If you walked into your local grocery store and asked the average person in America, “What does the Catholic Church stand for?” what would be the response?
Many would focus on the moral issues: “The Catholic Church is against abortion, against contraception, and against ‘gay marriage.’” Almost no one would say: “The Catholic Church stands for God who is love and who created us out of love; who invites us to share in his love; who sent his Son to die for us out of love; and who wants to forgive us no matter what we’ve done and heal us so that we can be happy in this life and with him forever in heaven.”
God’s love and mercy are at the very heart of the Gospel; yet, most people, even many Catholics, don’t know this central point of our faith. This is one reason that Pope Francis has called for the extraordinary Jubilee called “The Year of Mercy.”
The Priority of Mercy
Pope Francis is driven by a pressing desire to bring God’s mercy to “the outermost fringes of society.” Like Christ, whose public ministry was marked by his constant search for the weak, suffering, and lost souls in his day, Pope Francis says that the Church should be continually going out to touch as many people as possible with God’s mercy. “How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst!”
How effective are we as witnesses to God’s mercy? We might hold to the right doctrines, right liturgical practices and right moral principles, but how much do people encounter God’s loving mercy in us and in our parishes, apostolates, or individual lives?
In this Year of Mercy, the pope invites us to a renewed encounter with Christ’s merciful love. By experiencing God’s mercy at a deeper level in our own lives, we can be more effective witnesses to that mercy in the world.
Here are four simple things every individual, family, or parish can do to live the Year of Mercy.
1. Recognize How Much You Need God’s Mercy
Christians often talk about God’s mercy. But do we personally experience it day-to-day? Pope Francis is challenging us, in this Year of Mercy, to go deeper, much deeper. He’s inviting us to encounter Christ anew and in a way that overcomes the barriers to receiving his mercy.
What are those barriers? Sometimes, we lack self-awareness and fail to see the truth about ourselves. We might think the most urgent thing we need to work on in our spiritual lives is purity, prayer, or fasting, but God might want us first to grow in humility, patience, or compassion. We also might be good at noticing the shortcomings in the people around us but fail to recognize our own weaknesses. We’re quick to condemn someone’s lack of piety or immoral choices, but make excuses for our own little infidelities to prayer and repeated sins. We’re impatient with our spouse’s faults but unaware of how our own stubbornness or inability to see things from the other’s perspective is affecting the marriage.
The first step in encountering God’s mercy is recognizing how much we need it. It’s crucial that we acknowledge this need not just abstractly (“As a fallen human being, I need God’s mercy”), but also experientially at the core of our being (“Lord, I’m a mess….I’m really struggling…I can’t do this…I need you...Please help me”). Only when we come humbly before the Lord as we really are—without pretense, self-deception, excuses, or directing the blame to others—can we truly encounter God’s mercy and begin to grow.
2. Encounter God’s Mercy—“In the Valley of Humility”
Facing up to our real self, however, can be painful. We feel our faults and weaknesses. We’re sad we’re not doing better and wish we didn’t need God’s mercy so much. We wish we could present ourselves to God as holy and without blemish, and we get frustrated when we fall short.
But our sorrow and discouragement over our sins are not always pure. Often there is more focus on ourselves than on God (“I can’t believe I did that!”). On the surface, our frustration looks like humility, but underneath, a hidden pride might be lurking. As Jacques Phillippe explains, “We are not sad and discouraged so much because God was offended, but because the ideal image that we have of ourselves has been brutally shaken. Our pain is very often that of wounded pride! This excessive pain is actually a sign that we have put our trust in ourselves—in our own strength and not in God.”
St. Therese of Lisieux once told her sister Celine, “You wish to scale a mountain, but the good God wants you to descend; he is waiting for you at the bottom of the fertile valley of humility.” This beautiful statement captures the Gospel of Mercy: God wants to meet us not where we’d like to be, high up on the mountain of perfection, but just as we are, in the valley of humility. Why? On one hand, God wants us to know how much he loves us right now. Our soul’s value is not dependent on how well we perform. He loves us as we are, even with all our fears, wounds, weaknesses, and sins.
On the other hand, God wants us to be convinced of how utterly dependent we are on him, so that we might surrender every area of our lives to him. The more we are convinced of our littleness, the more God fills us with his grace to comfort us in our afflictions, change our hearts, and overcome our sins. The more we encounter God’s mercy in this way—his love, his forgiveness, his saving help—the more fruitful we will be in sharing his mercy in the world.
3. Take on the Heart of Christ—Compassion, Not Judgment
How do you respond when you notice someone’s faults?
Perhaps someone you know gossips a lot, is cohabitating, doesn’t go to Mass, or voted for a certain political candidate. Or maybe your spouse is grumpy, your child is disrespectful, or a coworker says something that hurts you. Many of us are quick to critique or judge such a person, but a true encounter with God’s mercy should soften our hearts and make us more patient with other people’s weaknesses. Pope Francis says we should always have “an endless desire to show mercy.”.
While we are called to proclaim Christ’s teachings and even at times to correct others, we must do so without making judgments concerning a person’s moral responsibility. St. Catherine of Siena taught that the devil may sometimes allow us to see certain facts about a person’s life (they’re not pro-life, he’s cranky today, she’s always complaining), so that we’re tempted to set ourselves in judgment over them, but we usually don’t see the whole picture: the person’s upbringing, hurts, ignorance, intentions, and circumstances. Various factors in people’s lives may impair their free choices in such a way that limits their culpability or moral guilt (CCC 1735). As Pope Francis explains, “each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.” For example, a young woman may engage in unchaste acts that are objectively wrong, but if she has never experienced love from her parents and friends, has been sexually abused and has come to believe that this is the only way she will be valued by others, and if she has always been encouraged in such behavior and has never had Catholic teaching on sexuality explained to her, how culpable is she before God? Only God can tell. One thing that is clear is that such a woman needs from us hearts that are full of compassion and not judgment. She needs to know God’s love and the love of the Christian community, not just a lesson about the moral law.
In the end, if we truly come to terms with our own weakness and sin and experience how merciful God is with us, then we will be more patient, compassionate, and forgiving in the face of others’ shortcomings. We will be more eager to help people than to critique them. If we are quick to judge people in our hearts, though, it may be a sign that we do not truly know ourselves. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux taught, “You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul.”
4. Encounter the Poor—The Corporal & Spiritual Works of Mercy
If we truly encounter God’s mercy, we also will desire to share his love more with the poor and suffering. In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants us to give not just money, but ourselves to the poor. He wants us to encounter the poor personally, look at them, listen to them, and treat them with dignity as brothers and sisters.
“I sometimes ask people: ‘Do you give alms?’ They say to me: ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And when you give alms do you look the person you are giving them in the eye?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really notice.’ ‘Then you have not really encountered them. You tossed him the alms and walked off. When you give alms, do you touch the person’s hand or do you throw the coin?’ ‘No, I throw the coin.’ ‘So you did not touch him. And if you don’t touch him you don’t meet him.’”
Living in solidarity with the poor and caring for them are crucial signs of a faithful Catholic. It was a chief criterion for St. Paul, when he preached the Gospel to the gentiles. The apostles told Paul to make sure to “remember the poor” (cf. Gal 2:10). Indeed, Paul’s Christian communities throughout Asia Minor and Greece cared for the poor and served as “a prophetic, counter-cultural resistance to the self-centered hedonism of paganism.”
As a new pagan culture emerges in our own day, Pope Francis summons us to give the same Christian witness that the early Church provided. He exhorts us to build communities that care for the weak and vulnerable and thus stand in stark contrast with the individualistic age in which we live. We must address both material and spiritual poverty and thus care for the homeless on the streets, the lonely within their own homes, those hungering for food, and those hungering for love. The pope, then, calls for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be at the forefront during this Jubilee. If we take these steps, at the end of this holy year, the Church will be an even more shining witness to the God of mercy.
Edward Sri, S.T.D. is professor of theology at the Augustine Institute and author of Pope Francis and the Joy of the Gospel: Rediscovering the Heart of a Disciple.
 Cf. Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, art. 14.
 Ibid., art. 5.
 Jacque Filippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 58-59.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, art. 24.
 Ibid., art. 172.
 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility and Pride, 6.
 EG, art. 193.
This article originally appeared on pages 6-8 of the printed edition.