BOGOTA, Colombia — “Faced with a divided world which is in search of unity, we must proclaim with joy and firm faith that God is communion, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unity in distinction, and that he calls all people to share in that same trinitarian communion.”
That comes from the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Genitum. And it’s safe to say that might sound foreign to the average person on the secular street today. But can anyone pretend we don’t live in a divided world? And living in it, with all its chaos and confusion, how do we communicate unity in a way that doesn’t come across as a saccharine, even a childish a dream? How could it be an accessible vision for renewal?
It has to start with an encounter with the God who made us.
The aforementioned words about the Trinity were cited in St. John Paul II’s Ecclesia in America in 1999. In it he proposed that all of the Americas unite themselves as a single continent appreciating what the countries share in common, “including their shared Christian identity and their genuine attempt to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and communion between the different forms of the continent’s rich cultural heritage.”
In that spirit, “The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on the American Continent” gathered about 400 Catholic leaders from throughout the Americas Aug. 27-30 in Bogotá, Colombia. Again and again, speakers emphasized and gave thanks that it wasn’t just another conference. It was a close encounter with trinitarian presence in our parts of the world — saints and martyrs and you and me, priests and sisters and shepherds and every single member of the body of Christ. And it asked practical questions: What does mercy look like practically speaking? Why is it? What are its challenges? How can we move forward in it?
Mercy gets a bad rap in some quarters because it is seen to sideline or even entirely eliminate seeming imperatives like justice and truth. But people here aren’t interested in eradicating but illuminating the two. Leading with mercy makes truth palatable and plausible.
Authentically leading with mercy is invitational.
A lot of what people know about the Church — people of no faith, of other faiths and who have fallen away from the Catholic faith — is what makes headlines. Reprehensible evil and scandals. Also, misreads of doctrine and papal interviews on planes are ubiquitous. When acts of mercy and propositions of mercy are born out of genuine thanksgiving for mercy received, then the mercy work and talk radiate love.
Then it is credible. And in a world today where people are bombarded by spin and poll-tested messages vying for their attention, they need credible, which floats to the surface and in this case has the possibility of lifting them out of the skepticism and slavery to all kinds of things they’ve settled for in the absence of viable alternatives.
“Witness is always more powerful and more persuasive than words, as we know. But this becomes even more crucial in a society that denies the reality of God, the relevance of faith and the liberty of conscience. In a post-Christian society, mercy — lived through works of love — becomes the best ‘proof’ for God’s presence and power,” Archbishop José H. Gomez said during the Bogotá meeting.
“By our love and tenderness, by our joy, we attract others to the cause of our joy, to the person of Jesus Christ. By our love and tenderness, we make God’s own mercy a reality that our neighbors can believe in and give their lives to.”
The gathering also managed to highlight the tremendous opportunity Pope Francis and his emphasis on mercy offers to divided people in need of some kind of opening for some kind of opening for dialogue with a culture that doesn’t share many — or any — basic assumptions about life and its meaning and value.
In his own remarks, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, himself a Canadian, said: “In fixing our gaze on mercy, we ask that our personal and ecclesial witness may become ‘stronger and more effective’ with the help of the Jubilee of Mercy. How can the Catholic Church bear a better witness to mercy in our societies which are rich in history and religious values but remain marked by poverty, injustice, corruption and secularization?”
Dubbed a celebration of mercy by Pope Francis and others, the assembly was organized by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL) and the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), in conjunction with the Bishops of the United States and Canada and the Knights of Columbus. Considering the main organizers and the location, it was notable that North Americans, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops President Joseph E. Kurtz, took part.
Archbishop Gomez focused on that common ground of Christianity throughout the Americas in part by pointing to St. Junípero Serra, who Pope Francis canonized in Washington, D.C., last year. He focused, here, too, on mercy. The archbishop quoted from one of Father Serra’s sermons:
“God is complete mercy, complete love and complete tenderness toward all people, even toward the most ungrateful sinners. … The Lord wishes all people to attain the ends for which he compassionately created us. He yearns that we might believe that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that we might advance toward the salvation he wills for us.”
The archbishop added: “This is our mission now.” He said: “Like the first missionaries to this continent, we need to proclaim the beautiful reality of God’s compassion and tenderness.” He highlighted: The glad tidings of God’s complete mercy and love — and his desire that everyone might find the salvation he wants for us.”
This was consistent with the pope’s message last year during the canonization Mass for Father Serra in Washington, D.C. There, on the campus of the Catholic University of America, he said: “We are heirs to the bold missionary spirit of so many men and women who preferred not to be ‘shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security… within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.’” (He was there quoting from his own Evangelii Gaudium.)
The Holy Father said those witnesses before us knew that “life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort,” quoting from the Aparecida document that he had a hand in writing in 2007 when he was still cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, a precursor to this Bogota meeting with all the bishops of Latin America. For people trying to figure out what made Pope Francis tick, Aparecida was an early clue, one which could later be seen as an influence on his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, the theme of missionary discipleship as a crucial mandate of the Gospel prominent in both.
Overwhelming joy can seem impossible to modern individuals in a post-Christian society. But if we are credible witnesses, to a love that only makes sense through supernatural help, something will change. Something has to change.
Cardinal Ouellet shared an insight at the very end of the event, at the final dinner, a conversation he had with Pope Francis about the reason for the Jubilee of Mercy. He said — I’ll paraphrase the translation — that mercy is a game changer. Only the supernatural can explain mercy and so when you do or see mercy, there is a change that necessarily happens. That’s not a program but more like a miracle.
I was reminded immediately of a conference the same Pontifical Commission for Latin America held in 2012, just before Pope Benedict XVI made the surprise resignation announcement. He gave an address to a group of some of the same Catholic leaders from the Americas.
“The Catholic Church is convinced that the light for an adequate solution can only come from encounter with the living Christ, which gives rise to attitudes and ways of acting based on love and truth. This is the decisive force that will transform the American continent,” Pope Benedict said.
“Dear friends, the love of Christ impels us to devote ourselves without reserve to proclaiming his name throughout America, bringing it freely and enthusiastically to the hearts of all its inhabitants. There is no more rewarding or beneficial work than this. There is no greater service that we can provide to our brothers and sisters. They are thirsting for God.”
If you knew the Holy Spirit was imploring you to do something quite specific, you’d have to go about doing it, wouldn’t you? It does seem quite clear. And could St. Mother Teresa, who visited and established homes here, be a patron saint for us? And St. John Paul II, who called for a unified continent serving Christ in love?
St. Mother Teresa, pray for us.
St. John Paul II, pray for us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!