The Works of Mercy

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Pope Francis
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982369.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“One cannot understand a true Christian who is not merciful, just as one cannot comprehend God without his mercy. This is the epitomizing word of the Gospel: mercy (1) … Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him” (187).

For Pope Francis, mercy is not just one virtue among others. It is the core of the gospel, the condition for salvation, and the criterion for the definitive decision of a human life’s worth (cf. Matthew 25; Luke 16). He echoes his predecessor’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) with this premise, and brings the idea home with his usual prophetic clarity, pastoral sensitivity, and good humor. 

This modest volume is a collection of Francis’s public comments on the theme of mercy, taken from homilies, audiences, addresses, and texts—from his election to the close of the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the end of 2016—organized around the classical fourteen works of mercy: seven corporal and seven spiritual. 

This structure is intentionally incarnational, putting concrete practice around the idea of mercy, and recalling that the very name of God has become incarnate, living, and visible in Jesus. We are reminded time and again that “it is good to never forget that mercy is not an abstract word but a way of life … not some beautiful idea, but rather concrete action … It is one thing to speak of mercy, and it is another to live mercy … It is not doing good in passing, but getting involved ... To paraphrase James the Apostle: Mercy without works is dead within itself” (22 ff).

If you wanted a “greatest hits” record of the popular pontiff, this is it. Many familiar themes and moments make their appearance, as it becomes clear that mercy is indeed the thread that weaves through, and holds together, the preaching of the plain-spoken supreme pastor: the image of the Church as a “field hospital,” the preferential option for the poor, the fight against human trafficking, the trip to Lampedusa recalling the Mediterranean as a cemetery for refugees, even the terrorism of gossip, and the need for the Church to critique itself above all. 

Seeing mercy as the first attribute of God and the greatest virtue of humanity is what set Christianity apart from the religious-cultural milieu of first century Rome, as James Keenan’s forward reminds us. We see in today’s world much of the “destructive cynicism,” “humiliating indifference,” and “monotonous routine” (3) that embody the “culture of comfort” and “globalization of indifference” against which Francis preaches (12). 

Critics of the pope, not least some Catholic Christians in the US, are among the first to dismiss mercy as somehow contrary to truth, justice, or perhaps the “American way,” echoing classical (pagan) Roman disdain for mercy or pity “as ‘unearned help or relief’ and therefore contrary to justice” (Rodney Stark, quoted on xii). 

Such an attitude is incompatible with the gospel, we are reminded. For Francis, love is life’s highest expression, which means the Church, and individual Christians, cannot “look away from suffering or turn her back on the many forms of poverty that cry out for mercy” (25). We cannot “pretend to have a clean conscience simply because we have said our prayers or because we have been to Mass on Sunday” (25). His is the message of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, renewed for our age (cf. Isaiah 1; Amos 5; Micah 6; Jeremiah 22).

It is appropriate, then, that another theme that appears several times is that of reconciliation in community, and of fraternal correction (cf. Matthew 18). Any attempt at truth must happen in charity, mercifully, without harm or humiliation. Otherwise it lacks virtue: “to insult is not Christian!” (133). Over and over again, Pope Francis holds the Church to account first, recalling the admonition of Jesus against hypocrisy: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

A little more than five years into his pontificate, few other collections capture so well the message of Pope Francis. He has rejuvenated interest in traditional Catholic teaching on the works of mercy and applied them in a refreshing way to the challenges of the world today. Like all good preachers, he comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. Whichever you need, you will find it here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew James Boyd is Lecturer in Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue at Pontifical Beda College, Rome.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pope Francis I.

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