NEW YORK (CNS) — The motif of God’s mercy is not a minor key but “the ground melody of the Bible and Christian heritage,” according to Passionist Father Donald Senior, president emeritus, chancellor and professor of New Testament studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Yet, there are serious voices in the church today who are uncomfortable with such an emphasis on mercy, he told participants at the New York Catholic Bible Summit June 18.
Father Senior gave the English-language keynote address at the bilingual conference. More than 600 people from four states attended the seventh annual daylong event at the New York Catholic Center. The program celebrated the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization delivered the Spanish-language keynote on mercy as the vocation of the church. Father Senior cited the biblical foundations for the Year of Mercy in his talk on “The Tender Mercy of Our God. “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith,” he said.
“Mercy in the Catholic tradition reveals the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity, characterizes the mission of Jesus as a revelation of God’s mercy, and illumines what should be the fundamental stance of the Christian and the Christian community in its mission to the world,” Father Senior said.
Mercy and forgiveness reflect the true character of the church, amplify the core message of the Scriptures and are the heartbeat of the Gospel. Mercy springs from the love that defines God, who created the universe as an expression of his overflowing love.
God’s lavish mercy as revealed in the mission of Jesus echoes throughout the New Testament, Father Senior said. “We Christians are called to be Christ witnesses to the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin.”
Those in the church who are uncomfortable with the pope’s emphasis on mercy and forgiveness wonder if it betrays the church’s mission to proclaim the truth and to take a prophetic stand against the evils of the world. They question whether the focus implies that God’s grace is cheap and the way to salvation is smooth and easy, he said.
Father Senior said Pope Francis acknowledged the concern as an expression of the classic debate over the relationship of mercy and justice.
“Justice is what is rightly due to each individual and is fundamental for civil society which must be governed by the rule of law,” he said. “While attention to the demands of justice is indispensable, mercy, from the Christian point of view, remains a higher and more important goal.”
“Justice and mercy are two dimensions of a single realty that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. The danger of an exclusive focus on justice without mercy is the seduction of ‘legalism,'” he said.
Mercy is not opposed to justice but expresses God’s way of reaching out to sinners, offering a new chance for conversion and renewal even after the demands of justice or law have been met, Father Senior said. “Even in the face of the essential requirement of repentance on the part of us as sinners, God’s lavish mercy retains the initiative. Repentance is not a bargaining chip nor some sort of admissions requirement,” he said.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston presided at the Bible Summit’s opening liturgy, which was concelebrated by Archbishop Arenas, two other bishops and seven priests.
In his homily, Cardinal O’Malley recounted the story of a young immigrant parishioner who killed his brother in an alcohol-fueled fight over money. Before he faced criminal justice, he fled to Mexico to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, receive the sacrament of reconciliation, and beg forgiveness of his parents in El Salvador. He was deported four times as he tried to return to the United States. When he appeared back in court, a lengthy sentence was imposed, but suspended. “He was a man who knew how much he needed God’s mercy,” the cardinal said.
Mercy is the face of God, but it also must be the face of the church, he said. “Mercy begins with God but he wants us also to be merciful as a father is merciful,” he said.
Pope Francis invites all to be evangelical and teach the Gospel through the “path of beauty, and what is more beautiful in the church than mercy?” Cardinal O’Malley said.
He said the pope recalled a parish secretary in Buenos Aires known as “the tarantula,” as a poor example of the first person a returnee to the faith might meet. “We want to have a spirit of hospitality and love and openness, particularly to those who are suffering,” he said.
The Bible Summit was co-sponsored by the Catechetical Office of the Archdiocese of New York and the American Bible Society. Twelve presenters from the United States, Spain, Central and South America led workshops that explored biblical roots and contemporary applications of mercy.