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."
Photo: Marie Romagnano
Divine Mercy devotees gather in St. Peter's Square on the eve of the opening last year of the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy.
By David Came (Apr 6, 2009)
To mark the first anniversary of the conclusion of the five-day World Apostolic Congress on Mercy on April 6, the following is an excerpt from David Came's new book Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate (Marian Press).
In our chapters, we've considered various ways that we can fulfill Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy mandate of going forth as "witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world." But what is most essential in our living the mandate? That is the question that we'll address in this chapter.
We can start by taking a deeper look at the context for the mandate at the first World Apostolic Congress on Mercy (W.A.C.O.M.).
Accenting Divine Mercy
First, for Pope Benedict, Divine Mercy is writ large in both his mandate and remarks on the Congress. Our witness to mercy must start with God and the mercy He provides.
It's telling that Pope Benedict, in all three of his statements about W.A.C.O.M., used "Divine Mercy" in the title. He didn't use the name "World Apostolic Congress on Mercy" — the official title that the organizers developed to emphasize both the divine and human dimensions of mercy. In his Regina Caeli message on Divine Mercy Sunday, March 30, 2008, he referred to the Congress as the "first World Apostolic Congress on Divine Mercy." Then, during his homily at the opening Mass, he rendered the title "first World Congress on Divine Mercy." Finally, right before he gave his mandate on April 6 at the conclusion of the Congress, he put it this way in his Regina Caeli message: "Yes, dear friends, the first World Congress on Divine Mercy ended this morning with the Eucharistic Celebration in St. Peter's Basilica."
Further, notice that this use of Divine Mercy in the name of the Congress perfectly complements the wording for Pope Benedict's mandate. He tells us to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy," not our own human mercy. After all, with the mandate, it is God's mercy and not our own, which is "a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
Here, Pope Benedict is not simply splitting hairs. He is clearly placing the emphasis on God's mercy toward us in our need, as the starting point. And it makes perfect sense since Benedict has always placed mercy — God's mercy — right at the heart of the paschal mystery, as we saw in chapter two. God in His mercy has taken the initiative in saving us through Christ. Our task is to trust in His mercy and be merciful to others ourselves.
This does not belittle human mercy at all. Remember Benedict's insightful image of the Good Samaritan being "struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy." Our mercy toward those in need is imperative, but it needs to flow from God's mercy and grace toward us to have staying power in our lives.
Cardinal Schönborn's Mandate
Along with this accent on Divine Mercy, it's helpful to realize another mandate was given on April 6, and it complements that of Pope Benedict.
The mandate was delivered by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who presented the idea for the Congress to Benedict in 2006. Now, on April 6, 2008, as president of the Congress, he was celebrating its closing Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
First, let's hear Cardinal Schönborn's mandate. Then we will compare it to that of Pope Benedict.
"We are now departing after the blessed days of this Congress," he said in his homily, "and we are putting ourselves on the road with burning hearts to be everywhere and always with the Lord as witnesses of His immeasurable mercy." These words are the essence of the Cardinal's mandate.
He is referring to the Gospel for that Sunday, which is the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35. They are feeling dejected and disheartened after the crucifixion, until they meet Christ on the road. Then He opens their hearts to understand the Scriptures about the Messiah and how He had to suffer and die to enter into His glory.
The Lord begins to reignite their faith. They see He is in need of food and shelter. Through breaking bread with Him, they recognize He is the Risen Lord and make haste to spread the Good News, saying, "Were not our hearts burning [within us] while He spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" (Lk 24:32).
"What an example for us, to prepare for our encounter with Christ through our hospitality," Cardinal Schönborn said, alluding to the disciples' hospitality toward Christ and their encounter with Him in Word and Sacrament.
"'Be merciful as your Father is merciful.' How many times in living and performing simple works of mercy have we been able to experience the closeness of the Lord.
"The history of the success of Christianity is not a story of military triumphs or political triumphs," he continued. "It is rather the triumph of living mercy. Only in this way can you become convinced. The words can be beautiful, but in the end they are only words. But the acts of mercy, instead, are indisputable."
Now, let's compare the Cardinal's mandate with Pope Benedict's. First, note that just as Benedict called the participants to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy," so the Cardinal, in alluding to the Gospel account from Luke, calls them to put themselves "on the road with burning hearts to be everywhere and always with the Lord as witnesses of His immeasurable mercy."
As with Pope Benedict, the accent is clearly on being witnesses of God's mercy: in the Cardinal's words, witnesses of "His immeasurable mercy." But there is an added note of urgency to Cardinal Schönborn's words with the image of being "on the road with burning hearts." You get the sense, as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, of being impelled to give witness because of a life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ. So, too, recall how Pope Benedict challenged the youth of Poland and Germany as special witnesses of God's mercy to a personal encounter with Christ, as we saw in chapter seven.
Second, Cardinal Schönborn's mandate emphasizes performing works of mercy that flow from our experience of being close to the Lord. He describes such works of mercy as "the triumph of living mercy" that gives our witness credibility. Words are not enough.We've seen Benedict make the same kind of points about works of mercy in his reflections on the parable of the Good Samaritan in his book Jesus of Nazareth and in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). In his teaching, words are also not enough.
So, what has this comparison gotten us? It has given a richness and a sharper focus to our discussion of Pope Benedict's mandate. We go forward in our witness to God's mercy with great zeal precisely because of a life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ. And our words are not enough. No, we are called to "the triumph of living mercy" by being merciful, because the Lord is so close to us in His great mercy.
The Pope and Cardinal after the Mandate
It's encouraging to report that after Pope Benedict delivered his own mandate on April 6, 2008, he had lunch with Cardinal Schönborn. Speaking to W.A.C.O.M. organizers later in a wrapup session, the Cardinal said of the luncheon, "The Pope wanted to know all about the Congress." The Cardinal said he told the Pope that the Congress had been a great success, citing the presence of thousands of people from throughout the world who traveled to Rome despite great difficulties.
The Cardinal quoted the Pope as saying, "It is impressive to see Divine Mercy spreading throughout the world." He said Pope Benedict asked him to convey his personal thanks and blessing to all who were involved. This account is drawn from the Summer 2008 issue of Marian Helper magazine, and it confirms the Pope's continuing interest in W.A.C.O.M. and the fulfillment of his own mandate.
'The Triumph of Living Mercy'
With this background in mind, then, what is most essential to our living Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate? We might sum it up as receiving the gift of Divine Mercy ourselves and then being merciful to others as "the triumph of living mercy" — to use Cardinal Schönborn's memorable expression. It's all about a lifechanging encounter with the Risen Christ and then putting mercy into action ourselves by becoming men and women of mercy. Our witness is that simple and that profound.
Pope Benedict himself has shown us the way. As we've seen, he opened his heart to receive "a gift of Divine Mercy" at his election — through the intercession of John Paul II. At his 80th birthday, he also spoke of having received "a great gift of Divine Mercy" at his birth and Baptism. Clearly, he is close to Christ because he has had a profound experience of God's mercy in his own life.
This is precisely why he is able to be such a man of mercy and a Pope of mercy in fulfilling his Petrine ministry. He is a witness to "the triumph of living mercy." Consider, for example, how the media captured this dimension of Pope Benedict's ministry in their reporting on World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. As the well-respected German journalist Peter Seewald comments in his book Pope Benedict XVI: Servant of the Truth:
The World Youth Day gave great prominence above all to the humility of those who took part — and to the charism of the Holy Father. The Italian press commented: Now we are seeing a Pope who speaks of a loving and merciful God and of the Church as a "place of tenderness" (Ignatius Press, 2006, p. 168).
Here, remember how Pope Benedict invited the youth to draw near to the Eucharistic Christ present in the "Tabernacle of Mercy." He also encouraged them to be men and women of mercy like the Magi, who had had their own life-changing encounter with Christ, the newborn King.
Further, the editors of the National Catholic Register wrote in the editorial for their April 15, 2007, edition, which marked Divine Mercy Sunday that year:
"God's passionate love for his people — for humanity — is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice."
This is a startling, radical statement about Divine Mercy — the kind of declaration that one might expect to be attributed to Pope John Paul II. But it was Pope Benedict XVI who wrote it in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
Seven years after Pope John Paul II first announced the creation of Mercy Sunday, many priests are still wary of the feast. Why do they hold back? There is a certain assumption that the Divine Mercy is a private devotion to a particular Polish man who happened to also be Pope, but that it is not for everyone.
Reading Pope Benedict's words about Divine Mercy should dispel that notion. Rather than attributing the popularity of the Divine Mercy devotion to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict seems more likely to attribute the greatness of Pope John Paul II to his devotion to Divine Mercy.
What a welcome surprise! A national Catholic newsweekly in the U.S. was noticing that Pope Benedict was himself a Pope of mercy. The editors were also pointing out how Benedict is saying that John Paul II's greatness stemmed from "his devotion to Divine Mercy." This insight is reminiscent of Pope Benedict's comment in an interview for Polish television in 2005 that John Paul II "created a new awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy" as one of his main legacies. (We covered this in chapter one.)
It's interesting that while the National Catholic Register on April 15, 2007, and the Italian press at World Youth Day 2005 got it right in covering Pope Benedict, elsewhere the media point to the same reality in the Pope but don't call it "mercy." Seewald himself puts it this way in Pope Benedict XVI: Servant of the Truth: "[Benedict] surprises people by simply being himself: cheerful, warm, and humble" (p. 132).
In his booklet 10 Things Pope Benedict Wants You to Know, Vatican correspondent John L. Allen, Jr., devotes an entire chapter to Benedict's extraordinary example of patience in a "microwave world." He also describes Benedict as
"exceedingly humble and gentle" (Liguori Press, 2007, p. 44).
Whatever words we use to describe it, mercy is at the heart of Pope Benedict's appeal. His warmth, patience, humility, and gentleness reveal him to be a man of mercy, a Pope of mercy, who is encouraging us to embrace "the triumph of living mercy."
This was certainly my experience when I attended Pope Benedict's Mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20, 2008, which came at the end of his pastoral visit to the U.S. It wasn't so much anything he said but who he showed himself to be by both his words and actions. I was moved by his warm, gentle, and humble demeanor in celebrating Mass. As he spoke, he put the merciful Christ forward and not himself. He was clearly an example of living mercy in our midst.
The Lesson for the Rest of Us
Now comes the hard part. This means our witness to God's mercy must have integrity if it is to be credible to the world. We must live mercifully every day and allow God's mercy to transform us into men and women of mercy. Then our world itself will, in turn, become transformed by "the triumph of living mercy."
It isn't enough to attend a World Mercy Congress or help organize a Divine Mercy Sunday celebration in our area. The Lord Jesus is calling us to a witness of mercy the Monday morning after and throughout the rest of our lives.
For me, it isn't enough to edit a magazine and books on Divine Mercy and now to write this book. I am called to be merciful every day with my wife and children — whether it's convenient or inconvenient. Even when I am on deadline at work for an important project and can tend to get "tunnel vision," I am called to see the needs of my co-workers, showing them mercy.
While this is challenging, Benedict has given us a program of mercy that can help us in pursuing this goal:
• We have each received a gift of Divine Mercy through our Baptism. The spiritual reality is that God in His great mercy has saved us through the Passion, death, and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, God's mercy is at the heart of the Gospel and our sacramental life as Catholics.
• Growing daily in trust in God is our foundational response to His great mercy toward us. It is our love, hope, and faith put into action.
• We are called to cultivate a trustworthy hope in God's mercy. Thus, we can go forth in great confidence as "witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
• God's mercy is intended for all sinners. It is not our place to judge the souls of particular sinners. We are called to plead God's mercy for them, praying that they would receive the grace of repentance.
• Like the heart of the Good Samaritan, our hearts should be disposed toward serving our neighbor in need. Such a disposition of the heart is best fostered by a prayerful and sacramental life.
• Whenever we are sick or suffer for any reason, we are called to trust in God's mercy and join our sufferings to those of Christ on the Cross. We should encourage the sick and suffering in our midst to do likewise.
• We are encouraged to pray for God's mercy for the dying and for the faithful departed. Such prayer is a powerful spiritual work of mercy for our brothers and sisters in need. While prayer for the dead isn't covered in any of our chapters, consider these words of Pope Benedict in his Angelus message for the commemoration of All Souls on November 2, 2008: "Our lives are profoundly linked, one to the other, and the good and bad that each of us does always effects others too. Hence, the prayer of a pilgrim soul in the world can help another soul that is being purified after death. This is why the Church invites us to pray today for our beloved deceased and to pause at their tombs in the cemeteries." Prayer for the souls of the dead who may be undergoing purification in purgatory —especially offering the holy Sacrifice of the Mass for them — is particularly appropriate on All Souls Day and throughout the Church's monthlong November remembrance for the faithful departed. In the case of the dying, many of the faithful pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy at the bedside of the dying person. Jesus told St. Faustina that this is one of the best means of assisting the dying (see Diary of St. Faustina, 811 and 1541).
• Our youth are invited to an encounter with the merciful Christ in and through the Church. As they receive mercy from Christ, they are called to go forth into the world as young men and women of mercy. We should encourage them in this call.
• Our witness to God's mercy can be more effective if we focus our energy upon a particular initiative or project. Praying and trusting in the Lord will be important in pursuing such an initiative.
Working off this list, begin today to strive for "the triumph of living mercy." Go back and review particular chapters if it will help.
Remember that it all starts with us receiving God's mercy and then being merciful to others every day. Keep that as your baseline. As you do, keep your eyes on Pope Benedict. He is showing us the way, a way of mercy. It's his mandate, after all.
Learn about plans for the upcoming North American Congress on Mercy
You may order a copy of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate online.