We are more than halfway through the season of Lent. The word “Lent”, derived from Old English, means “spring”. This particular week in March we seem to be experiencing an early spring with 70-degree days and sunshine. The Church calendar sets aside these forty days of the Lenten season to have us prepare for the celebration of Easter. In this particular year, Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy – “an invitation to love, kindness, and unbounded generosity. Pope Francis is offering [us] the opportunity to encounter the incredible mercy of God. Encountering mercy means encountering God. It can transform [our lives], [our] relationships, [our] work, and [our] ability to embrace and experience all of life.” (dynamiccatholic.com)
How do we experience God’s mercy? Merriam-Webster defines mercy to be “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.” In my elementary school religion classes, mercy was further defined by the Church’s outline of the corporate and spiritual acts of mercy. The corporal acts, responding to the physical needs of others, include: feeding the hungry, shelter the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual acts include: instructing the ignorant, bearing wrongs patiently, counseling the doubtful, forgiving offenses willingly, admonishing the sinner, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. These concrete acts help to shape merciful decisions and actions in our lives.
As I reflect, some of the corporal and spiritual acts can be very much a part of my everyday experience, while some others might be further removed. I might consider feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as works of mercy that I support indirectly through monetary donations to organizations and causes, yet forgiveness, counsel, and bearing wrongs can be conscious daily efforts with family members, coworkers, and students. Moreover, our individual work calls us to integrate other values that sometimes may seem to be in conflict with being merciful. For example, in upholding rules and procedures to be equitable and fair, a person might be perceived as “merciless.” Conversely, sometimes those in positions of power are perceived to be “weak” or “unfair” if they are thought to be administering “kind or forgiving treatment to someone who could be treated harshly,” as Merriam-Webster defines “mercy.” So does mercy have boundaries?
When we talk about God’s mercy, we describe it as “boundless.” The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent was the parable of the Prodigal Son, the very popular story of two brothers who led very different lives, one obedient to his father and the other squandering his inheritance only to come home to his father, who accepted him back with great joy. It is a most interesting story, when we consider the perspectives and interactions of the father and each of his sons. The father showed mercy on his prodigal son to the upset of his obedient son who was angered and felt slighted. He said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ (Luke 15:11-32). To me, his father’s response gives critical insight into being merciful. He told his obedient son, “You are here with me always and everything I have is yours.” But that statement was not to the exclusion of what the father was feeling: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” If we think about it, the father gave each son what he needed and deserved: the obedient son would have everything the father has promised him, and the other son received the love and acceptance he had come to appreciate. It is interesting that the father did not say that the son who returned would have his monetary inheritance reinstated; he did say that to his obedient son: “everything I have is yours.” This might suggest that God’s mercy is not about the equability of things in this life; there are consequences to actions. Rather, God’s mercy is about acceptance, love, caring, and concern. A merciful person helps another “get through” the rough times, like the wayward son who will have to rebuild his life.
As I think about the idea of “mercy,” I think about my parents. Many of us may have experienced parents who sacrificed much for the sake of the rest of the family. My father’s family story is particularly difficult, beginning with his father’s untimely death at age 50, leaving his 40-year-old widow with eight children, ages 13 to 2 years old. Both of my grandparents were Italian immigrants, who spoke broken English. At the death of my grandfather, the social service agency wanted to place my father and his siblings in foster care, since my grandmother had no means of support. Instead, my father, the oldest, and his older sisters down to the third grade, left school to work in the mills on the Brandywine River. My grandmother began taking in laundry, and eventually was able to open a corner grocery store in the late 1920s. As a result of the challenges of the family early in life, my father and siblings remained close, with my father serving as the patriarch. My mother had to “share” my father with the extended family when they married in 1938. There were many stressful moments when my father’s attentions were given to the extended family at the expense of my mother and brothers. But through all of the difficult moments, I believe it was mercy that provided the glue that kept the family together and happy. It was a mercy that did not expect perfection or always the right decisions, but rolled with the mistakes and misunderstandings. Like the father in the parable, mercy, love, and forgiveness could always be found in our parents’ home, but, as children, we were always told to accept the consequences of our actions.
Our students have access to so many virtual communities through social media outlets today. They can find on-line communities that can validate a variety of values and perspectives, to the point that relativism becomes a way to rationalize behavior that is counter to Catholic Christian perspective – a perspective that celebrates the suffering servant, the merciful father, and the dignity of the marginalized and the outcast. I am so impressed and encouraged by our students, many whom I believe perform the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy each day – the way they interact with one another and their teachers; their concern for the marginalized and disadvantaged through the many outreach and community service efforts, and the intellectual sophistication that they posses to be sensitive to and internalize empathetic feelings for another.
Easter patterns the rites of spring – new birth – the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity of eternal life through His Son. It is this ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son, that is an expression of God’s mercy and love for us. I pray that all of the members of our Archmere Academy community may know that liberation of God’s mercy, and that, whatever religions or pathways to the Creator individuals’ may choose, they may know that they always have a place in the “household,” just as in the story of the Prodigal Son, just as in the story of my family, just as in the community that is Archmere.
God’s Blessings on You and Your Family this Lent and Easter,
Michael A. Marinelli, ’76 Ed.D.