Given at a Mass at the gathering of seminarians from England and Wales at Our Lady's Shrine in Walsingham on 5 September 2015.
Today we are so glad and honoured to be together at this wonderful shrine of Our Blessed Lady. Here we touch something that runs deep in the Catholic veins of this country. Here we can sense why we refer to England as Mary's Dowry. And, of course, Wales too has its own splendid expressions of this same special love.
Today, I suggest, we honour Mary with one particular title, one which I trust will be used more frequently in the months and year ahead. Today we honour her as our 'Mother of Mercy' and I could immediately add the words 'our life, our sweetness and our hope.'
We have just listened to the words of the Annunciation, words effecting what they proclaim, words which mark the moment of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in our flesh.
Reflecting on this mystery, in Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis writes these words: 'No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of his love' (MV 24).
The Holy Father then reflects on each stage of Mary's life: her immaculate conception; her song of praise sung at the home of Elizabeth which, as he says, includes even us today, and her presence at the foot of the cross where she 'witnessed the words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus.' Pope Francis says: 'This supreme expression of mercy towards those who crucified Him shows us the point to which the mercy of God can reach. Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone, without exception' (MV 24).
Mary, our Mother of Mercy, gives us this testimony and calls on us, her children, to witness to that same boundless mercy of God in all that we do.
This, of course, is the project of the Year of Mercy. It is the emphasis we are giving to this next step in our journey of evangelisation, Proclaim ‘15. We are, quite simply, called to proclaim God's mercy.
For many of us this project contains a challenge which we do not like to make too explicit. Yet it rumbles away within our minds and maybe our consciences. We are formed, or being formed, to be teachers of the Gospel, teachers of the unfolding Gospel truth in the dogmas of the Church. How do we sustain our responsibility of teaching and upholding that truth while at the same time being messengers of limitless mercy? Does not the message of mercy somehow weaken the demands of truth? How do the demands of God's justice, that acting out of the truth in every situation, come together with the freely given gift of God's mercy?
Pope Francis tackles this question head on in this same letter. He ponders on the relationship between justice and mercy. 'These two,' he says, 'are not contradictory realities but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love' (MV 20).
Justice is presented as 'that which is rightly due to each individual’ (MV 20). It is understood in the Bible as 'the full observance of the Law' (MV 20). However, the Pope insists that in the fullness of Biblical teaching justice is 'conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God's will' (MV 20).
Jesus, he says, is rejected by the Pharisees precisely because he insisted on going further than the requirements of the Law. Jesus challenges those who would draw a line at formal respect for the law as the key issue. In doing so, Jesus quotes Hosea - 'I desire love and not sacrifice' (6.6). Pope Francis writes that this is to be seen even in the very actions of our Lord. 'Jesus…goes beyond the law' he says, 'the company he keeps with those the law considers sinners makes us realise the depth of his mercy' (MV 20).
He continues with these important words: 'Mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one feels the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice' (MV 21).
Think of the many scenes we see outside court rooms across this land. We see burdened people demanding justice. We see broken-hearted people lamenting that they have not received justice. We see those for whom the verdict has been satisfactory still embittered and unable, often, to speak of forgiveness. This is a society, wrapped up in its demands for justice, yet rapidly losing any sense of mercy.
In contrast, isn't it fascinating that, in the Gospels, those who truly encounter in Jesus the mercy and forgiveness of God do not simply go away relieved, but actually become the Lord's disciples, his fervent followers and enthusiastic sharers in his mission of mercy? What must we learn to be and to do if this is to become the experience of every person leaving our confessionals? That is the true challenge of mercy!
Not surprisingly, Pope Francis ends this part of his reflection with a reference to St Paul's proclamation of Jesus as the true source of mercy, the source of our being made right. He says: 'We must pay close attention to what Saint Paul says if we want to avoid making the same mistake for which Paul reproaches the Jews of his time: “For being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Rm 10:3-4)' (MV 21).
It is for these reasons that Pope Francis insists that, 'Mercy is the very foundation of the Church's life' (MV 10), 'the beating heart of the Gospel' (MV 12) and therefore central to our formation and our teaching. Without it we are only teachers of the law, teachers of a truth that has lost its heartbeat: that is a demand for observance and not an invitation to life.
And so we come back to our Mother of Mercy, for she constantly presents to us her Son, the very face of Divine Mercy. He is always there, in her arms, on her knee, in fragility or in splendour. She brings us to him that we may learn his mercy and, having been caressed by mercy in our weakness offer it ceaselessly to all as the fulfilment of the law, as the completion of every justice.
We may, I believe, read the Prophecy of Isaiah in this light. In our world today, in which so much justice is lacking and in which the course of justice delivered is so often unsatisfying, we are crying out for a sign of hope, a sign of new life. Isaiah tells us: 'The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means “God is with us”’ (7:14).
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, hail our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.