By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 6, 2009)
The following is part 9 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups this coming Lent who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
Have you ever had the experience of seeing someone you love suffering? You probably sought to look for some way, any way possible, to help. The help we offer is often an expression of our compassion — what the Church calls "merciful love." Merciful, compassionate love often springs from the very depths of our hearts. It moves us to tears and even to heroic acts of service for the needs of others.
It may sound awkward to you at first to call it "merciful" love. After all, the word "mercy" in modern English tends to have a very restricted meaning. Generally we only use it to describe a plea for pardon, as when a convicted criminal "throws himself on the mercy of the court." However, in the Catholic Tradition the word has always had a much wider meaning. When we sing at Mass "Lord, have mercy ... Christ have mercy," we are asking for more than just pardon for our sins. We are asking for the complete outpouring of His compassionate love upon the world. St. Thomas Aquinas defined "mercy" (Latin: misericordia) as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion that drives us to do what we can to help him" (Summa Theologiae II-II.30.1).
Just as merciful love is the compassionate love that springs from the depths of our hearts, so it is the kind of love that springs from the depths of the Heart of Jesus.
What do we mean by His "Heart"?
The "heart" is a symbol of the center of the human spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: "The spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depth of one's being, where the person decides for or against God" (368). The "heart," therefore, is the symbol of the deepest mystery of the human person, the center and source of our deepest thoughts, intentions, and desires. We commonly ask of a person, "What makes him or her 'tick' "? In most cases, it is a person's "heart" that makes him or her "tick," that drives them to do what they do.
We all know some people who are "cold-hearted." The Bible says such people have "hearts of stone." Ever since the 17th century, however, and the extraordinary revelations given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Catholic tradition has depicted the Heart of Jesus as surmounted by a cross and encircled by a crown of thorns — symbols of His sufferings for us. Such depictions also include fire — a symbol of His Holy Spirit. The symbolism suggests that this heart, the Heart of the Son of God, is filled with infinite, generous, and tender love for the whole human race. That is why He said to St. Faustina:
My daughter, look into my merciful Heart, and reflect its compassion in your own heart and in your deeds, so that you who proclaim My mercy to the world may yourself be aflame with it (Diary of St. Faustina, 742).
If the compassion of the Heart of our Lord is really dwelling in our hearts, filling us to overflowing with His Holy Spirit, then we will not be able to keep that merciful love bottled up within ourselves for very long. Indeed, we will not want to! Transformed by His mercy within, we will naturally want to let it flow out of our compassionate hearts toward everyone in need whom we meet along life's pathway. As Jesus once said to St. Faustina:
Tell [all people], my daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself. When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls (Diary, 1074)
Jesus Christ sees the needs, sufferings, and sorrows of every heart, and He carries them all in His own compassionate Heart. But in order to reach out and help them, He asks the members of His Body on earth — the Church — to be His hands, His feet, and His voice. As He said to St. Faustina:
I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first — by deed, the second — by word, the third — by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for me (Diary, 742).
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus tells us that whenever we show compassionate love toward our neighbors in need, we are simultaneously showing "mercy" to the Heart of Jesus Himself. His Heart is so closely bound to the poor and the suffering by tender compassion for their plight — whether that suffering is physical, emotional, social, or spiritual — that acts of caring love directed toward them are actually received as consolation by Him as well:
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you clothed me; sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me. ... Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Mt 25: 34-40)
Pope John Paul II commented on this very same Scripture passage in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) An "encyclical" is a letter that the Pope sends out so that it may be circulated and read all around the world. He reminds us that each one of us has the astounding privilege and special vocation to show mercy to the Heart of Jesus our Savior through the merciful love we show to one another. He wrote:
He is the One who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man, without restricting his freedom, but instead seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of Man, but also a kind of "mercy" shown by each one of us to the Son of the Eternal Father (no. 8).
Saint Faustina once had the truth of this teaching brought home to her in a most striking and supernatural way. She had been assigned to be, for a time, the "portress" of her convent: the one who regularly answers the door. Often, poor people would come to the convent door to beg for food. One cold and rainy day, a young man, barefoot and dressed in tattered clothing, came to the door and asked for her help. Sister Faustina went to the kitchen but saw nothing there for him at first. Finally, she found some soup, which she heated up and to which she added some crumbled bread. After the young man ate the soup, He revealed to her His true identity. He was the Son of God Himself! Then He vanished from her sight, and she heard these words in her soul:
My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached My ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from My throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy (Diary, 1312).
The Heart of Jesus, therefore, is not only the source of the merciful love that fills us. It is also the Receiver of all our acts of merciful love, just as if they were done directly to Him. When He calls us to serve Him by works of love in the world, therefore, He is not asking us to do something in addition to the loving, personal relationship we have with Him, but something that is an inseparable part of our personal relationship with Him. For He is "in" our neighbors in need just as, in another way, He is "in" the Blessed Sacrament. There is simply no way of drawing near to Him that does not also include drawing closer to others, too. In other words, the "vertical" and "horizontal" dimensions of our spiritual lives must never be separated from each other. Surely that is one reason why the symbol of faith in Jesus Christ has historically been the sign of the Cross.
1. Talk about times in your life when you have been in need of some kind and then have experienced someone's "merciful love" for you.
2. When Jesus told St. Faustina to practice "mercy" in three ways toward her neighbors, why do you think He prioritized them in the way that he did?
3. Read all of Matthew 25:31-45. Why are the "goats" excluded from the heavenly kingdom? What does this tell us about the kind of sins that really separate us from God?
A Prayer (based on a prayer of Carmela Negri Carabelli)
Merciful Heart of Jesus,
we believe in You and we trust in You;
come to the aid of our weakness and our incapacity.
Grant that we may be able to make You known and loved by all,
and that, confident in the immense ocean of Your mercy,
we may be able to combat the evil which is in ourselves and all the world,
for Your glory and for our salvation;
Lord Jesus, we ask this in Your name. Amen.
A Hymn (by BishopW. Walsham How, 1872)
It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God's own Son should come from heaven,
And die to save a child like me.
And yet I know that it is true:
He came to this poor world below,
And wept and toiled and mourned and died,
Only because He loved us so.
I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak, so full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.
I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.
But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which like a fire,
Is always burning in His Heart. ...
And yet I want to love Thee, Lord:
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.
Read Part 10: The Corporal Works of Mercy.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).