Why Not a Presidential Year of Mercy?

Pope Francis makes a symbolic gesture by opening a "Holy Door" at Bangui Cathedral in the Central African Republic ahead of the start of a Catholic Jubilee Year, marking forgiveness and reconciliation on November 29, 2015. "Open for us the gate of your mercy," the 78-year-old pope prayed before opening the door. "We ask for peace for Central African Republic and for all people who suffer from war."

By Jim Tonkowich Published on December 1, 2015

The upcoming Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis coincides with our presidential election year. Could there be a connection between mercy and politics?

In the lowest, foulest circle of Hell, frozen immovably in eternal ice, Dante put the most coldblooded sinners, traitors. Among them is a friar, Brother Albergio. Having had a falling out with his family, he invited them to dinner. Then, rather than bringing about reconciliation, he murdered them. Dante hailed him with surprise.

“Oh,” said I, “Are you dead already?”

And he responded, “How my body stands

up in the world above, I do not know.

Such privilege has this realm of Ptolomea [treachery against guests],

that oftentimes the soul drops down to Hell

before the Fates have cut the thread of life.” (Inferno 33.121-125)

Brother Albergio’s soul was already in Hell while his body lived on, “taken by a demon, who controls it until the time arrives for it to die.” Creepy.

When I read that, various national and world leaders popped into my head. People who strike me as robotically performing pre-written sound bites and schemes toward some end they no longer remember, no longer believe in, or that has shriveled to nothing but self-aggrandizement. Soulless, hopeless living dead they seem.

That may say far more about me than I’d like, but by now you’ve come up with a list too. Demonizing and damning leaders we don’t like is, alas, part and parcel of American political culture today on both sides of the aisle.

Yet no one really suffers Brother Albergio’s fate. Those in Hell have put themselves beyond the reach of God’s mercy by fully and finally rejecting it. Those still living may reject God’s mercy and live wickedly, but insofar as they still live, they are not beyond mercy’s reach.

And Christians are God’s ambassadors of mercy (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2).

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith,” begins Pope Francis in Misericordiae Vultus (Looking for Mercy) announcing the Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016).

Why a year to focus on mercy?

First, we Christians need it. “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy,” he writes, “It is the wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. … Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”

Contemplating God’s mercy in light of our sin — both individual and corporate — brings us back to the central themes of our redemption: rebellion and sin, God’s indomitable love, the Incarnation, the Cross and our adoption. “In short,” writes Francis, “the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths of love for their child.”

Second, the world needs it. Noting that “the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture” causing life to become “fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert” (think American politics), he declares, “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 to 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.”

Think about the people on your Brother Albergio list. The political culture encourages us to demonize and leave them buried in ice in the lowest circle of Hell. What counts is winning by crushing the enemy. It’s not personal, we may say to comfort ourselves, it’s just politics. Politics is about power: getting it, using it, and keeping it. Mercy doesn’t enter into the equation.

But it should.

First, mercy, rather than being a sign of weakness, is a sign of strength. Pope Francis quotes Thomas Aquinas who wrote that through his mercy, God “manifests his omnipotence.” Only the weak find power their only recourse.

Second, Christians know (or should know), in the words of Pope Francis, “As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.” “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

We can and must engage in politics. We can and must take sides. We can and must tell the truth without flinching. But treating others with mercy rather than figuratively consigning them to Hell in our quest for control would be nothing short of revolutionary. And we could use that kind of revolution.

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