Mercy Encountered: The Church

Father Christopher R. Seibt

Contributing writer

Editor’s note: During the Holy Year of Mercy, Father Christopher R. Seibt will explore various aspects of the jubilee in a series of Sun columns. This is the third column in the series.

“Father, I am spiritual, but not religious.” This is a common phrase uttered by many people in our culture today who typically believe in God or, at least, in a divine presence, but only on their own terms. As Catholics, however, we are both spiritual and religious, believers and “belongers,” and we encounter God’s mercy not simply as individuals, but together. We do so first by coming to know, on God’s terms, that he is merciful. The Scriptures, and most importantly, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, reveal this fundamental characteristic of God to us, which is what we reflected on last time in “Mercy Encountered: The Scriptures.”

   In this reflection, we will consider the next step that we must take in order to encounter God’s mercy together; namely, the gradual move from knowledge of it to actually experiencing it. To make this move, the first thing that we have to do is to ask ourselves, “Where do we go to experience God’s mercy?” The answer to this question is twofold: Christ and the Church.

   We go to Christ because he not only became one of us and lived among us, but he also suffered and died on the Cross, rose again to new life, ascended back to the Father in heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit so that the Father’s mercy would continue to be encountered by those who believe in him and belong to his Body. Through these saving events — the Paschal Mystery — God extended his mercy to us in and through Christ. So, we have to go to him to experience it. But, how do we do so today, in our time? Through the way that he himself established for us: the Church. 

   Pope Francis says, “Reconciliation with God is made possible through the Paschal Mystery and through the mediation of the Church” (Misericordiae Vultus, 22). Concerning the Church, he says that mercy is the very foundation of her life (MV, 10). The Church is “a visible society and a spiritual community; she is a hierarchical institution and the Body of Christ; she is an earthly Church and one filled with heavenly treasures. Hence the Church is a complex reality that has human and divine elements” (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 122). There are many ways that we can describe the Church and many things that we can say about her. In terms of being the place where God’s mercy is encountered there are three powerful images that best describe the Church: the inn, the field hospital, and the loving mother.

   First, the inn. The writings of St. Augustine, like those of the other Fathers of the Church, speak frequently and passionately of mercy and indicate to us that mercy was the Christian way of life, as it still is today. In commenting on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Augustine says that the Good Samaritan is Christ. He “wrapped our wounds” and “washed them” with the wine of his blood and then made sure that we would continue to be taken care of. How? By bringing us to the inn. Augustine writes, “The inn is the Church; the Holy Spirit lives there” (Sermon 365).1

   Second, the field hospital. Pope Francis has become known as the “Pope of Mercy.”2 During one of his morning homilies last year, he said, “This is the mission of the Church: the Church heals, it cures. Sometimes, I speak of the Church as if it were a field hospital. It’s true: there are many, many wounded” (Homily, February 2, 2015)!

   Third, the loving mother. The Fathers of the Church and various popes after them have used this image to describe the Church. The Second Vatican Council likewise used it in its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium, as one way to speak about the Church. Our own diocesan bishop, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, has also used this image, as the chief shepherd of our local Church, for his episcopal motto: “Ecclesia Mater Nostra,” or “our Mother, the Church.”

   What do these three images have in common? First, they reinforce the fact that we are both spiritual and religious, believers and “belongers.” We do not go to God alone or on our own terms. Rather, we are guests at the inn, patients in the field hospital, and children of a loving mother. In other words, we are members of Christ’s Body, the Church. This is the place where we encounter God’s mercy because the Church is the place where we belong, the place where we go to God together, to worship him and to be reconciled to him, especially when our sins separate us from him and from one another.

   Second, these images remind us that mercy is not the language of “who cares?” No. Mercy assumes sin and wants to do something about it. Mercy wants to rehabilitate us. Where? At the inn. Mercy wants to bind and heal our spiritual wounds. Where? In the field hospital. And, mercy wants to place us in the arms of whom? Our loving mother. Christ is the “face of the Father’s mercy” (MV, 1). He is mercy itself and we encounter him in and through his Church

   As Pope Francis says, “The Church enables us to encounter the mercy of God which transforms us, for in her Jesus Christ is present who has given her the true confession of faith, the fullness of the sacramental life, and the authenticity of the ordained ministry. In the Church each one of us finds what is needed to believe, to live as Christians, to become holy, and to journey to every place and through every age” (General Audience, 1, October 9, 2013).

   1, 2 To read more of St. Augustine’s reflections on mercy, as well what some of the other Fathers of the Church said about mercy, see “Mercy in the Fathers of the Church.” To read more of Pope Francis’ reflections on mercy, as well as what some of the other recent popes have said about mercy, see “Mercy in the Teachings of the Popes.” Both are published by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization as pastoral resources for living this Jubilee of Mercy.

   Father Christopher Seibt is parochial vicar of the Church of Ss. John and Andrew in Binghamton.

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