works.

The Church lifts up all who are falling

and raises up all who are bowed down.


The Church is just in all her ways

and holy in all her works.

The Church is near to all who call upon her,

to all who call upon her in truth.

3 thoughts on “of popes and mercy

  1. The question posed about Popes Francis and John Paul, the definition of mercy and the anecdote about Pope John Paul’s personal devotion constitute subtle observation with, I think, immense relevance. It is not only about their piety and how it was/is woven it into their role as pope but for all of us. I can’t explain, but I can describe maybe:
    One looks at another and sees opportunity
    One looks at another as sees other

    One looks at another and sees his subject
    One looks at another and sees another subject

    One looks at another to be seen
    One looks at another to see

    One risks to impose his freedom
    One risks to share a freedom

    One casts his vision to the soil in belief that both are fertile
    One casts his vision in stone for all to follow

    1. Thanks so much for this, Dennis. I especially like “One casts his vision to the soil in belief that both are fertile
      One casts his vision in stone for all to follow”. Taking one vision and casting it in stone has been going on for too long in our church.

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