The Latin word for mercy is misericordia, which is formed from two other Latin words: “miseriae,” which means misery or suffering, and “cordia,” which means heart. One could thus say that the mercy of God draws misery out of a person’s heart. It is of the nature of mercy to therefore heal wounds. The mercy we are speaking about here is broader than the reception of forgiveness from God and granting forgiveness to others. It includes all of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, which are also aspects of God’s very own love for us. As Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Mercy is love’s second name.” However, in this brief post, I’m going to focus on that aspect of mercy we are the most familiar with – forgiving and receiving forgiveness.
I am an adult child of divorce, so I have seen first-hand what the lack of forgiveness can look like. I believe that divorce typically involves one or both parents withholding mercy. There are, of course, other complicating factors for the divorce, but I believe there is usually a failure of mercy somewhere in the relationship. I knew I did not want to repeat the mistakes of my parents, so I took a long look at mercy and examined how it might be a key to love and to healing wounds.
In terms of love, I have always been struck by the beautiful reality that Matthew 19, which is Christ’s strongest teaching about the indissolubility of marital love, is preceded by one of Christ’s strongest teachings on mercy in Matthew 18, where he exhorts his followers to forgive 77 x 7 times. This number is a symbolic way for saying, “infinitely and unconditionally.” The proximity of these two teachings in the Bible suggests that the form of indissolubility is merciful love. Merciful love is not optional in relationships, but the foundation for its long-term success. Offering forgiveness gives a new beginning to the one who offends and helps relationships build from injuries that inevitably arise in any relationship, even great ones. As Ruth Graham, the wife of the recently deceased protestant minister Billy Graham said, “Marriage is a union of two good forgivers.”
To offer forgiveness in the radical sense Christ is proposing here, we need to experience Divine Mercy ourselves. We can do this by going frequently to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and understanding what is occurring. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive unmerited forgiveness from Christ. He does not owe us forgiveness and yet he forgives. He also always forgives us despite the number of times we repeatedly fail at the same sin. “Christ never tires of mercy,” Pope Francis reminds us. And Christ forgave us while we were sinners before we were even repentant and able to receive that forgiveness. His cry on the Cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is echoed down through the centuries.
When we experience this unmerited forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are healed because we recognize that Christ loves us “just because.” He does not love us because we do not have sin, failures, or weaknesses. He loves us despite these things and the ugliness of our actions. He loves us “just because” we are always His beloved. Of course, Christ wants us to be repentant, to promise to be holy and sin no more, in order to be reconciled with Him and others. Yet at the same time, we must never forget that this divine forgiving love always remains unmerited because Christ loves unconditionally.
With the reception of this Divine Mercy, we can then live mercifully in our own relationships in the same way and not be afraid when we or our spouse, friends, or family make mistakes, have conflict, or sin. These things happen; we are not perfect. In such moments, it is always possible to forgive, to receive forgiveness, and to love if we draw continually upon God’s grace and forgiveness. By doing so, we’ll experience healing and a deeper unity again and again through mercy.
Questions for Reflection: When was the last time you received the Sacrament of Reconciliation? How have you experienced God’s mercy?
St. Paul offers us this challenge: “Be filled with the Spirit . . . giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20) (emphasis added). Be thankful “at all times” and for “everything?” “Well that would seem to include suffering and evil. Really Lord – you want me to be thankful for that trial in my life? I'll be thankful for other things but not for that. That's impossible! Lord, at the very least, maybe you could tell me a little bit more about how I can live this radical gratitude? Help my unbelief!”
This is how my prayer dialogue went with God one day as I examined my attitude toward gratitude. I thought to myself, “Do I treat gratitude as just one of those nice pious sentiments that I should do in general, but ignore when it costs me? In other words, do I make gratitude just a platitude?” I know I have treated gratitude in that way and have brushed off the Christian teaching to be thankful 'at all times' as idealistic on more than one occasion. I began to examine my soul more in depth. Why do I do this? “Usually,” I concluded, “it is because of a lack of knowledge as to why something is good for me and because my thoughts are too limited on the topic.” But God wants to break open our limited thoughts and actions. So I pressed on in my search for a deeper meaning of gratitude. Here is what I discovered.
I read a book recently that changed my perspective on gratitude. The author explained that gratitude is not just a good practice to do occasionally to uplift our spiritual lives, but is actually a necessary law of every Christian spiritual life. Gratitude is not an option; it is something we have to practice regardless of temperament, disposition, or circumstance. Based on my reading, I came up with two patterns for our spiritual life: the “cycle of spiritual fruitfulness” and the “cycle of spiritual emptiness”.
The cycle of spiritual fruitfulness begins with trust in God, which is nourished through faithfulness to one’s prayer life. Through prayer, gratitude grows. Gratitude is being aware of God’s many gifts in the daily happenings of our lives. Gratitude then becomes a necessary part of trust, especially in the midst of our suffering because gratitude opens up our heart to God. As we see more of God in our lives, then we give more to God and in turn are better able to receive more of God's love and grace in our life. This cycle, which begins with trust and gratitude, then repeats as we grow in love and become more loving gradually. This can be boiled down to:
Trust through Prayer → Gratitude → Opens Heart → More Love
The cycle of spiritual emptiness begins with a lack of trust in God and a lack of faithfulness to one's prayer life. Negativity focused on our weaknesses, what we lack, and our suffering replaces gratitude, closing our hearts and making us less capable of receiving God's love. We may even sin, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, whose ingratitude ultimately led to the first sin (Genesis 3). If we let this endure too long, then our whole life can become one big storm of sadness and anger. This can be boiled down to:
Distrust through Not Praying→ Negativity → Closed Heart → Less Love
Radical Gratitude Reconsidered
The cycle of spiritual fruitfulness offers us several good reasons for why St. Paul instructs us to be grateful at all times and for everything with no exception. If I want to open up my heart more to the Lord and thereby love more, then I must find a way to be thankful - even for the most difficult suffering. Thankfulness is not an option reserved only for those who describe themselves as sanguine or optimists; thankfulness is a necessary part of holiness. It is therefore no coincidence that the highest Sacrament in the Church, the Eucharist, in Greek literally means “thanksgiving, gratitude.”
With this in mind, I went back to my dialogue with God. I asked God for the grace to be more grateful in my daily life for everything. God, in turn, has asked me when I am tempted to be ungrateful and negative to make an act of trust in the moment and find something to be grateful for – health, the fresh crisp autumn air perhaps, or even more profoundly – my daily Sacrament with my wonderful wife – and thereby to become more aware of His love in my life. Slowly then, I become a little more grateful and a little less negative. Eventually I hope to build a habit of radical gratitude for every occasion in my life.
This gratefulness does not come overnight and does not necessitate a formal act of thankfulness at every moment. As I become more grateful in those little moments, I will not only be able to resist ingratitude in the more difficult moments, but will also be better able to be grateful even for new sufferings. In this way, I am trying slowly to become thankful at all times by committing to a few acts of trust each day through gratitude. Radical gratitude is possible, but only through God’s wonderful grace! Through grace, I have come to learn the importance of radical gratitude and the cycle of spiritual fruitfulness. I choose the cycle of spiritual fruitfulness.
What cycle are you on?
Come Holy Spirit, make all of us more radically grateful!
In 1986, Pope Saint John Paul II held the first World Youth Day in Rome following an outpouring of youth support in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday in 1984. In the thirty-one years since, there have been fourteen international World Youth Days. The Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. is seeking to continue the legacy of the pope’s initiative establishing a national World Youth Day by holding World Youth Day (WYD) Unite on July 22, 2017.
WYD Unite is a festival of prayer, reflection, and fellowship that hopes to bring together young adults and young families in an experience of authentic communion, joy, and healing in Christ. While small young adult gatherings are important, there is something transformative about a large gathering of young people coming to together to worship and experience fellowship from across many dioceses in the United States. WYD Unite already has individuals from over 40 dioceses and 10 religious orders, as well as 5 Bishops attending!
The day will include talks by Bishop Nelson Perez and Bishop Frank Caggiano, who will reflect upon the theme "The Mighty One Has Done Great Things for Me and Holy is His Name.” In addition to these bishops, there will also be a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and a pilgrimage unity walk, under the patronage of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, led by Bishop Mark Brennan. This walk will be a special moment to offer up our own “knots” or difficulties to the Lord and we are pleased to have received permission to have the official image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots from the World Meeting of Families. This beautiful image was blessed and prayed in front of by our Holy Father Pope Francis. In the evening, there will also be dinner, a concert by Tony Melendez, lawn games, and an outdoor, candlelight Eucharistic Adoration with music provided by Audrey Assad.
At the 2002 World Youth Day held in Toronto, St. John Paul II said, “I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people.” WYD Unite is an opportunity for young people in the area to connect with each other and experience Christ’s healing while challenging them to commit to living in some new way back in their home parishes and dioceses—thus fully realizing St. John Paul II’s plan for WYD.
Last Summer, the Catholic Apostolate Center was proud to assist the USCCB World Youth Day Office with its efforts for World Youth Day 2016. Additionally, the Catholic Apostolate Center was honored to be a Platinum Sponsor of Krakow in the Capital, which drew over 1,000 young adults in the DC-area to participate locally in World Youth Day 2016. This year, we are happy to collaborate with the St. John Paul II National Shrine to host WYD Unite. This second event of its kind will be held at the Washington, D.C. Shrine on July 22, 2017. For more information about WYD Unite, click here.