By Corrine Winter
Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, marks the beginning of the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. And the news provides ample evidence of our need both to implore and to show mercy.
Pope Francis, in his letter proclaiming the Year of Mercy, calls us first of all to contemplate and to trust the overwhelming mercy of God. As we recognize that divine gift given out of God’s great love and not because we deserve it, we will be moved to engage, as the pope also asks us to do, in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and thus bear witness to the all-merciful God revealed in the work of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is constantly at work in him and in us.
Sometimes it is not easy to trust that God forgives us. I have heard people speak of having received the sacrament of reconciliation and yet carrying a nagging doubt that some sin could not really have been absolved because they didn’t express themselves quite accurately or because they aren’t sure that their attitude of repentance was as heartfelt as it should be. Now, we surely have a serious obligation to be honest and sincere in approaching the sacrament, but the doubts can often be caused by an undue scrupulosity or by a sense that God measures as we are often inclined to measure on some kind of scale. Furthermore, if we are distracted by a perceived need to “earn” grace for ourselves, we may miss opportunities to love as we are made and called to love — freely and whole-heartedly — and thus to carry the message of God’s graciousness to others.
The works of mercy that many of us memorized a long time ago suggest ways in which we can grow in loving as God loves us. We are asked to give of ourselves and to do so in situations that may take us “outside our comfort zone.” At least that is the case if we take seriously the exhortations of Pope Francis and of the U.S. Catholic bishops. If we do that, we will not think we have done our part if we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless only by putting a few checks in the mail. We are asked, rather, to walk with those in need, to refrain from asking whether they deserve our compassion.
Right now, a particular need to shelter the homeless challenges us to reflect carefully on our call to love, and that is the situation of the Syrian refugees. Events in France and elsewhere have tempted many to revert to the idea that we must first protect ourselves and therefore ought not take in refugees because some terrorists might exploit our efforts to help. A headline in the Quad-City Times spoke of a “rush to close borders.” Governors of all but a few states, including the governors of Iowa and Illinois, have stated that no immigrants from Syria will be welcome in the state.
U.S. Catholic bishops have asked us to remember that the refugees themselves are fleeing terrorism. While some precautions are reasonable, doesn’t compassion call us even to accept some risk in order not to leave these persecuted and uprooted persons as utterly vulnerable as they are now? Is it a total cliché to look to the cross as a sign that we are called to bear some cost in the name of faith?
German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer chided Christians who failed to respond to the plight of the Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime, saying that they desired “cheap grace.” We now see thousands of victims of persecution, war and oppression. Are we not moved by the mercy and love of God to seek to do more rather than less in response?
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)