The mercy of God is a clear theme in the recent talks and past writings of Pope Francis. Yesterday's Gospel about the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11) gave me the opportunity to preach about mercy at the closing Mass of my retreat with 60 men at the Jesuit retreat house in St. Louis. I was able to include some striking comments by Pope Francis on this topic.
In the Gospel we have a typical scene from the life of Jesus: a crowd gathers around Jesus who teaches them. The Pharisees and scribes--Jesus' enemies--appear, thinking they will be able to trap Jesus by asking him whether they should follow the law of Moses and stone the woman they have caught "in the very act of committing adultery." They, like so many others, use her as an object for their own ends. If Jesus agrees that she should be stoned, the crowd of sinners who have followed him will reject him. If Jesus disagrees, he will prove himself "soft on sin."
Jesus cuts through these two options by proposing that the one present who is without sin should throw the first stone. "One by one" they leave, "beginning with the elders." Jesus is the only one there who is without sin. He is the only one who could stone her, but he doesn't. He chooses mercy, not condemnation because, as John writes in another place: "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (3: 17).
Speaking about the mercy of God in 2001, Pope Francis said:
"Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. ...I dare say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.
"In front of this merciful embrace ... we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises. ... Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds.... No. Christian morality is simply a response.
"It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, 'unjust' mercy.... The surprising, unforeseeable, 'unjust' mercy, using purely human criteria, of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a 'never falling down' but an 'always getting up again.'"
In these words Pope Francis follows a theme that was important to both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI: Christianity is not so much a set of doctrines or an ethical system as it is an encounter. Once we have encountered the Person of Jesus and his love, we are moved to respond. Our response is to follow the way of Jesus, to love and to forgive as we are loved and forgiven. As the 5th Century Greek bishop Diadochus said, the measure of our love for God depends upon how deeply aware we are of God's love for us. To live a Christian life, to follow Jesus, to forgive as he forgives, depends upon becoming more and more aware of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. The mercy of God and our mercy are "unjust" in that they do not give people what they deserve, but what they need--the tenderness of mercy which alone can soften the sin-hardened heart.