Mercy is a Person: Reflections on the Papal Bull “Misericordiae Vultus”

Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy may at first glance strike many as a bureaucratic document of little interest to Christians around the world. Reading the text of Misericordiae Vultus, though, makes it clear that this document is anything but unimportant. Francis has given us a beautiful meditation on the meaning, nature, and calling of mercy – the word that best describes the scope, mission, and substance of his pontificate. By proclaiming the Jubilee of Mercy, Francis wants to invite the entire Church into a special time when “the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective,” and his invitation to convert and renew our faith starts from these few precious pages.

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” With these opening words, Francis sets the tone for the entire document and identifies the core of “the mystery of the Christian faith.” When Christians speak of mercy, they are not merely advocating for gentleness, compassion, generosity, and understanding. Mercy certainly entails all of these things, but mercy is first and foremost a description of God’s nature. The call to become merciful (Mt. 5:7) is not simply an invitation to a more non-judgmental way of looking at others and ourselves; it is the invitation to “be merciful as your Father is merciful,” (Lk. 6:36) that is, to participate in the very way in which God loves his creatures.

This is the Christian program of life, one that is “as demanding as it is rich with joy and peace.” What it means to be merciful is not left to our imagination, though. Mercy is not an ideal that we try to reach through our own ethical efforts. Mercy is a “concrete reality through which he [God] reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child.” It is not an abstract idea, for “mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth.” Mercy is a person. To encounter mercy we need to encounter a person, Jesus of Nazareth. We would not know what mercy is, if it were not for the encounter with the forgiving and compassionate glance with which God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. In fact, “with our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.” We can confidently repeat John’s confession that “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8) for this love has been made “visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life.”

Everything in Jesus’ life speaks of mercy. His gestures and his words witness to what mercy is, for “he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need.” It is this glance capable of discerning and meeting the deep yearning of the human heart that makes Christianity as fascinating today as it was at its inception two thousand years ago. God desires our well-being; he wants us to be happy, full of joy, and peaceful. He “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible,” so that we may experience the fullness that comes from the encounter with God’s mercy.

These are but a few of the precious meditations on the mystery of mercy that Francis offers us in this bull. Even such beautiful meditations, though, could be perceived as the description of a lofty idea or of a beautiful aspiration that does not really touch our lives today. How does mercy remain visible and tangible today? What is the concrete reality through which God reveals his love to the men and women of the twenty-first century? It is the Church, Francis tells us, whose primary task “is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy.” As do the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospel, so too the Church’s “language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road to the Father.” Mercy is the foundation of the life of the Church, and the Church’s credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident.” Mercy needs to be present not just as a word, but with the same concreteness that we see in the Gospel. Mercy is not merely refraining from condemning; it is to be generous with others as God has been immensely generous to us. We are called to be instruments of mercy, which means that we have to open our hearts to those living on the outmost fringes of society, overcoming our usual indifference and reaching out to those who are wounded and in need of help. Following Jesus’ steps, we too need to share our meals with sinners, without closing ourselves in our self-referential righteousness. Only in this way, in fact, will the Jubilee not be just another formal event, but an authentic “year of the Lord’s favor.” (Is. 61:2) A moment, that is, in which the entire Christian community will follow Jesus “to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed.”

Touched by God’s presence and closeness to us, we too can show mercy to others. In a time when everything in our culture seems to conspire against faith and authentic human communion, “the preaching of Jesus is made visible once more in the response of faith Christians are called to offer by their witness.” Francis desires for the Jubilee to be a time when, steeped in mercy, Christians may go out to all, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God. By contemplating the face of Christ and listening to the Word of God, the Church is called to be a visible witness of mercy amidst the confusion and suffering of our time. This is the greatest contribution that the Church can give to our broken society: not to have an alternative position on the various issues of the day, but to be an alternative where true justice – that is, mercy – is proclaimed, lived, and pursued.

Misericordiae Vultus is not the work of a bureaucrat. It is the heartfelt invitation to each one of us to rediscover the joy that comes from the encounter with the tenderness of God’s mercy. “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” May we all answer this call cheerfully and promptly.

Alessandro Rovati earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, Italy in 2015. During his graduate work, he studied under the guidance of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, during which time Dr. Rovati combined his extensive philosophical training with theological reflections on the current life of the church amidst contemporary society. He is now working as an Adjunct Faculty in the departments of Theology and Political Philosophy at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.