February 26, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Practicing mercy in the season of Lent

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

This Lent, during the Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, we are making a special effort to understand why mercy (loving forgiveness) is such an important feature of our Christian way of life.

Mercy is not an abstraction. It is an attitude of the mind and heart that is most fully expressed in action. When I forgive someone who has harmed me, I must show it in the way I treat him or her. When I let go of past hurts, I have to make amends. That means making these relationships right again through specific actions performed by me on behalf of each person who has wronged me in the past.

Showing mercy isn’t easy. Our egos get in the way. We much prefer revenge—“getting even” or making other people pay for the wrongs committed against us.

Some cultures (such as organized crime) make exacting revenge into a solemn commitment. That’s one reason Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully against subcultures in Italy—and throughout the world—that constantly seek revenge. The Holy Father knows that vengeance leads only to hatred, violence and an unending, vicious cycle of evil consequences. Mercy is the opposite of vengeance. It is the only way to lasting peace.

During the season of Lent, we are given many concrete opportunities to practice mercy and to learn how to forgive ourselves as well as those who have trespassed against us. The three classic Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and good works (almsgiving) can be a means of practicing mercy in our daily lives.

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask the Father to forgive our sins “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s forgiveness is not in doubt, but our ability to forgive (ourselves and others) is what we must pray for. Only God’s grace can unlock our stubborn, abused and unforgiving hearts. That’s why we pray that the Father will help us seek and accept his forgiveness while granting us the power to forgive others.

One of the most powerful ways to make amends for past wrongs—whether committed by us or against us—is to pray for the persons who have wronged us or whom we have wronged. It is sometimes not possible to request the forgiveness of someone we hurt long ago (a parent who is now deceased, a former employer, an old friend or lover). But even if it is impossible to look another person in the eye and say, “I forgive you” or “I’m sorry,” we can always pray for them. If we ask God to extend to them the love and mercy that we are unable to express directly—for whatever reasons—we can be confident that our merciful Father will do so. And, in the process, God will forgive us also for whatever part we played in harming the relationships that we now seek to amend.

Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies, including those who persecute us, because he knew that prayer is the voice of mercy. Prayer brings us into right relationship with God and each other. We practice praying for forgiveness during Lent as we repeat the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!” (Lk 23:34), and as we pray frequently, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Fasting is also a way to express mercy. How many of us sin by overindulgence, knowing that so many of our sisters and brothers have less than they need! Fasting reminds us that we do not live by bread alone. It challenges us to live temperate lives while being generous toward others.

How is this an act of mercy? We seek God’s pardon and forgiveness for the ways we have abused God’s material and spiritual gifts. And we resolve to be much more attentive to the needs of others—especially the poor, neglected and unwanted people on the margins of society who are, in truth, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Almsgiving” is much more than giving money to the poor (although that is very important). It is expressing our solidarity, our closeness, with those we have wronged by the sin of indifference. It is seeking their forgiveness, not simply by our words, but by the actions we take on their behalf.

By our prayer, our fasting and our almsgiving, we ask the Father to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. This Lent, let’s take advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Let’s practice mercy as we prepare for the ultimate act of mercy, the Resurrection of our crucified Lord! †

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