With great joy the world received Pope Francis’s announcement of an extraordinary Jubilee Year focused on the mercy of God. This event was inaugurated by the Bull, Misericordiae Vultus, or The Face of Mercy.
The Almighty showed mercy to the whole human family in no greater way than in sending the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity to become man for the sake of our salvation. Becoming incarnate in the womb of Mary, He went on to lead an extraordinary public ministry culminating in His passion, death, and resurrection. Just hours before His death, in order to “stay with us” (Lk 24:29), He gave Himself to us in the Eucharist. Eucharist, meaning “thanksgiving,” allows us to continuously show gratitude for the compassion of our Savior as He pours out His grace upon us. Thus, it seems appropriate to reflect on the Pope’s bull by reading it through a Eucharistic lens.
In The Face of Mercy, Francis’s first words identify Jesus Christ as the face of mercy. This Jesus comes to us in a special way, in a real way, every time we receive the Eucharist at Mass. So, mercy is extended to us in and through the Blessed Sacrament. It is apparent in the Liturgy of the Word as well. Let us now contemplate several passages of the document that illuminate this reality quite vividly.
With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. (MV 8)
What immediately comes to mind when reading this sentence are two experiences: seeing the elevation of the Host during consecration at Mass, and praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.
It is a pious practice to say a short prayer at the consecration. Maybe the most popular ejaculation is “My Lord and my God!” taken from the no-longer-doubting Thomas’s words upon seeing and being addressed by Jesus in the Upper Room after the Resurrection (Jn 20:28). A personal favorite is, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” Peter’s exclamation at the Transfiguration (Mt 17:4; cf. Mk 9:5). But, also popular, and particularly relevant for our consideration here, is a phrase that we would be wise to work into our devotions, especially during this Year of Mercy. It is taken from the humble man in the back of the temple in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, found only in Luke’s Gospel: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (18:13) Jesus tells us that this attitude “justified” the tax collector, and that the man’s humility will “exalt” him (v. 14). Is not justification and exaltation what we want for ourselves? And does this not come from a humble heart? It is humility that not only makes us receptive to mercy, but disposes us properly to fully appreciate our need for mercy. It is imperative that we remember this as we prepare, before and during Mass, to approach the altar to receive Holy Communion.
St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, the patron of parish priests, when asked what he did in spending time with the Lord in front of the Blessed Sacrament said, “Nothing. I just look at Him and He looks at me.” This from a man who knew the meaning of mercy since, “[d]uring the last ten years of his life, he spent from sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional.” (Otten, Susan Tracy. “St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Feb. 2016 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08326c.htm>.)
Pope Francis ties love and mercy together in the quote under consideration. In Jesus’ great love He promised, in the very last words of the Gospel of Matthew, to be with us always, to the close of the age (cf. Mt 28:20). This, in turn, shows His mercy, as well. He does not abandon us. We can come before Him in adoration, no matter the state of our soul. He is really present to us whenever we wish to approach Him. Whether we have stayed on the straight and narrow, or are returning after a long absence, and a life of dissipation, like the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), Jesus is waiting to help us and restore us if only we are receptive. Who would not want to spend ample time in the presence of the only One who can effect authentic, merciful healing of soul and spirit?
A final word to address the pope’s invocation of the Trinity in this passage. While we naturally think first of Jesus when contemplating the Blessed Sacrament, we should not forget that where one person of the Trinity is, the other two must necessarily be. So in our reflections on Jesus’ Real Presence, let us also consider the Father and the Holy Spirit, thanking them, and asking them to give us a deeper appreciation of the God-Man. God the Father sent His only Son to save us (cf. Jn 3:16), and allowed Jesus to be with us in this special way until the end of time. God the Spirit was sent by the Father and Son to enlighten us and guide us on our life’s journey until Jesus’ return in glory (cf. Jn 14:26, Jn 15:26; Jn 16:7).
Jesus … healed the sick … and … satisfied the enormous crowd … moved [by] … nothing other than mercy, with which he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need. (MV 8)
The ministry of mercy that Jesus began in the Holy Land, circa A.D. 30, continues to this day. He responds to our deepest need by giving Himself entirely to us, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, every time we receive Him in Holy Communion. What is this deepest need? St. Augustine put it very well in his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Or, in modern parlance, He comes to fill the “God-shaped hole” in each of us. We are not complete—cannot be complete—without the indwelling Trinity. All the more reason to receive Communion worthily and with reverence.
The Lord satisfies enormous crowds by feeding the souls of the multitudes that flock to Mass daily all around the world. We saw a vivid example of this in the pope’s recent Apostolic Visit to the United States when thousands upon thousands attended Masses in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. There was a real hunger displayed in all of these places.
And He heals us, too, in Communion. From the Catechism: “the Eucharist … wipes away venial sins” (no. 1394, emphasis in the original). This is one of the many fruits of Holy Communion as listed in the Catechism, which also says: “the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without, at the same time, cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (no. 1393). In this same paragraph, St. Ambrose is quoted: “Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy” (ibid). So let us approach each walk up the aisle to the minister of Communion with true contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment, so as to open ourselves, as much as possible, to the infinite healing graces that are available each time we receive the consecrated Host and Precious Blood. Jesus reads our hearts. He knows our deepest desires. He wants us to open ourselves to Him completely, and lay our needs at the altar of His mercy.
“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”(Mk 5:19) (MV 8)
This verse comes from the story of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac. He received healing, and was told to go spread this good news of mercy. Is this not a lesson for us today? The Lord shows us great mercy by His willingness, even eagerness, to forgive our sins, and cast out our demons. He does this now even more so in coming to us in Holy Communion. Should we not want to share this enthusiastically with family, friends, and acquaintances? Remember Jesus’ words from the Bread of Life discourse in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (vv. 53-54). What we should want desperately is to gain eternal life for ourselves, and for as many souls as we can take along with us. No one is beyond redemption, and it is never too late to beg for divine mercy (remember the Good Thief? – Lk 23:40-43). We should want everyone to benefit from the grace and mercy Jesus offers in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. So let us not be reticent to tell all those we encounter how much the Lord has done for us, and how He has had mercy on us (cf. Lk 8:39; Mk 5:19).
In order to be capable of mercy…we must first of all dispose ourselves to listen to the Word of God. (MV 13)
So far in these reflections, we have been dealing with Eucharist as the Blessed Sacrament. But, of course, we also refer to the entire Mass as the Celebration of the Eucharist. Keeping this is mind, we are blessed in our liturgy to receive much Scripture, not only during the readings, but throughout Mass. We gain deeper insight into the mercy we are shown in receiving the Eucharist by listening especially attentively to the Scripture readings at Mass, and meditating upon them. Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, one of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, tells us that “[t]he Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.” (DV 21) So we truly receive Jesus, the Word of God, in the Bible, and we receive Jesus, the Bread of Life, in the Eucharist. All of salvation history shows the mercy of God. From the Protoevangelium, which promises a redeemer after the Fall of our first parents, where we read “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” at Genesis 3:15, to the Book of Revelation in which we are told of the ultimate victory of our God over sin, Satan, and death.
So how do we learn about mercy? By knowing the One who is mercy itself. And how do we know what it means to be merciful? By paying attention to Jesus, and trying to imitate Him. St. Jerome, possibly the most eminent Bible scholar in history, famously said that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” How can we show the mercy of Christ to others—that is, to be Christ to others, and to see Christ in others—if we know little or nothing about Him? Let us follow the pope’s advice to dispose ourselves to listen to the Word, and meditate on it, at Mass and outside of Mass, so that, as Francis says further on in the same paragraph, “it will be possible to contemplate God’s mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle” (MV 13).
Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, … welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned… (MV 15)
Of the seven corporal works of mercy, five can readily be applied to our consideration of reception of the Eucharist.
We have already considered, to some extent, feeding the hungry, in which Jesus comes to us in the form of bread in order to satisfy our souls, and revive us in spirit. Similarly, in the form of wine, now substantially changed into His Precious Blood, He slakes our thirst for His abiding presence in our lives.
Healing of the sick has been mentioned above, as well. Our venial sins are wiped away. (Of course, mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion.) We should be reminded that Jesus longs to do this for us when we consider these words of His: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17; cf. Lk 5:31, Mt 9:12).
How does welcoming the stranger fit in? Let us recall St. John the Evangelist’s words in his first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). All of us are estranged from God, to a lesser or greater degree, due to sin; maybe so much so that it has caused us to be away from church for an extended time—years, perhaps—if not physically, then spiritually. Or maybe we have grown cold for any number of reasons, or been led astray by things of this world. Yet, the Lord refuses no one who wishes to come to him to be healed, strengthened, and enlightened.
Finally, we consider imprisonment. Maybe this condition manifests itself in the form of a certain sin we cannot overcome. Maybe there is a “little” vice that we allow ourselves because we have grown comfortable with it. Possibly, it is an old wound incurred that we find impossible to heal because we cannot forgive. There is no freedom in living this way. But there is hope. St. Paul tells the Galatians that, “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1) What is authentic freedom? Paul tells us a few verses further along: “faith working through love.” (v. 6) And how is it manifested? We again turn to Paul who writes a few moments later, “through love, be servants of one another.” (v. 13) The sin of any member of the Church harms the entire Body of Christ. We are called upon to build up the Church through love of God, and love of neighbor. And our exemplar is Jesus Christ, the perfect man, the love of God made flesh, who showed us that it is not “only human” to sin, but that it is inhumane to do so. Let us free ourselves from self-imposed shackles by taking advantage of the freely given graces that Jesus, the institutor of the sacraments, so wants us to receive in His great mercy.
In all of this, the Lord, once again, sets the pattern for us. At the end of Mass, one of the options for the words of dismissal is, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” That is, let us live what we believe. We are to become another Christ, the face of Christ, the face of mercy, to all other prisoners—that is, every person we encounter, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the lovable and the unlovable.
So we are called to help take care of others’ needs.
- To give sustenance to those who hunger and thirst (both physically and spiritually).
- To show compassion to strangers, whether they are from other geographic places, or from other spiritual places, realizing that one day we could be in their shoes.
- To heal the sick, whether assisting with the care of those who are in need, visiting a neighbor, volunteering at a hospital or nursing home, or providing emotional and spiritual support to one who is downcast or despairing.
- To visit the imprisoned, whether in body or soul, and to show compassion and understanding to those who are working to turn their lives around, remembering that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to…comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill… (MV 15)
As with the corporal works of mercy just reviewed, there are several spiritual works that tie into our theme well (although, even with the corporal works, we saw spiritual applicability). All of these we have already touched on to some degree or another.
- Comforting the afflicted: when we feel we have no one to turn to, Jesus is always patiently waiting, ready to listen, and desiring to heal.
- Forgiving offenses: Jesus is always ready and willing to forgive the sins of the sincere, contrite penitent who approaches Him.
- Bearing patiently those who do us ill: whenever we sin we contribute to the pain of the insults, blasphemies, blows, lashes, crown of thorns, and nails of Christ’s Passion. Yet, Jesus is not interested in vengeance. He took all of this suffering upon Himself willingly for our sakes. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), Paul tells the Corinthians, and us. If Christ can forgive such a great debt, how can we justify holding on to real or perceived injustices perpetrated against us by our fellow “strangers and sojourners” as St. Peter calls all of us in his first letter (1 Pt 2:11)?
Jesus affirms that…the rule of life for his disciples must place mercy at the center, as Jesus himself demonstrated by sharing meals with sinners. (MV 20)
Holy Mass is a sacrifice, but it is also a meal. This is clear as we consider that the very first Eucharist is commonly referred to as the Last Supper. In addition, we can contemplate the feeding of the five thousand which immediately precedes the lesson of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, already touched upon, which is critical to our understanding of the Eucharist. Jesus shows His overflowing mercy by feeding the famished multitude with His word, satisfying their physical hunger with more bread than these followers could eat, and finally revealing to them the food that gives eternal life.
Most directly from the document excerpt we are now considering, we think of the Lord inviting Himself to the homes of tax collectors like Matthew (Mt 9:9-13 and Mk 2:13-17) and Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10). Jesus continues joining meals with sinners at every Mass, feeding the faithful with Divine Revelation in the first part of Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, and with His own self, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the second part of Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At Mass, we are in communion with the Lord, but we must not forget that we are also in communion with all of our brothers and sisters as we partake of the Blessed Sacrament. We share this meal with sinners, and these others share it with us sinners. Mentioned earlier were the fruits of Holy Communion as listed in the Catechism. Another of these fruits, applicable here, is the “unity of the Mystical body” (no. 1396). The Catechism goes on to say that “[t]hose who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body—the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism” (ibid). Let us receive Communion and live our lives as if we truly believe this.
Jesus pours out on all of us His mercy in this Sacrament of Sacraments. We are to show mercy to our fellow men in just the same way. Let us recall the serious obligation to do this. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). The Catechism reminds us of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer where we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses,” and then tells us that “this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see, if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed, and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love” (no. 2840). When approaching the altar for Communion, let us not hold grudges, allow old wounds to fester, or permit troubled relationships to remain contentious. Let the gift we offer as we approach the altar be the gift of ourselves, free from animus toward others, and always with an eye toward mercy and forgiveness, remembering how abundantly we have received these same gifts from God.
Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh … Mary, from the outset, was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son, Jesus. (MV 24)
We often find that papal or conciliar documents, if not already dealing primarily with a Marian theme, will close with a reflection in light of the Mother of God. Misericordiae Vultus is no exception. The second to the last paragraph of the document is focused on Mary’s dedication to mercy.
This Papal Bull we have been examining is entitled The Face of Mercy. Mary had the privilege of beholding the Face of Mercy, her son Jesus, daily for thirty years, leading up to His public ministry and, at least from time to time, afterward. And, of course, most profoundly she saw a quite different countenance during the Passion: that same face spat upon, beaten, crowned with thorns, covered with blood, and ultimately looking down at her from the cross. Finally, while the Bible does not tell us of any encounter between Mary and Jesus after the Resurrection, more than a few Catholic scholars and spiritual writers over the years have felt quite sure that Jesus appeared to Mary in those forty days before His Ascension (and likely before anyone else) on that first Easter morn. Here, she would have seen her Son’s countenance in all its glory.
Francis invokes the Blessed Virgin under the banner of “Ark of the Covenant.” The Blessed Mother was the very first Christian tabernacle, holding Jesus the God-Man, truly present in her from the moment of His conception. This very fact should provide us with hours upon hours of reflection and contemplation, especially before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in church. Colloquially, we speak of a “bun in the oven,” but here was truly the Bread of Life growing inexorably toward birth, and then, physically and symbolically, placed in a feeding trough as a newborn.
The author of Hebrews, looking back to the Old Testament, refers to the “golden urn of manna” (9:4) that Moses was instructed, in the Book of Exodus, to put in the Ark of the Covenant (16:33). Recall that manna was the miraculous bread from heaven that the Lord supplied to His people after He freed them from Egyptian bondage, showing great mercy on them, even as they complained after their divinely led escape from pharaoh. But with the coming of the Messiah, we have so much more. Jesus tells us that “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died … I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:49, 51). In God’s mercy, He sent His only Son to save us from eternal death. And Mary was His chosen instrument to bring the Word made flesh into time and space. The young virgin knew this well as she exclaimed to Elizabeth, with the Child just a few days in her womb: “his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). George Martin tells us that “[t]o fear God is to revere him as God, and to serve and obey him” [Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life (Huntington: IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), 34], which is exactly what our response should be to this outpouring of mercy. Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1980 encyclical on mercy, Dives in Misericordia (that is, Rich in Mercy), expounds on this verse; he says:
At the very moment of the Incarnation, these words open up a new perspective of salvation history. After the resurrection of Christ, this perspective is new on both the historical and the eschatological level. From that time onwards there is a succession of new generations of individuals in the immense human family, in ever-increasing dimensions; there is also a succession of new generations of the People of God, marked with the Sign of the Cross and of the resurrection, and “sealed” with the sign of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the absolute revelation of the mercy that Mary proclaimed on the threshold of her kinswoman’s house: “His mercy is … from generation to generation.” […]
Mary, then, is the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy. She knows its price; she knows how great it is. In this sense, we call her the Mother of mercy: our Lady of mercy, or Mother of divine mercy; in each one of these titles, there is a deep theological meaning, for they express the special preparation of her soul, of her whole personality, so that she was able to perceive, through the complex events, first of Israel, then of every individual, and of the whole of humanity, that mercy of which “from generation to generation” people become sharers according to the eternal design of the most Holy Trinity. (DM 9)
Mary is our greatest advocate. Let us invoke her in a special way this Jubilee Year as Mother of Mercy and Mother of the Eucharist.
We are blessed to have a special year designated for mercy by the Church. We are doubly blessed to have the opportunity to partake of the Eucharist every day, if we are able. May our appreciation for God’s mercy, especially as it is revealed and active in the Eucharist, increase during this Jubilee Year, and for the rest of our lives.