Barbara Reid, OP is currently Vice President and Academic Dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Sister Barbara holds Bachelors and Masters degrees from Aquinas College, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from The Catholic University of America. She is the author of many books and articles dedicated to the study, preaching, and teaching of scripture. Sister Barbara offered to share from the writings of some of history’s great teachers and preachers, as well as Pope Francis’ perspective on mercy.
By proclaiming a Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis has shone a spotlight on what is the very essence of God, revealed most fully in the person of Jesus. Theologians and believers have long struggled to understand God’s mercy in relation to divine justice with questions like: If God is all merciful, how can God also be just? Doesn’t it re-victimize a person who has been hurt if the perpetrator is let off with mercy? What is the point of trying to live a good Christian life if God mercifully saves all – even the most egregious of sinners? Theologians through the ages have tried to work out answers to these deep questions, but it is never possible to fully explain the mystery of God. The Scriptures and our Dominican tradition help us to live into the mystery of divine mercy.
St. Dominic’s quest for truth went hand in hand with mercy. His commitment to study and preach truth was not an end in itself, but was motivated by his heartfelt compassion for those who had distanced themselves from God’s mercy. He was known to have spent many nights before the cross, pleading with God to have mercy on sinners. Another of his acts of mercy took place when a severe famine broke out: Dominic sold everything, including his precious books, to feed people who were starving.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of God’s mercy as “the primordial root and the prior element to which everything else must be traced back.”1 Mercy is not just one of God’s attributes. It is the very core of who God is.2 Pope Francis has put it simply: The Name of God is Mercy.3 Mercy is not only at the heart of God’s being. When we receive divine mercy, it becomes possible for us to do likewise, as Jesus instructed, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Thomas Aquinas defined the virtue of mercy as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him” (Summa Theologiae, II-II.30.1).
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us of the “infinity of the Divine Mercy, which is greater than any number and magnitude of sins.” Moreover, “the mercy of God grants pardon to sinners through penance without any limits” (ST III.84.10). But God will never force us to accept this mercy. One of Jesus’ parables illustrates this well. In Matthew 18:23-35, a king, moved with compassion, forgives the debt of a slave who owed him a huge amount. The slave, however, instead of doing the same for one who owed him a much smaller amount, exacted payment in full and threw him into prison when he could not pay. The king then demanded of the first slave, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” The parable ends with the king handing him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. The point of the parable is not that God is fickle and might revoke mercy. The constant biblical message is, “Mercy courts every human being to the very end.”4 But if we do not choose to “pay forward” the mercy we have received, the consequences are dire. When we do choose mercy – both to accept it and give it – we are set free.
As Pope Francis urges us to open ourselves more fully to receive divine mercy and to practice works of mercy, he also speaks of the relation between mercy and justice. He reminds us that unjust structures of domination, including that of humankind over the earth, cut off the wellsprings of mercy: “Dominion over earth….seems to have no room for mercy.”5 Further, he insists that mercy is not opposed to justice: it is God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering that one a new chance. “God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus.”6 Our sister, St. Catherine of Siena invites us, “If I were wholly inflamed with the fire of divine love, would I not then, with a burning heart, beseech my Creator, the truly merciful One, to show mercy to all my brothers and sisters?’”7