Collection from Pope Francis

The theme of mercy has been a signature of the pontificate of Pope Francis. As he has noted, “One cannot understand a true Christian who is not merciful, just as one cannot comprehend God without His mercy. . . . It is the fundamental feature of the face of Christ.”

As Pope Francis reminds us, it was Jesus who tied salvation to our practice of mercy: “Insofar as you have done these things to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done them to me.” That text gave rise to the seven corporal works of mercy enumerated by the Church, including “feeding the hungry,” “visiting the sick” and “burying the dead.” Those were joined by seven spiritual works of mercy, such as “counseling the doubtful,” “pardoning offenses” and “bearing wrongs patiently.”

In the current volume, which is drawn from his writings and preaching, Pope Francis reflects on each of these works of mercy, often opening a window on a larger theme.

For instance, under “welcoming the stranger,” he reflects on the plight of refugees and immigrants. His reflections on “visiting the prisoner” are set in the context of his own pastoral visits to prisons, where he asks: “Who is this man standing before you? . . . A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins. That is who I am.”

Of course, for the pope, mercy is not a matter of discrete acts, but a way of being, a way of life. “I choose to live in a way that is merciful,” he says, “or I choose to live in a way that is unmerciful. It is one thing to speak of mercy, and it is another to live mercy.” Here he expands on this theme:

Daily life allows us to touch, with our hands, the urgent needs experienced by the poorest and most tested of people. We are asked for a particular kind of attention that leads us to notice the state of suffering and need in which so many of our brothers and sisters find themselves. Sometimes we pass by situations of desperate poverty and seem to remain untouched. Life simply goes on, as if everything were fine, leading eventually to a state of indifference where we become hypocrites and, without realizing it, succumb to a form of spiritual lethargy that numbs the soul and renders life barren. People who pass by, who move on in life without noticing the needs of others, without seeing the many spiritual and material needs of others, are people who pass by without living.

The pope reminds us that mercy is not simply an individual response to need. It is also embodied in social policies that show care for the hungry, the sick, the stranger. In a time when national policies often seem to be animated by a spirit of anti-mercy, the pope’s message clearly rises above comfortable pieties: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

In his call on Christians to be always ready “to touch the flesh of Christ with your hands,” Pope Francis has interwoven the spiritual and social dimensions of the Gospel in a way that challenges all followers of Jesus today.

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