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Reflections on Mercy

The first time I went to Africa, I was stationed at a mission hospital on the shores of Lake Victoria in a remote area of Kenya. We were driving along a dusty road one day when we encountered a woman literally lying on the side of the road, in obvious pain; she was dying of AIDS. We put her in our car and took her back to the hospital for attention, where she found relative comfort before dying the next day.

It’s not every day that you are directly confronted with circumstances so reminiscent of a Gospel parable. But that isolated, if clear-cut experience has, more than anything, sharpened my awareness of how we often fail to be merciful in cases that are far less obvious – or more personal and, therefore, more difficult.

Several years later I met a young South African woman staying on the grounds of a Catholic parish where we had just finished healthcare training for nurses. After our last dinner, she astounded me by revealing her own personal wounds. Her father had abandoned her when she was two-years-old. She would see him when she went back to her home village from time to time, but it only fueled her resentment. She wanted to be a nun, and had begun the formation process, but had been unable to advance because of the bitterness she harbored. What she wanted to know more than anything was: how could she rid herself of the anger she felt so deeply?

Any counsel simply to “let it go” would run the risk of sounding Pollyannaish. But I happened to have with me a small booklet on the message of Divine Mercy, of which she had been unaware. There is no getting around the fact that Jesus’ truly extravagant promises of mercy (as revealed to St. Faustina) are matched by His insistence that: “You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to absolve yourself from it.”

Impossible as that seems to put into practice, she resolved that the next time she went home, she would approach her father and preemptively forgive him. Several months later I received a letter from her: she actually did it – and in so doing found a tremendous sense of peace and happiness.

We can scarcely imagine the thought of showing mercy to others when we have been grievously injured. But when we have done serious wrong, we can also find that God’s offer of mercy sounds too good to be true. In fact, Jesus himself describes the mercy He wishes to grant us as “inconceivable.” By observing the Feast of Divine Mercy, Jesus promises “complete forgiveness of sins and punishment.” He says: “Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet.”

These are consoling words, particularly for those who are well aware of their faults (like David writing in Psalm 51: “my sin is always before me”) and saddled by the things they have done and can’t get back. But fully accepting Jesus’ magnanimous overture can also be more difficult than it seems. For whatever reason, we have a curious tendency to resist it or even doubt that it can be so.

A key question then becomes: how should we respond once we have rightly accused ourselves? The renowned anthropologist Rene Girard (in his books The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) explores the phenomenon of accusation in tandem with a rich and fascinating explication of the term Paraclete. Some might recognize it as one of several appellations for the Holy Spirit, like the Comforter, and perhaps assume that they are all interchangeable.

But Girard argues that the most precise meaning of Paraclete in the original Greek is a “defender of the accused,” akin to a defense attorney in a court of law. The lawyerly language becomes more illuminating when we discover that the word Satan referred, in the original Hebrew, to an “accuser before a tribunal.” (Diabolos in Greek has the same connotation). In other words, Satan plays the role of the prosecuting attorney, against whom the Paraclete (first Jesus while he was on earth and then the Holy Spirit) takes up our defense.

This of course is not to say we have no guilt, no need of redemption – quite the opposite. The Paraclete at once makes us aware of our faults, in order to spur conversion, and acts as our greatest Advocate. Dwelling on our own faults – even grave ones – cannot be the end of the story (even if recognizing them is a necessary beginning). That would be to listen too much to the Accuser and not enough to our Advocate.

Without trust in Jesus to redeem us, we stand perpetually accused and unconverted, in a no man’s land of despair. Jesus tells St. Faustina quite plainly: “Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.” Girard’s words also seem especially timely for the feast of the Divine Mercy this Sunday: “the time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough.”

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.