August 4, 2017

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

An unloved heart often causes hatred and violence

The problems of pain and evil have perplexed humankind from the beginning. Why did Adam and Eve turn away from God? Why did their son Cain brutally murder his brother Abel? Why do their descendants suffer pain and illness? Why do successive generations face violence, inhumanity and unspeakable evil?

Pope Francis believes that one cause (among many) is a serious deprivation of love that causes intense loneliness and hopelessness. Speaking of youth, the pope says, “When an adolescent does not feel love, violence can arise. Behind so many forms of social hate and hooliganism [rioting, bullying and vandalism], there is often a heart that is unloved. ”

The absence of love causes men and women of all ages to risk succumbing to the “awful slavery” of believing that they must earn love based on their appearance or their actions. “Imagine a world where everyone begs for reasons to attract the attention of others, and no one is willing to love another person freely. It may seem like a human world, but in reality it is hell.”

Being deprived of love leads to violence against one’s self and others. It hardens the heart and causes the individual to care about nothing or no one (nihilism).

“Man’s many narcissisms,” the pope says, can only be overcome by an “experience of love that has been given and received.” Real love, unconditionally given, overcomes all evil. “God, who never needs a reason to love his children, has that kind of unconditional love for each person. God does not even bind his benevolence to our conversion; if anything, that is a consequence of God’s love.”

But isn’t it naïve to think that love can change a hardened criminal, or transform the thoughts and actions of a narcissist who cares only for himself or herself?

Pope Francis says no. He has seen with his own eyes the transformation of convicted criminals in his native Buenos Aires by God’s unconditional love reflected on the faces of mothers who went to the local prisons to visit their children. Evil can be overcome by good, the pope insists. Love can conquer hatred and despair.

“I remember so many mothers in my diocese who would get in line to enter the prison. So many mothers who were not ashamed. Their child was in prison, but it was their child, and they suffered so many humiliations.”

This is a reflection of the unconditional love of God. It is a love that doesn’t require repentance or conversion, but is given freely—even if it is scorned or rejected by the loved one. A change of heart may result from the gift of God’s mercy, but it is not a prerequisite. God loves his children as they are—sins and all—and his mercy is fully and freely given to all.

As Pope Francis explains, only the unconditional love of a parent can illustrate for us the depth of God’s love. “No sin, no wrong choice can ever erase it.”

“What is the medicine that can change an unhappy person?” the pope asks. “Love!”

Christian hope comes from knowing “God the Father who loves us as we are,” Pope Francis teaches. “He always loves us, everyone, good and bad.”

Mercy continues to be a predominate theme of the teaching of Pope Francis. God is love, and Jesus is the “Face of Mercy,” the concrete manifestation of divine love’s ability to conquer sin and death. By following Jesus, by loving as he loved, we can transform our own hardened hearts and be signs of hope and mercy for all who struggle with loneliness, depression and anger.

Wouldn’t our world be a different place if more of us reflected God’s unconditional love! Wouldn’t there be substantially less violence, terrorism and crime!

Love is stronger than evil. It is a power that cannot be overcome by the dark principalities and powers of this world. If we truly believe this, as Pope Francis does, we can be beacons of hope for people who are unloved.

Let’s pray for the grace to heed Pope Francis’s advice and to be the face of mercy for everyone we meet day in and day out. Let’s pray that God’s unconditional love will be reflected on our faces and in our hearts!

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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