“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
As promised last month, this is the second of twelve Virtue of the Month articles. This month focuses on the virtue of Mercy. Please feel free to share this information with others. Please try and make it a priority to root your children, yourself, family and friends and others in Mercy. This is for all Catholic Moms everywhere — and other peoples of faith — especially as we live in an increasingly secularized, polarizing society that fails to pay attention to matters that really matter when it comes to creating vibrant marriages, strong families, and raising strong morally responsible children.
Let’s discuss Mercy - the virtue. Pope Francis has raised this virtue to a whole new level of awareness through his preachings and teachings since the beginning of his Papacy. That’s the good news! The bad news is that too many of us are too busy to pay close attention and take it to heart. So its worth taking a second, third and fourth look at Mercy for ourselves. But first a few preliminary points need to be mentioned along with giving you a broad, catechetical definition of Mercy.
All too often, many of us presume that we will be merciful when tits needed. We ordinarily associate mercy with times of great tragedy and/or hardship. But how often is mercy needed in our everyday lives? How do we infuse it our own children on a daily basis? What does being merciful really mean? And when will the merciful be shown mercy? While it is true that one’s true character — virtuous or not — is fully revealed during moments of crisis and/or hardship, our characters are also revealed by the little things we do in life — everyday.
Most children [and adults] know how to play the game called Mercy. While named after a virtue, and defined as a sport that tests various virtues [ Mercy, the game, is a test of opponents’ strength, skill and endurance according to Wikipedia] it really has little to do with the training of any personal virtue — other than forgiveness perhaps! In fact, the game probably does not end well for most of the losers who had their fingers, cheeks, or other body parts bent or twisted in the most painful of ways. These opponents probably found themselves crying out for Mercy several times before the winner actually stopped. This Mercy game is more closely related to bullying, torture or ancient blood sporting events than to athletic events that actually build up strengths, skills and endurance. The very definition of mercy gets lost in this vague reference to it.
What is mercy — the virtue? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is the “compassion in our hearts for another's person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” [http://www.thedivinemercy.org/library/article.php?NID=2214] That is why the game of Mercy opposes virtue; it intentionally inflicts pain with little purpose or compassion. Authentic mercy, on the other hand, is exhibited in two indivisible ways. It is both affective and effective.
Affective mercy is our emotional, heart-felt response of pity for someone’s unjust, severe plight. But it needs to be coupled with action in order to be an authentic virtue. Let me give this example. This past winter, we traveled to Poland and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau Death and Concentration Camps. As we drove to the camps, the tour van played a video of the horrors of the Holocaust at those two sites. I began to feel hot, then sick to my stomach, as we watched the horrors unfold on the screen for young and old alike. Eventually, I had to ask the driver to stop alongside the road because I needed air. After a brief stop, the driver had me switch seats which disabled me from watching more of the video. This was the strongest reaction to other’s misfortunes that I have ever experienced. Perhaps you might attribute it more to motion sickness than to affective mercy and you would probably be right although I was deeply saddened by the injustices of the Nazis against the Jews, Catholic priests, gays, children, the elderly, gypsies, and others portrayed in the video. “St. Thomas writes in the Summa Theologiae that human mercy is grounded in a "defect" in our nature: the defect of human vulnerability to suffering. We feel pity for those who suffer because we too are subject to such miseries.” Thus, our affective sympathy for others arises from our capacity for empathy.
On the other hand, St. Thomas notes: "Those who reckon themselves happy and so powerful that no ill may befall them are not so compassionate" (II-II.30.2). To some extent, however, the intensity of our affective mercy for the plight of another also depends upon how closely we are united to others in friendship (II-II.30.2): The person who loves regards his friend as another self, and so he counts his friend's troubles as his own, and grieves over them as if they were his own. An affective bond, we might say, easily forms between friends, and this renders good friends all the more capable of sympathy for each other's plight.” [Same source as previously listed] However, affective mercy needs to be coupled with its sister — effective mercy — for it to be authentic.
Effective mercy is our response to other’s miseries. It involves doing something for the good of the person who is suffering misfortune, misery, and or injustice — for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. So, while I was experiencing an emotional response to the misery of the Jews, etc, there was little I did after the fact. And who knows what I would have actually done had I lived in Poland between 1942-1945. Therefore, mercy — the virtue — was not fully in play as I traveled along the roads to Auschwitz. “If we merely sympathize" with the plight of another and "share their pain" without making the best of the opportunities we have to help them, then the virtue of mercy does not abide in us in any significant degree.”
St. Thomas taught also “when we consider which of the virtues should govern our relationships with other human beings, then it is clear that mercy directed to our neighbors in need is the supreme virtue in man.” (II-II.30.4). "Since man has God above him, charity which unites him to God is greater than mercy which relieves the wants of others" (for God is not in need of our mercy)(II-II.30.4). But for all intents and purposes, mercy is the greatest of all human virtues. And so it is worth aspiring to be merciful, to desire its infusion in our children and to work for it!
So often, we think our mercy need only extend to those who are poor or sick. But is that what St. Thomas implied in his thesis? I don’t think; in part, because many people suffer from many more ‘human griefs’ than just poverty or illness. What about the grief experienced by the little ones who are torn apart in their mother’s wombs on a daily basis? What about the mothers who are forced to have an abortion due to threat of abandonment by parents or partners? We will probably never understand their grief after the fact of losing their unborn child and more than likely their partner. What about the child with special needs who is made fun of in school and in the public eye. Imagine their grief when they hear that abortion helps create a ‘disabilities free society’. What about the child having difficulty fitting in? Or the bully who is acting out emotional wounds suffered at the hands of other bullies in his / her life. What about the persons driven by their personal addictions and/or loneliness? What about the morally and psychologically wounded persons who destroy others because of their illnesses? Are we even trying to be sympathetic? What about the orphaned children? What about the perpetrators of violence? What about our neighbors who constantly irritate us? Or that mother in law or the aging Grandma in the nursing home?
I think these questions help to explain why Pope Francis pounds on this theme day in and day out. It seems people have largely lost the sense of what authentic mercy looks and feels like. Especially as we hold onto a “reductively materialistic notion of poverty. This puts us in danger of forgetting that there are people who are poor in other ways than merely economical. There are other little ones than the workers. There are those who are morally or psychologically weak. There are those who are poor in gifts, in appeal, in love. In addition to the oppressed classes are those who are unclassifiable.” [Servant of God Madeleine Delbrel, Magnificat, November 4, 2016. 69.]
How do you see people — as classes within a larger society? Are all peoples — regardless of class or ethnicity — your neighbors to be considerate of? How do we even refer to people today? We set them apart within classifications such as young, old, fat, pretty, smart, deplorable, not so smart, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc. How do these classifications attend to the putting on of the virtue of mercy? What are we teaching our children about Mercy?
While we can’t change the world, we can change our own perspectives and hearts. Let’s begin to evangelize to our children, our friends, and neighbors that Christ loves all of us — equally! He alone is the impartial judge who knows our hearts and thoughts. Let’s pray for the virtue of mercy — because it is the most important human virtue to put on — and because we are assured that in turn we will receive mercy from the King of Kings when it counts the most.
Let’s take to heart this exhortation from Archbishop Gomez who understands that as goes our understanding of the human person so will go our mercy. “We are becoming a society with no mercy; and, again, it is because we no longer see the sanctity and the great dignity of the human person. If we want America to be greater, then we need men and women like you and me who are committed to serving God and living their faith in every aspect of their lives. If we want to live in a society that promotes virtue and justice and human dignity — if we want leaders who reflect these values — then we need to become leaders and role models in our society. We are here: to follow Jesus Christ and to become more and more like him, through the grace of sacraments and through our desire for holiness. This is the beautiful truth about who we are as children of God.” [National Catholic Register. October 16, 2016. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/archbishop-gomez-if-we-want-a-greater-america-we-need-to-become-greater-sai]
Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs. Blessed are the parents who by the grace of God, yearn to become greater saints. Blessed are the children who by the grace of God, yearn to become greater saints. Blessed are all of us, who the grace of God, put on the virtue of Mercy for one day mercy shall be ours.