“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” That’s the first sentence in Pope Francis’s letter announcing the Year of Mercy. If Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy, it is then also true that the church is the face of Jesus’s mercy.
As a church, our job, as the Body of Christ, is to make mercy real and tangible in the world. We fail at that, of course. The church is a human institution. And because we often fail, we have to continually ask ourselves if we are living up to what we are supposed to be as a church.
I think it is tempting here to let ourselves, as individuals, off the hook. I can’t control what the Vatican does, what the bishops do, or even what my own parish does. So perhaps there isn’t much I can do to influence the larger church to be the face of mercy.
RCIA teams are the face of mercy to seekers
However, I do think that as RCIA teams we have a responsibility to be the face of mercy to our seekers. To them, we are the institutional church. And they look to us to extend Jesus’s mercy.
I think we have to be bold and courageous about this. We cannot let the gospel of mercy be merely one of the things we teach—a topic on a long list of topics we have to cover. We have to embody mercy and proclaim it constantly both in what we say and how we act.
In a sense, we have to prove that God is merciful to the doubting, skeptical seeker. The proof that we offer comes in many forms—stories from both the new and old testaments (especially the psalms); stories of the saints; and especially stories from our own lives.
Our actions teach
And we have to prove God’s mercy by the way we act. We cannot be confrontational and judgmental. Pope Francis is our model in this. He encounters daily resistance to his teaching from both inside and outside the church. His response is always a response of love.
There is a story about Pope Francis that is told by a journalist who got a coveted front row seat at one of the pope’s Wednesday audiences. Patting himself on the back because he was going to get to meet the pope and see him close up, he was soon in for a surprise. Instead of greeting the people in the front rows, the pope went the back of the room and shook hands and mingled with those who were “last.” Only after everyone in the back got to spend time with the pope did Francis greet the people in the front row.
What are we waiting for?
As RCIA team members, we don’t have to wait for the Vatican, or the bishops, or our parish leaders to walk to the back. We can go there ourselves. As a team, we can figure out ways to shake hands and mingle with people who are poor, marginalized, or disabled. We can go find the undocumented, the immigrants, the Muslims, and the prisoners. We can comfort the addicted, the infected, and the infirm. We can attend to those whose marriages and relationships are broken or unsanctioned or nonsacramental. These are all things Pope Francis has done and asks us to do.
St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the fourth century, said to his flock, “Do you wish to honor Christ’s body? Don’t pass by him when you see him naked; do not honor him here in the church with silken garments, while you neglect him perishing outside from the cold and nakedness!”
We cannot be credible teachers for our seekers if we are not the face of Jesus’s mercy in everything we do and say. As we enter the Year of Mercy, let’s spend less time with those at the front of the room and start walking toward the back.