“All the liturgy is a place where mercy is encountered and welcomed in order to be given; a place where the great mystery of reconciliation is made present, announced, celebrated, and communicated.”
– Pope Francis, August 22, 2016, Message for National Liturgical Week
As the Extraordinary Jubilee of the Holy Year of Mercy draws to a close, observers of Pope Francis’s pontificate should not be surprised that a pope who seeks to make mercy a hallmark of his pontificate had called for this special year-long celebration of mercy in the first place. Nor should it be a surprise that priests around the world immersed in the sacramental life of the Church are finding in this Holy Year a renewed understanding of mercy within a liturgical context.
In the April 11, 2015, bull of indiction announcing the Holy Year, Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”), Pope Francis reminds the faithful that his own pontificate is inspired by the example of Christ’s mercy toward Matthew the Apostle.
“Passing by the tax collector’s booth, Jesus looked intently at Matthew,” Pope Francis writes. “It was a look full of mercy that forgave the sins of that man, a sinner and a tax collector, whom Jesus chose—against the hesitation of the disciples—to become one of the Twelve. Saint Bede the Venerable, commenting on this Gospel passage, wrote that Jesus looked upon Matthew with merciful love and chose him: miserando atque eligendo. This expression impressed me so much that I chose it for my episcopal motto.”
In a larger context, Pope Francis’s words also indicate the special place that the liturgy has in this Year of Mercy. According to the Vatican, the words evoke not only Christ’s mercy within his pontificate but also the liturgical context in which Pope Francis found this same mercy when he first discerned a vocation to the priesthood more than 60 years ago.
“The motto of Pope Francis,” states the Vatican website which explains Pope Francis’s coat of arms, “is taken from a passage from the venerable Bede, Homily 21 (CCL 122, 149-151), on the Feast of Matthew, which reads: Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, ‘Sequere me’. [Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him, ‘follow me’.]
“This homily is a tribute to Divine Mercy and is read during the Liturgy of the Hours on the Feast of St Matthew. This has particular significance in the life and spirituality of the Pope. In fact, on the Feast of St Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Bergoglio experienced, at the age of 17, in a very special way, the loving presence of God in his life. Following confession, he felt his heart touched and he sensed the descent of the Mercy of God, who with a gaze of tender love, called him to religious life, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola.”
In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis cites this same passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel to relate the many ways that Christ calls those he desires to serve the Church, including the call to heal the sick and feed the hungry:
“Jesus, seeing the crowds of people who followed him,” Pope Francis writes, “realized that they were tired and exhausted, lost and without a guide, and he felt deep compassion for them (cf. Mt 9:36). On the basis of this compassionate love he healed the sick who were presented to him (cf. Mt 14:14), and with just a few loaves of bread and fish he satisfied the enormous crowd (cf. Mt 15:37). What moved Jesus in all of these situations was nothing other than mercy, with which he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need.”
As our Lord had done during his earthly ministry, so Christ continues to provide spiritual food and spiritual medicine—and mercy—to the world through the sacraments and the liturgy safeguarded by his Church. The Eucharist, that is, Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity, presents himself as the living food who nourishes the faithful soul while confession (and for venial sins, the Eucharist too) provides the spiritual medicine to heal the soul; both channels provide the grace necessary for those souls seeking eternal union with Christ.
Like Pope Francis, priests throughout the world are responding to the call of mercy during this Holy Year. Every liturgical year offers mercy to those who seek it in the sacraments and so, arguably, every liturgical year is therefore a “year of mercy.” Yet, this particular liturgical year is conterminous with the Year of Mercy, which began last year in Advent, Dec. 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and ends on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Nov. 20, Feast of Christ the King. Whether guiding the faithful in parishes, serving the Church through prayer in monasteries, or laboring in the missionary fields to gather souls for salvation, priests are finding a special significance to the liturgy within the context of mercy.
Mercenaries for Christ
As part of his announcement for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis hand-picked a group of priests whom he referred to in Misericordiae Vultus as Missionaries of Mercy—1,071 of them—to go out into the world to spread mercy’s message. The Missionaries of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, are to be “a living sign of the Father’s welcome to those in search of forgiveness.” Nominated by their diocesan bishops or religious superiors as exemplars of mercy, these Missionaries of Mercy lead the faithful to mercy through confession, celebration of Mass, preaching during Mass and parish missions, and in personal encounters with souls.
The “mercenaries” of this thousand-strong army were commissioned this past Ash Wednesday, February 10 at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Of those chosen, 700 were present that day to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis, including Monsignor Thomas Richter, rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in the Diocese of Bismarck, ND.
Seeking in his work as Missionary of Mercy to minister to the Upper Midwest during Lent, Monsignor Richter’s travels took him to such places as Fargo, ND, Marshfield, WI, and Rapid Cities, IA. Ordained in 1996, Monsignor Richter says the experience has helped him focus on the role that mercy plays in the liturgy and especially in the sacrament of confession.
“There really was an outpouring of grace and response to Pope Francis’s call to encounter the mercy of Jesus both in the sacrament of reconciliation and in the prayer and preaching during the liturgy, Monsignor Richter says.
“It was the first time it happened to me in my 20 years as a priest,” he says. One day I sat in the confessional for 8 hours 15 minutes, non-stop except for a few brief breaks. It was a steady stream of penitents; the good people of God kept coming. It was very beautiful.”
The power and efficacy of mercy, Monsignor Richter says, can be focused in a single word from scripture: σπλαγχνιζομαι (splagchnizomai). This Greek word, like Christ’s crucifixion, may sound ugly but, also like Christ’s crucifixion, it signifies, Monsignor Richter says, a beautiful expression of love.
“The word is used 12 times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke),” Monsignor Richter says. “Each gospel writer uses the word to communicate what happens when Christ is moved to compassion. Literally, it means ‘his guts were moved with pity.’”
The word also shows up, Monsignor Richter notes, in the paramount parable of mercy—the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
“The father, seeing him far off and—splagchnizomai—ran out to meet him,” Monsignor Richter says. “The New American Bible translation of that word is ‘filled with compassion,’ and other translations say the father’s heart was ‘moved to pity.’ But no matter how you translate it, the word points to what Christ does in the liturgy.”
The actions Christ performs in the liturgy, Monsignor Richter says, include teaching, feeding, healing, and communicating the importance of the priesthood.
“Christ teaches every single day in the Mass, both through scripture and in the homily,” he says. “Christ’s guts are moved with pity and cramped with compassion to teach his truth through his body the Church. That’s the mercy in Jesus demanding the same of his priests.”
By feeding the faithful as an act of mercy, Monsignor Richter says, Christ offers himself in the Eucharist as another example of splagchnizomai.
“In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Christ’s heart was moved and so he fed them,” Monsignor Richter says. “That’s what the Eucharist is all about. This mercy which is in the historical Jesus has not lessened in the heart of the risen Christ and in his Mystical Body. That’s why the Catholic Church instructs priests to celebrate Mass every day and feed the people. It is simply the mercy of Christ being lived out and poured out in every day and in every Catholic parish.”
The Eucharist also provides a liturgical context for healing and forgiveness, Monsignor Richter says, recalling how splagchnizomai led Christ to heal so many, physically and spiritually, during his earthly ministry. Pointing to the moment Christ promised to send his disciples shepherds (Matthew 9:36), Monsignor also sees the priesthood itself as a gift of mercy to the Church.
“‘When he saw the crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them—splagchnizomai—because they were like a sheep without a shepherd,’” Monsignor Richter says, quoting from this passage in Matthew. “‘So he turned to them and said, ‘Beg the lord of the harvest to send out laborers to gather in his harvest.’ The Church understands and sees and teaches those very things he continues to do in the liturgy.”
While Monsignor Richter found the connection between mercy and liturgy in his roving ministry throughout the Upper Midwest, the Benedictine Monks of Norcia in Nursia, Italy, have found mercy’s same power active within the holy silence of the monastic life. Officially named Maria Sedes Sapientiae (“Mary Seat of Wisdom”), the monastery, which brews beer as a main source of income, has a special focus on the liturgy already as its monks celebrate both forms of the Roman Rite (ordinary and extraordinary) after the Vatican granted the community a special apostolate to do so in 2009.
Founded in Rome in 1998, “the Monks of Norcia,” as they’re known, left the Eternal City in 2001 for a more rural setting, following in the footsteps of their founder St. Benedict who settled in Subiaco, about 45 miles east of Rome to establish monasteries in the late 5th and early 6th century. As St. Benedict’s 21st century spiritual sons, the Monks of Norcia reestablished a monastic presence in the saint’s birthplace, Nursia (the original Latin spelling by which the town is known in English) in central Italy’s mountainous region, a little more than 100 miles due north of Rome.
Shattering the contemplative solitude of these monks, though, on Aug. 24, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck this same region of Italy. Its epicenter was located in neighboring Accumoli, with more than 2,500 aftershocks measured from the time of the initial tumult to Aug. 30. The quake caused 297 deaths and wounded another 395 (the monks survived without injury). While it did not take the full brunt of the quake, the Nursia monastery was not spared its share of damage.
Founding prior Father Cassian Folsom, who made his monastic vows in 1980 and was ordained a priest in 1984, offered a reflection on the quake two days after the event. He wrote on the monastery’s website about what the monks experienced.
“Wednesday, August 24th was the feast of St. Bartholomew,” Father Cassian writes, “which meant that Matins was scheduled to begin at 3:45 a.m. Around 3:30—when all of us were already up, thanks be to God—the earthquake hit. We had experienced tremors before in the 16 years we’ve been living in Norcia, but nothing like this. It’s a very frightening experience to hear the earth growling and to feel the building swaying drunkenly this way and that. We all had the presence of mind to get out immediately and assemble in an open place—the piazza in front of the monastery. There we huddled together in the cold, as successive tremors caused the stone pavement to ripple under our feet.
“The monks and townspeople instinctively gathered around the statue of St. Benedict which is located in the center of the piazza. The monks prayed the Rosary together and many of the townspeople joined in. We gave heartfelt thanks to God that our lives were spared.”
Then on Oct. 26, another pair of aftershocks—each very much an earthquake in its own right, the first registering 5.5 magnitude and the second 6.1—struck the region again, adding further damage to the monastery, especially the monks’ living quarters, and surrounding towns and villages. Italian officials reported no further loss of life. In an email to friends and supporters around the world, Father Cassian writes that the latest disasters have practically finished the destructive work of the initial August quake.
“The Basilica fared the worst,” he writes. Most dramatically, perhaps, theCeltic Cross which adorned the 13th century facade came crashing down.
Finally, on Oct. 30, Mother Nature completed her work of destruction to the basilica as another earthquake, this time registering a 6.6 magnitude—the largest such event in Italy in 36 years—shook the ancient church building to utter ruin. Comparing the devastation to the “bombed-out churches from the Second World War,” Father Cassian reported in another email to supporters and friends on Oct. 31 that, even amid the dust and rubble that litters the landscape of Norcia, faith had cause to wonder at God’s mercy.
“The…miracle is that there were no casualties,” he writes. “All the fear and anxiety following the first few earthquakes now seem a providential part of God’s mysterious plan to clear the city of all inhabitants.”
Finding time during the busy challenges of rebuilding, Father Cassian told Adoremus via email, the Year of Mercy has, suffice it to say, taken on special significance for the monks.
“In the aftermath of the earthquake, we have often been on the receiving end of the corporal works of mercy,” he says. “So many friends have come to our assistance in order to begin the huge project of rebuilding. At the same time, it has been our privilege to give concrete help to needy families. We have also been exercising the spiritual works of mercy, especially ‘to comfort the afflicted,’ since the monastic presence and our interior attitude of faith and trust in God’s providence is a great source of strength for our neighbors here in Norcia.”
In the liturgy, too, Father Cassian says, the monks have found mercy abounding and serving as a mainstay of consolation for the monks and their neighbors.
“The liturgy always presents the saving work of God before our eyes,” he says. “Justice and mercy are like the warp and woof of a precious fabric with which God clothes us. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are effects or consequences of our experience of God’s mercy in prayer. St. Paul summarizes this nicely when he says: ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20). It is this fundamental experience of being loved by God that flows over into love of our neighbor. At the same time, the mercy we experience from other people gives us an insight into the love of God for us.”
The rebuilding process for the monastery and the surrounding community continues apace, and the Monks of Norcia welcome donations through their recently announced $7.5 million capital campaign drive—Deep Roots.
Mercy for all
East across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy, in the ancient Christian land of Jordan, Father Michael Linden works as a Jesuit missionary and serves as Jesuit Superior of Jordan. Entering the order in 1968 and ordained a priest in 1980, Father Michael has helped spread mercy in the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and Africa before coming to the Middle East.
“One could say that my life is that of a contemporary missionary,” he tells Adoremus via email, “working with local churches, adding some of the Jesuit charisms and spirituality, and finding the Gospel as a ‘call to Mission’ which God has established for all who follow his Son Jesus.”
The practice of mercy, this many years later, Father Michael says, keeps him focused on the work he fell in love with 26 years ago. “Somehow I feel as fresh today as when my earlier intuitions suggested that I could, might, and then should try to be a priest in the Society of Jesus,” he says. “I hardly ever look back, however—the past has no hold on me or any fascination. I go forward, looking for the areas of my experience where the Gospel seems alive, and I always find others there.”
As if Africa and the Caribbean weren’t far enough to find new opportunities to spread mercy in the world, Father Michael says he took on his work in Jordan as a way of living out the old Jesuit adage that the work of the Society is the work of frontiersmen.
“My experience is that for any of us, indeed for any Christian, we will have to be at some frontier where our faith meets the ‘arena,’ where it faces challenge and can be sustained by God,” he says. “If you will, the ‘frontier finds us,’ rather than we find it. With that in mind, I knew with the mind of my superiors that my work in Jordan would be a good opportunity to depend more on God, to seek the life of the Gospel, to serve, and to be personally confronted at some frontier of life and faith.”
One of the most difficult frontiers to cross in the region, Father Michael says, is that of Muslim-Christian relations. But even in this case, he adds, mercy is the answer—although never a pat answer.
“Mercy is the antidote for hatred,” he says. “If believers undertake the merciful action, within their understanding of God’s mission, God cannot fail. This goes for Christians and Muslims. Hatred is the supposed state of Satan, and he has lots of company here; only a spiritually-sustained effort of mercy can counter the enormous power of evil.”
Related to this challenge Father Michael struggled to help those affected by the deportation of Sudanese workers by the Jordanian government on Dec. 18, 2015.
“The Year of Mercy began quietly for us, and I was wondering what it might mean,” he says. “Then, in December of 2015, the Jordan Government forcibly deported to original countries hundreds of Sudanese refugees.”
Many of the more than 800 deported were students and coworkers in the education and family assistance programs that the Jordan Jesuits had organized, Father Michael says.
“The Year of Mercy came alive with the need to protect, assist, and work more urgently for justice for these people and other refugees,” he says. “Our Jesuit community now tithes its salaries and other incomes to assist vulnerable people, and we work closely with Catholic and other resettlement groups to save these people. They were tortured, most of them, in Sudan, and Jordan has proven dangerous also. We miss our friends greatly; many have ended up drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they attempted to flee Sudan again.”
In his own daily dealings with mercy, Father Michael has found time to reflect on its power in the liturgy and how it has helped shape him as a priest and missionary.
“By calling us to compassion and mercy, Pope Francis has defined a year of the mission of God,” he says. “Much of the Gospel speaks to compassion and mercy, especially the Gospel of Luke which we use on many Sundays. The people of God also have to be reconciled to the outcasts, sinners, refugees, undesirables—and this is very difficult for most without the help of God’s word and the strength of the sacraments.
“And the actions of compassion and mercy can be fine humanitarian acts, as they are indeed for many, but for the people of God, they are divine acts in fidelity to the very mission of God for his most beloved vulnerable persons; we can announce this in our liturgical actions.”
The faithful that Father Michael serve through the liturgy include many international workers, and while there are many languages to contend with, he says, all understand the basic language of the liturgy.
“In Jordan, we have the honor of serving a large English-language population,” he says. “Many others are workers from Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, who take humble jobs in Jordan because they need to support their families back home. There are diplomats also, and some management of international companies; there are many NGO workers; there are also ‘internationalized’ Jordanians. These are the people we serve liturgically.
“Our task has been to let the word of God and our Catholic worship learn to widen boundaries of love and care—to our own Iraqi Christians who have fled the Islamic State, to our Muslim brothers and sisters who have fled genocide, racism, violence, hatred. Yes, domestic workers and professionals have hard lives, but our sense of God’s mission among us has been widening to include so many others in our midst who are victims of unvarnished hatred. This is not easy, even for very good people—but the tools of the sacraments and the Gospel can both convince and sustain us in God’s work.”