In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave us "a mandate" to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
They Speak the Same Language: Mercy
By David Came (Apr 30, 2013)
In marking the papal transition from Benedict XVI to Francis, many bloggers and columnists have commented on the contrast in style from the more reserved and dignified tone of Benedict's papacy to Francis's more informal and spontaneous approach. But what many of them haven't noticed enough is the continuity from Benedict to Francis on matters of faith, such as the imperative of proclaiming God's mercy, which is the heart of the Gospel.
With Francis, you could even make the case that Divine Mercy has already emerged as a major theme of his papacy, based on his frequent references to mercy in his speeches, homilies, and messages during his first several weeks as Pope. What's particularly revealing is the way Pope Francis focuses on the "merciful Father" (his title for the parable of the Prodigal Son), speaks of God's "merciful patience and tenderness" toward us, and encourages us to experience God's mercy by turning from our sin and brokenness and placing our trust in Jesus.
Gift of 'True Peace'
On March 17, in his first Sunday homily as Pope, Francis emphasized that "the Lord's most powerful message" is "mercy." Then, in his first Divine Mercy Sunday (Regina Caeli) message on April 7, the new Pope said that the Risen Christ's gift of "true peace ... comes from the experience of God's mercy." He developed this theme further in his homily for Divine Mercy Sunday at St. John Lateran when he pointed out how the apostle Thomas, the apostle Peter, and the disciples on the way to Emmaus all had life-changing experiences of Divine Mercy through their personal encounters with Jesus.
Pope Francis also chose in his homily for Divine Mercy Sunday to reflect on "the parable of the merciful Father," saying:
I am always struck when I reread the parable of the merciful Father; it impresses me because it always gives me great hope. ... The Father, with patience, love, hope, and mercy, had never for a second stopped thinking about [the younger son who has left him and squandered his inheritance], and as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God. ... God is always waiting for us, He never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence, hope — always!
These strong statements on God's mercy by Pope Francis are reminiscent of those by Pope Benedict, who said on his first Divine Mercy Sunday as Pontiff in 2006, "Divine Mercy is not a secondary devotion but an integral dimension of faith and prayer." Pope Benedict then went so far as to say on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2008, "Indeed, mercy is the central nucleus of the Gospel message."
Pope's Mercy Witness
Like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Francis's proclamation of God's mercy is backed by his strong personal witness of mercy toward those in greatest need. For instance, he personally greets the sick and disabled before he celebrates Mass or gives a speech. He even got off the Popemobile in St. Peter's Square before his installation Mass on March 19 to greet and kiss a disabled man.
On Holy Thursday, March 28, instead of washing the feet of priests in a Roman basilica as is typical, he chose to wash the feet of inmates at a youth detention center. The world later learned he had washed the feet of recovering drug addicts on Holy Thursday in 2008 when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The new Pope's commitment to Divine Mercy is summed up in his papal motto, which he used while he was Archbishop in Buenos Aires: "Miserando atque eligendo." The Latin motto means: "Having had mercy, He [Christ] called him." According to a March 18 report of Catholic News Service, the motto was inspired by St. Bede the Venerable's commentary on Matthew's Gospel. The particular passage that spoke to Pope Francis was where Jesus on seeing Matthew the tax collector, looked on him with love and said, "Follow Me" (Mt 9:9).
Interestingly, the motto has its roots in Francis's vocation to the Jesuits and can be viewed as his own personal experience of God's mercy in his youth. As Catholic News Service reported, "On the feast of St. Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio experienced at the age of 17 ... the loving presence of God in his life. Following a confession, his heart was touched and [he] felt the descent of the mercy of God, that with eyes of tender love, he was being called to the religious life, after the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola."
Pope Benedict's Legacy
It's fascinating that Pope Francis's personal experience of Divine Mercy in finding his vocation as a Jesuit has a poignant parallel to Benedict's experience of God's mercy on assuming the papacy. This becomes clear when we consider that on April 20, 2005, the day after his election, Benedict said in his first papal message:
Dear friends ... deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of it all. And I consider it a special grace which my venerable predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me.
Spurred on by this "gift of Divine Mercy," Pope Benedict XVI, who is now our Pope Emeritus, achieved milestones for Divine Mercy. Among them, he continued John Paul II's tradition of giving a message on God's mercy each year on Divine Mercy Sunday. He established World Apostolic Congresses on Mercy in the Church, celebrating the opening Mass for the first World Congress in Rome in 2008 and giving the participants his Divine Mercy "mandate" after its conclusion. Further, he beatified Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011, Divine Mercy Sunday, noting that the date was "very significant" since John Paul II had died on the vigil of the feast day and had established it as a universal feast day.
In all these ways and many more, we might even consider Benedict XVI as the guarantor of John Paul II's rich legacy of Divine Mercy. To learn more, read Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.
May Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy "mandate" inspire you —as it did the
participants at the first World Mercy Congress — to "go forth and be witnesses
of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world." By living the mandate, you will be honoring Benedict's own legacy as a Pope of mercy.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. He is the author of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.