When Pope Francis surveys the world around him—the pandemic, a refugee crisis, leaps in digital technology, racial injustice, democracies in turmoil—his prescription remains steady.
First, as he articulated in Florence in November 2015, is that “today we are not living an epoch of change so much as an epochal change.” That is, the world is in a transitional period, when one era of history is dying and a new one is still coming into being. Second, he says, it’s a time for mercy, in which the church in particular shows a merciful face to a wounded world.
Of course, the wounded world is much easier to see today than any concrete evidence that humanity has entered an epoch primarily characterized by its mercy. The first question one could ask about an Age of Mercy is, “Where the heck is it!?” That’s why it’s good to grapple with what Pope Francis means when he insistently applies this understanding to the signs of the times.
“How do we bring mercy to the world?” is how Sister of Mercy Kelly Williams, a woman religious in her early 30s based in Columbus, Georgia, frames the charism of her community. “How do I bring mercy into my own life? How am I merciful with myself? How would God look at me in this moment?”
Her questions get at a central belief reiterated by Pope Francis: Those who have received mercy are more apt to show it. Carolyn Woo, former director of Catholic Relief Services, says that the pope’s mercy message is about how we are not called to be perfect.
“God actually understands where we are, the battles that we fight, and how we are sometimes not the best versions of ourselves,” Woo says. “What God wants from us is the desire to love better and recognize mercy as God’s gift.”
The ideas the pope has stressed from the very beginning of his pontificate—of seeking God’s mercy, going out to the peripheries, focusing on family life, building human fraternity, and recognizing the interrelatedness of all creation and the need to care for it—ultimately all tie into the church’s understanding of this gift.
In a new Age of Mercy, this could be a vision the church offers the world, whether anyone—even our own people—chooses to listen.
Mercy for the world’s most vulnerable
How to apply God’s gift of mercy is a tricky question, one that Father Paul Hartmann deals with as judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He offers one key guiding question for approaching a situation.
“What needs to be integrated?” he asks. That could relate to habits that have destructive consequences in an individual’s life or the voices that are regularly excluded in the life of the church.
Whatever the circumstance, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis sees mercy and an Age of Mercy emerging from a sore need. “Looking at so many situations in our world today, even in our families, and seeing and experiencing the brokenness that’s there, we see the mercy that is required to bring healing and wholeness,” he says.
In the U.S. context, the question of applying mercy might best be stated as “Where to begin?” People who serve marginalized communities have plenty of ideas for that.
“We all need mercy, but perhaps the most vulnerable in society are the ones who need it the most.”
“The gospel message is so very clear and nonnegotiable: Serve the most vulnerable people,” says Woo.
Edith Avila Olea, an immigrant advocate in the Chicago area, agrees. “We all need mercy, but perhaps the most vulnerable in society are the ones who need it the most,” she says. “What we experienced was the opposite—the most vulnerable people in society were the ones who received the least amount of mercy over the past four years.”
Avila Olea cites access to health care and COVID-19 relief funding as practical areas where struggling immigrant families could receive mercy. But it could just as easily be shown in reuniting migrant families at the border or ending the practice of for-profit prisons and detention centers.
“Perhaps it would just be the ability to live with peace and without fear. Because truly immigrants are not guaranteed tomorrow,” says Avila Olea, herself an immigrant from Mexico who has been honored by the U.S. bishops for her work. “When your future is uncertain day to day, that kind of stress takes a toll on any human.”
Another young advocate for immigrants, Melissa Cedillo, sees the mistreatment of migrants in terms of how the church views power.
“As a Catholic, the last decade of what’s happened in detention centers is hell on Earth,” she says. She notes that Jesus, whom Pope Francis has called the merciful face of God, is “powerful in mercy and the capacity to redeem the world. It’s just so different than the power we associate with the United States.”
Sue Stubbs, who heads the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s victim assistance program, has seen the power of concrete encounters with mercy for people who’ve been harmed by abuse. “That’s really why we’re here: to love each other. We need more of that. Loving is stepping out and sacrifice,” she says.
Stubbs organized a retreat for survivors that has been adopted in other dioceses around the country. She says participants experience mercy in realizing Jesus has always been there with them. “They realize Jesus does know what they’ve been through, and he gets it, maybe on a level that they don’t even know,” she says. Referencing the crucifixion, Stubbs adds, “Catholic teaching is that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He felt it.”
Mercy goes virtual
Another notorious, mercy-free zone in U.S. culture is the internet, where platforms and forums foment alienation and hatred toward the other. For Williams, this translates into yet another mission field.
“I feel called as part of my vocation as a Sister of Mercy to be the loving presence of God wherever I go, including the highways of the internet,” she says. The internet provides many opportunities to respond mercifully or not and, Williams says, “As you live it, you recognize it has to be like your breath. It has to be mercy.”
Marcia Lane-McGee of Catholics United for Black Lives finds herself being more judicious when it comes to mercy.
“I have been begging mercy from people who expect mercy from me for their actions,” she says of her life experience as a Black plus-size daughter of a teenage single mom. “That’s hard. It kind of puts mercy into more of an intentional space where, as Christians, mercy should be a reflex. For me, I have to look at it with intentionality and decide to forgive.”
“The gospel message is so very clear and nonnegotiable: Serve the most vulnerable people.”
The cohost of a podcast and an active Instagram user, Lane-McGee also understands striving to be merciful in digital spaces. “Every single time I post something controversial, I can’t post it if I’m not ready to respond with love,” she says. “My intention every single time is to face people with whom I disagree with love.”
“In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a very heightened political climate, in the midst of racial unrest, if we really want to make progress, the progress comes from being merciful to one another,” says Rozanski, who decries what President Joe Biden referred to as an “uncivil war” in his inaugural address. “So many forces drive us apart from one another. When we don’t have human solidarity, that’s diabolical.”
For how such a situation might be redeemed, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey brings it back to the pope’s teachings and the new era they imply. “We’re interconnected. We can’t run from it. That means our solution is not a modern, individual one,” he says.
Reconciliation and integration
When Pope Francis speaks of a new Age of Mercy, it’s important to remember that historical epochs sometimes aren’t given names until centuries after they’ve ended. So for a church that famously “thinks in centuries,” a new era can be one that’s been emerging for a while.
The most obvious sign might be the emphasis on mercy by multiple popes of the Second Vatican Council era. When Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2015, he explicitly harkened back to the words St. Pope John XXIII used to open the council: that the church today “wishes to use the medicine of mercy” rather than a spirit of severity.
Mercy was also a major theme for St. Pope John Paul II, says Daniel Philpott, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame. Citing the pope’s survival of both Nazism and communism, Philpott says he “had a great sense that the answer to those things was mercy.” Mercy mimics God’s response to evil: the cross and resurrection. Sin and suffering on a large scale provoke grace and mercy on a large scale.
This is evident not only in Vatican II emerging amid the postwar rebuilding of Europe, but also in the tens of countries that Philpott notes have engaged in some form of truth and reconciliation work over the last several decades, whether Australia’s grappling with its treatment of aboriginals, Canada and its residential schools, or, the most extreme but also most fruitful example, the denazification in Germany. These processes, usually the work of an official commission overseeing a national dialogue, draw on tools such as truth telling, repentance, asking for forgiveness, and even restorative justice that takes into account webs of relationships to heal collective wounds. Such a long-term project would seek to promote equality, education, and integration across a society.
“You want there to be some closure—to use a therapeutic term—or an endpoint” where people can move on, says Philpott. Here the ancient concept of a jubilee, with its release of prisoners and forgiveness of debts, comes to mind. He also cites successful examples within the church, including St. Pope John Paul II’s apologies going into the Jubilee Year 2000 or the Jesuits at Georgetown University confronting their slave-owning past.
“Because we’ve allowed [ourselves] to become so indifferent in our hearts and our minds, we’ve numbed ourselves to the pain of others.”
—Edith Avila Olea
“Georgetown did it really well,” Philpott says. “They convened the campus conversation,” which ultimately led to reparations and apology on the part of the university. Another more recent example is what Pope Francis did with 2019’s Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, in which a “group of people and a region that has been marginalized” were at the center of a process “where the whole church has got to be involved.” Through it all, Philpott sees a church with a messy history saying to the world, “Look, this is not irreconcilable.”
“We’re in a really unique moment,” says Cedillo, in reference to how the United States is grappling with racial injustice and the mistreatment of immigrants. “You have to respond to that in some really creative ways.”
The synodal approach, another major priority of Pope Francis, which he has used to engage young people, families, abuse survivors, and entire regions of the world, “is absolutely essential,” says Woo.
“Synodality is really subsidiarity in action. The presence of the people, the influence of the people, a sense of the people who are not there of the possibility of self-determination—it’s the conferral of power where power can be,” she says. “How do you infuse that governance body with people who are in the field?”
Pope Francis addresses this very thing in his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), writing, “Public discussion, if it truly makes room for everyone and does not manipulate or conceal information, is a constant stimulus to a better grasp of the truth, or at least its more effective expression.”
Mercy through diversity
“Our fear of the other can be broken down, and it’s just this kind of engagement,” says Woo, drawing on her experience with Catholic Relief Services of encountering cultures all over the world. That journey, she says, pushes a person “to make that circle as big as possible, who we consider to be us.”
But before people can hear the voice of someone and respond mercifully, they have to be aware of them at all. That’s difficult when polarization and consumerism preoccupy so many.
“Because we’ve allowed [ourselves] to become so indifferent in our hearts and our minds, we’ve numbed ourselves to the pain of others,” says Avila Olea. “I don’t have the answers to what’s going to cause someone to open their hearts or their minds.”
“OK, I gotta start expanding,” Williams recalls saying when she realized she was consuming media only by white authors and artists. “It’s been really beautiful,” she says of opening herself up to different voices in both traditional and social media.
“When we witness mercy between two family members, we start that understanding of what mercy is all about.”
—Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski
Replacing exclusion with encounter is central to the teachings of Pope Francis, whose own motto, “By having mercy, by choosing,” represents an antidote to “throwaway culture.” But this kind of conversion through expanded awareness is a heavier lift for the church.
“In order to make this actually work and get what is needed for the whole church, the universal church, [people] have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Lane-McGee. “Stop choosing people who agree with you.”
Bishop Denis Madden, a retired Baltimore auxiliary bishop whose ministry has included interreligious dialogue and work with the Black community, knows most Catholics would rather not think about uncomfortable issues like systemic racism and police violence. “If we really, really, really insisted that this is what it was to be a Catholic, we would lose a lot of people,” he says.
Families and field hospitals
“When we allow ourselves to truly encounter the other,” says Avila Olea, “we must look beyond that immediate need and at the person as a whole. And I would say, with immigrants, you have to look at the family.”
Immigrants see the basic unit of society as the family, not the individual, a view shared by the Catholic Church. As the church decries radical individualism’s corrosive effect and Pope Francis calls on humanity to recognize we are “brothers and sisters all,” the familial piece sometimes gets construed as merely metaphorical. But with the Vatican’s Year Amoris Laetitia Family (which began March 19), a churchwide reflection on the pope’s 2016 exhortation on family life, family life is once again at the center of the pope’s program of mercy.
Rozanski, who authored a pastoral letter on mercy in his diocese even before the publication of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), says the pope is right to start there. “Certainly it begins in the family. When we witness mercy between two family members, we start that understanding of what mercy is all about,” he says.
Tellingly, key moves that Pope Francis has made under the banner of mercy also intersect with family life: streamlined annulment processes and the expansion of priests’ faculties in confession to lift the penalty for abortion.
Hartmann sees the pope’s simultaneous focus on family life and St. Joseph (a year dedicated to St. Joseph began on December 8 and will continue to run concurrently with the year of family) as deeply intertwined. After all, St. Joseph’s becoming part of the holy family required both conversion and mercy. “He had to adjust his view of the world. He was going to divorce Mary quietly,” Hartmann says.
A shift to a focus on families as part of the Age of Mercy would also be in keeping with the passing from one epoch to another.
“Modernity is focused on individualism. It also defines worth via productivity,” says Rod Stearn, an institutional historian who, in his role overseeing catechesis and religious education for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, has written study guides on some of Pope Francis’ major works.
Sue Stubbs says that Catholics widely assume that wounded people longing for mercy are far away, “But they’re sitting right next to you.”
Stearn cites the influence of Romano Guardini on Pope Francis’ thinking and says, “The end of an age can be a time of anxiety and instability. It’s a time when the old thing is collapsing and the new thing hasn’t found its place yet.”
One example is the expansion of automation and artificial intelligence into new sectors of the economy, which is replacing a variety of human jobs. “Modernity says it is our labor that matters. What happens when the value of our labor is not just exploited but removed?” Stearn asks.
“The church has a role here. It can speak to the dignity of the human regardless of the value of their labor.”
The church is capable of offering insights from 2,000 years of history or practical advice such as the pope’s recent endorsement of universal basic income. But Stearn points to another role that Pope Francis has been advancing from the beginning of his pontificate. “What’s the role of the church in the transition from one age to the next? Field hospital,” he says.
With the foreseeable future offering turmoil, instability, and a constant search for identity and community, Stearn says, “It is our responsibility to recognize human brokenness and be there for them.”
“If you ask me, it’s not very difficult to build that bridge, to be that frontline worker, and to be that field hospital, which we unfortunately now have a picture of,” says Woo. But it will take the humility and vulnerability of being a church that doesn’t presume to know what people are going through and which keeps asking God to draw all of us mercifully closer.
Williams experienced the role of the listening church during her formation, when she held an administrative role at a hospital and became her coworkers’ go-to person for sharing their burdens.
“It was a very powerful experience,” she says. “People just need space to talk and have someone listen.”
Stubbs says that Catholics widely assume that wounded people longing for mercy are far away, “But they’re sitting right next to you.”
“People cry because they can’t stop this obsession, whether it’s drugs or it’s sex or whatever it is,” says Madden, who has ministered in hospitals to victims and perpetrators of violence. Even if we aren’t converted, he notes, we can want to be.
“Trying to have that desire, that’s enough,” he says.
“How God works is a mystery, and how things turn out for an individual is not for my entertainment, my satisfaction, not even what I need to feel the world is in good order,” says Woo. She cites Pope Francis saying early on that we are not gatekeepers. “That’s God’s work,” she adds. “Mercy is a gift of God, to everyone.”
This article also appears in the April 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 4, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.