Pope Francis and the Mercy of God

In an article for Bible Alive, Fr Adrian Graffy considers the motto adopted by Pope Francis and reflects on how the new pope has already illustrated this teaching by word and example.

Anyone who has followed closely the activities and speeches of our new Pope Francis will have realised that he has a profound appreciation of the mercy of God.

His episcopal motto, which he has retained as Bishop of Rome, is ‘He had mercy and chose him’. These words are taken from a homily of St Bede on the call of the apostle and evangelist St Matthew. The homily can be conveniently read in the Divine Office, for it constitutes the second reading at the Office of Readings on 21 September, the Feast of St Matthew.

St Bede, the only English Doctor of the Church, was a monk of Jarrow in the early eighth century and is remembered above all for compiling his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. Bede was also a dedicated biblical scholar, who wrote numerous commentaries on the books of the Bible. Bede’s feast day is on 25 May and his shrine can be visited in Durham Cathedral.

It is reported that it was at the age of 17 that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was first struck by the text of Bede. When many years later he became a bishop he adopted the three Latin words as his motto. The phrase miserando atque eligendo is difficult to translate succinctly.

The actual text of the Gospel of Matthew on which St Bede is commenting reads: ‘And as he passed on Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at a customs desk, and he said to him: Follow me!’ (Matthew 9:9) Bede expands the text in his homily to bring out the power of God’s mercy offered by Jesus: ‘He saw a tax collector, and looking at him in pity miserando and choosing him atque eligendo as a disciple, he said: Follow me!’

Bede emphasises that Jesus looked at Matthew ‘with the eye of interior pity’. He explains that ‘following’ is not about ‘a movement of his feet’ but rather ‘a change of life’. Bede continues: ‘Whoever says he is following Christ ought himself to walk as Christ walked’. He points out that the Lord ‘who outwardly called him with words, through a hidden instinct secretly taught him to follow him: by the gift of divine grace the Lord enlightened his mind’.

Bede takes up the theme of forgiveness and conversion later in the homily when the gospel text speaks of other tax collectors and sinners who sat at table with Jesus and his disciples. ‘The conversion of one tax collector provided an example of penance and forgiveness to many tax collectors and sinners.’ The mystery of God’s mercy lies at the heart of the gospel. The mercy experienced by St Matthew drew others to seek forgiveness and a new start.

When Pope Francis gave his Sunday homily in the parish church of St Anna in the Vatican just four days after his election he spoke of God’s mercy. The gospel reading from John chapter 8 about the woman taken in adultery begins with Jesus praying alone, Pope Francis pointed out. Jesus then enters the temple where crowds gathered. At the end of the story Jesus is alone with the woman.

Pope Francis spoke of Jesus’ ‘fruitful solitude’: ‘the solitude of prayer with the Father, and the beautiful solitude that is the Church’s message for today: the solitude of his mercy towards this woman’.

Pope Francis considers the negative reaction of the people to the mercy shown by Christ. His mercy should be an example for us. Pope Francis continues: ‘I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.’

He then suddenly mentions the call of Matthew, where the reaction of the pious people is similar to that found in the gospel reading of the woman taken in adultery. ‘Think of the gossip after the call of Matthew: he associates with sinners! He comes for us, when we recognize that we are sinners. But if we are like the Pharisee, before the altar, who said: I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men, and especially not like the one at the door, like that publican, then we do not know the Lord’s heart, and we will never have the joy of experiencing this mercy! It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension.’

The Pope concludes: ‘The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness . Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving. Let us ask for this grace.’

Pope Francis’ message was powerfully communicated in the Holy Thursday Mass he celebrated at the Casal del Marmo prison. He told the young people that by washing the feet of twelve of them he was showing, as Christ did, that he was there to serve. But his actions also invited their response. ‘Let us do all we can to help one another.’

The parallel with the call of Matthew is clear. If those whose lives have taken a negative turn are offered forgiveness, they can also hear God’s call. ‘Help each other,’ Pope Francis said.

It is by mercy that God calls us. It is by mercy that we can give others a new chance when they have failed. Miserando atque eligendo suggests a new pattern of behaviour. We can offer mercy in such a way that others can begin again. We know that we ourselves are always in need of that same mercy.

Pope Francis, who asked others to pray for him before he prayed for them after his election, knows the power of forgiveness to renew human lives. His papal motto will constantly proclaim this lesson.

This article appeared in the June 2013 edition of Bible Alive. See the article in its original print format (PDF)

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