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Being called to forgive

Best selling author Richard Leonard SJ has identified six main themes that permeate Pope Francis’ thinking on mercy in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. He spoke about them to the thousands of people who came to the Marian shrine in Knock on Monday 22 August for the annual novena there.

In this interview with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications he details those themes beginning with ‘obedience’. He says it may come as a surprise to people but Francis’ does see obedience as an important facet of mercy. The Latin word at root means ‘to listen’, and so Richard Leonard says the Pope is calling on people to listen attentively to the very heart of God and obey the nuanced wisdom and instruction for our lives that flows from that listening.

Not surprisingly , joy is another component of mercy. When Catholics really get the message of the abundant forgiving love of God then they cannot help but be full of joy, even in the midst of suffering, he says. It’s not about being a happy-clappy, superficially smiling person, but it is about having a deep serenity that comes from knowing who we are before God and where we are destined for. “So I would say to a lot of Catholics, if you’re happy and joyful, and you should be, then please tell your face. For too often us Catholics can look like a really gloomy bunch!”

Compassion is the third theme Richard Leonard speaks to, outlining the profound care for the poor that has been the hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy so far. ” It’s a deep notion and certainly not to be confused with charity. Compassion is about solidarity with those who suffer”.  So for Richard Leonard when we are acting out of compassion we are asking questions like ‘what’s it like to be poor in a wealthy world? What’s it like to be disabled in and able-bodied world? Or a woman in a man’s world? Or a black person in a white dominated world?  We have obligations to those who are not powerful or dominant, he says. And Pope Francis is continually reminding us of this and our call to care for the poor of the earth be they migrants, refugees, victims of war or violence, the sick or the elderly.

He gives a moving example of the fourth constituent of of mercy, namely gratitude. His sister Tracey who was a palliative care nurse, ended up as a quadriplegic at the age of twenty eight after a freak car accident. He says watching her unable to do almost anything for herself left him with a profound sense of gratitude for everything in his life. “Even down to the most basic acts like going to the toilet by myself. My sister has not had that luxury of the last 28 years and I’ve learnt through her the importance of saying thank you to God and taking nothing for granted.”

Forgiveness is of course a key part of mercy and in this respect Richard says it’s non-negotiable if we are are Christians. It’s at the heart of Jesus’ mission to preach the forgiveness of God but it is also clear that we too must try to forgive, no matter how difficult the challenge, he contends.  “Even to pray for the desire to want to forgive someone whom we may be finding impossible to forgive, is a good start and one that St Ignatius often preached”.  And he notes that for him the most comforting and inspiring words that the Pope has spoken are, “There’s nothing that we have ever done, for which God’s mercy is not greater”.

Finally, when all is said and done it’s all about love. Jesus knew well the ten commandments, says Richard, but he distilled them down to three: love of God, love of neighbour and love of self. And he believes that of the three we perhaps have most difficulty with love of self. ‘That’s not adoration of self, which can be egotistical and narcissistic”. True love of self  is resting happy in the knowledge that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. From that certainty we can truly love our neighbour well, he says.

Finally he hopes that in this Jubilee Year of Mercy that is drawing to a close, we can all find the freedom to forgive someone we need to, and allow ourselves to be forgiven and let go of any guilt that has been burdening us. He says that in the Old Testament a jubilee year occurred every 50 years. So it was a once in a lifetime event for most. Debts were cancelled, slaves set free and fields left fallow. This Jubilee Year offers us all a chance to gain new freedom within, knowing we are loved by a merciful God. If we do, we can share that mercy and forgiveness and care for our planet and the people who inhabit it, with compassion and love.