Mercy and Compassion in the Time of Pandemic

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

Gospel Reflection: John 8: 1-11

Mercy and compassion are central beliefs within the Christian faith. The gospel read today of the woman caught in the act of adultery is one of the most powerful examples of a forgiving God. It might be good to reflect on this theme during this difficult time of our history.

Angst and Longing for God

After two weeks of community lockdown, people are bored, anxious and afraid. They want to go to church but its doors are locked. Online Masses seem too far and technical; people long for something concrete and physical. So, when an occasional procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the parish is done, people kneel down and shed tears both of inner joy and deep longing, of fleeting fulfilment and profound yearning – wanting for more.People also long for confession. They have been taught by their catechists to confess at least once a year – and it is this time of the year that they need to go. They want to hear those consoling words: “I forgive you of all your sins…” But these words will never be spoken for now, at least not with a human voice.And all of a sudden, the Pope proclaims: confess your sins directly to God, and forgiveness will be granted into your lives. In times “of grave necessity”, when it is not possible for the priest to hear sacramental confession, God assures us of his forgiveness.It comes as a pleasant surprise. Pleasant – because we are assured of God’s love and mercy. Surprise – because Catholics did not expect that official Church proclamation, though they believed in it deep in their hearts. One friend wrote me: “Pwede pala ‘yan Father? Di ba born-again, yan?”It might be good to reflect on the meaning of God’s mercy and forgiveness in these most difficult times when all its formal signs are far and absent. I have three points.

Only God Can Forgive

First, it is only God who can forgive. Our ‘grave’ situation forcibly highlights the primacy of God's mercy and the secondary role of the priest in the reconciliation process. Only God forgives. Only God can forgive. The priest is there in the name of the church community as a “poor sign”, a dismal representation, of God’s forgiveness. It takes COVID-19 for us Catholics to highlight this theological fact which our Protestant brethren have emphasized all along.This is not to deny the need and validity of individual confession; it still stays being an important part of the church tradition. But this situation of "grave necessity" alerts us to the sacrament’s fundamental dimension.Sometimes, catechists portray the priest as the main dispenser of God’s mercy. We get the impression that he “determines” whom God will forgive or not. He also decides on the “punishment” to repay for the sins committed. This legalistic-juridical image is a caricature, of course, but it is this which fills the popular imagination.The priest’s task is to show God's compassion for all to see. He is not a judge but a minister of mercy. What a poor and dismal instrument he is, compared to God’s overwhelming love. As in the gospel of the woman caught in adultery, most often it is legal, political and religious structures that hinder people from experiencing God’s mercy.Another corollary: beyond our ecclesial structures, beyond our sacraments and rituals, beyond our rules and policies, God dispenses mercy to all in need of his/her compassion. I am thinking of COVID-19 patients who do not have the benefit of seeing a priest at the point of death because it is just impossible. Their grieving families feel being abandoned by God and the Church. It is a consolation to know that our merciful God could never be outdone in compassion during their most difficult moments.

The Name of God is Mercy

Second, mercy is the name of God. Pope Francis recently wrote a book entitled God’s Name is Mercy (2016). God’s name is forgiveness. God’s name is compassion. God cannot be without mercy. Ang pangalan ng Diyos ay awa at habag.In many people’s minds today is the question: is God punishing us? Many preachers play on those fears and theologize on COVID-19 as God’s punishment for our sinful lives. There is nothing further from the truth. God does not punish his people. God forgives us even if we haven’t changed our ways. At St. Paul says: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).There is a small backstage anecdote connected with the publication of Pope Francis’ book I mentioned earlier. The editor Andrea Torrenelli finished the first draft and sent it to Pope Francis for approval. In the draft, he quote Pope Francis as saying: “The medicine is there, the healing is there – if only we take the small step toward God…” Immediately Pope Francis called him and asked to add the phrase: “or even just the desire to take that step.”The merciful God waits for us. God does not expect us to have reached the end of the journey in order to receive our crown. No, just a small step is enough. And if we are not yet ready for that step, Francis adds: “even just the desire to take that step”.

Called to be Merciful

Third, because we have been shown mercy, we also need to show mercy. This is the meaning of Pope Francis’ motto: “miserando atque eligendo” (being shown mercy and chosen). Like what he did with the tax-collector, Matthew, Jesus has shown mercy to the weakness that we are. And from that vulnerability, he chose us to be the bringer of God’s mercy to the world.Marcus Borg, an American theologian, thinks that compassion, not perfection, is the dominant quality of God. Jesus says: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6: 36). And because God is compassionate, we who belong to God’s community must exhibit the same compassion. Mercy and compassion are synonymous to the name Christian. Kaya sa isang Kristiyano, bawal ang judgmental. Bawal din ang self-preservation. It behooves us to get out of ourselves and be a sign of God’s compassion to others in this time of need.Vincent de Paul used a different word – charity – but the meaning is the same: “Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.”

Mercy, compassion, charity: challenging words in the time of pandemic.

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University