God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:

korte

“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).

The consistory of the marginalised – a look back

Cardinals of St. LouisAnd so the Church gains twenty new cardinals. Much has already been said about the unique nature of the group, their places of origin and pastoral and other qualities which would spell out much regarding Pope Francis’ game plan for the future of the Church, both universally and locally in the dioceses and countries of the new cardinals.

Perhaps it can be best summarised as follows: The new cardinals bring the peripheries of the world Church to Rome and Rome to the peripheries. There is much variation in Catholic life across the world, and the needs and questions of one place are not necessarily the same as the needs of another. By creating cardinals from places as different as Communist Vietnam, violent Morelia, diaspora Myanmar, refugee-struck Agrigento and distant Tonga, Pope Francis acknowledges this and wants to make good use of the variety. The creation of these cardinals also expresses the closeness of Rome to these different locations, and lends extra weight to the Church’s presence and influence there.

pimiento rodriguezThe actual ceremony of the creation of the new cardinals was nothing out of the ordinary as these things go. One cardinal, José de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez (at right), stayed at home, but he may be excused for that, being 96 years old, and thus the third-oldest member of the College. Cardinals Rauber and De Magistris, respectively 80 and 88 and both physically incapable of kneeling before the Holy Father to receive ring and biretta, both received the signs of their title from a standing Pope Francis who came to them instead of the other way around. Of course, we saw something similar in last year’s consistory for wheelchair-bound Cardinal Jean-Pierre Kutwa.

This consistory was unique in another regard: the appointment of title churches and deaconries. While there were a fair number of vacant titles, Pope Francis chose to fill only seven of these, and created thirteen new ones. Of course, every single cardinal has a title church or deaconry in Rome, which makes 227 of them. Creating thirteen new ones would seem somewhat unnecessary as there are now still one vacant title church and nine vacant deaconries available. But who knows, maybe they will soon be filled if the rumours of Pope Francis wanting to increase the number of cardinals who vote in a conclave from 120 to 140 turn out to be true…

Manuel Macário do Nascimento ClementeOf the pre-existing titles and deaconries there were some examples of continuity. The Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Macário do Nascimento Clemente (at left), was given Sant’Antonio in Campo Marzio, previously held by his immediate predecessor in Lisbon. Santissimi Nomi di Gesù e Maria in Via Lata remained with a retired and experienced worker in the Curia: previously held by Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, it is now the deaconry of Cardinal Luigi De Magistris. Sant’Antonio di Padova a Circonvallazione Appia kept its Belgian connection: first held by Belgian Cardinal Julien Ries it is now in the possession of the former Nuncio to Belgium, Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber.

Age-wise, this consistory not only created one of the oldest cardinals, the aforementioned de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez, but also the two youngest: Cardinal Daniel Sturla Berhouet of Montevideo, 55, and Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga, 53.

hendriks mambertiThere was a Dutch delegation at the consistory, in addition to Cardinal Wim Eijk who, as a member of the College of Cardinals, attended all meetings. Bishop Frans Wiertz was in Rome with a group of pilgrims from his Diocese of Roermond, and Bishop Jan Hendriks attended because of his acquaintance with Cardinal Dominique Mamberti (pictured above). He blogged about it on his personal website, and writes about the presence of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI:

“Pope Benedict XVI […] [was] stormed by the cardinals and bishops present in order to briefly greet him.

Various members of the diplomatic corps followed. Other faithful were also able to find their way, but needed some more time to get to him.

In the photo [I took] one can discern a small white zucchetto: that is Pope emeritus Benedict!

[…]

The Pope emeritus underwent all these gestures, smiling friendly and almost shyly.”

hendriks wiertz

^Bishops Jan Hendriks and Frans Wiertz in St. Peter’s Square

Finally, in closing, the text of Pope Francis’ homily during the Mass with the new cardinals on Sunday. Some have called it a roadmap of his pontificate:

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

True, the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas exclaimed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Finding the right words… Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

Consider carefully that, in these days when you have become Cardinals, we have asked Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23), to intercede for us so that we can be God’s faithful servants. May she – our Mother – teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; not to be afraid of tenderness. How often we fear tenderness! May Mary teach us not to be afraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.

Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!