The formal Lenten message of Pope Francis this year, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice (Mt 9:13), centers on his emphasis of mercy during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The Pope begins his message by stressing that he had asked that the season of Lent be lived more intensely during this Jubilee Year as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God's mercy. His message refers in a particular way to the role of Mary, especially in regard to her praise of God when she visits her cousin, Elizabeth, after receiving the good news that she is to be the Mother of Jesus Christ. In her Magnificat (cf. Lk 1:46 – 55), Mary sings of the mercy of God with which she was chosen for this role. Mary realizes that it was out of God's mercy, and not for any merit on her own, that she would be the Mother of God.
During this season of Lent, it is well for us to reflect upon Mary as someone who truly experienced God's mercy in her life as well as in the lives of others, especially as she stood beneath the Cross of her Son. Mary is the model of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and this is so precisely because she understood the revelation of God's mercy in her Son. Mary stood with the Apostles as the Holy Spirit came upon the Church on Pentecost and was the clearest example of unity in Christ’s mercy after His death and Resurrection. She continues to be the source of unity within the Church even above Peter and the Pope, as Pope Francis has said on so many occasions. She is this exemplar of unity precisely because she realizes that it is Christ's mercy which is central and not her.
In his Encyclical on God's Mercy, Dives in Misericordiae, St. Pope John Paul II emphasized Mary as the Mother of Mercy. Truly this title of Mary is a significant one both in regard to her own experience of God's mercy as well as to that experience in the lives of all the followers of her Son. It is also very significant because Mary is our mother and as our Mother continually intercedes for her Son’s mercy upon us. She is the Mother of Mercy in a very real way because she is able to bring mercy into existence in the concrete events of our life. She also is the Mother of Mercy because she is the Mother of Christ who is indeed mercy itself.
It may be surprising to reflect upon Mary as one who accepted mercy in her life since, sinless, she was not in need of God's forgiveness. Mary, who was free from original sin, never committed any sin nor did she ever do anything to offend God in any way. Unlike the rest of us, she was not in need of contrition or penitence to beseech God's mercy. However, as St. Pope John Paul II states Mary is "The one who obtained mercy in a particular and exceptional way, as no other person has.” As she so beautifully proclaimed in her Magnificat, she realized she was not worthy of any of the gifts which God freely bestowed upon her, including that of being the Mother of His Son, but she accepted them knowing that such acceptance gave joy to God's infinite giving of Himself in love. Therefore, Mary was the first to accept God's mercy freely and unconditionally always realizing that it is God who bestows upon us all that we have.
During this season of Lent, it is important for us to realize that we do not earn or deserve the mercy of God. It is especially important for us to realize that our merits and achievements result from the gifts and grace of God. Who we are and what we may accomplish, as well as all of our talents and abilities, come from God. They are not our possessions. However, what we can claim as our own, without any qualification, are our faults and our sins. These we possess completely on our own. It is in this realization that we realize how merciful God is to us. No matter how significant our sins may be, God forgives us when we turn to Him and express our sorrow. He also forgives us over and over again, no matter how many times we may fail and turn to Him. That is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is such a wonderful gift all during the Jubilee of Mercy and Lent is an especially good time to receive the sacrament and to grow in a better understanding of it.
It brings God joy to forgive us and we can never let our own pride stand in the way of receiving this forgiveness. Soon we will be reflecting upon the betrayal of Judas who gave Jesus over in order to receive a monetary recompense. His sin is an obvious and grievous one which has marked the history of the world making him an example of sinful betrayal. We will soon also be reflecting upon the betrayal of St. Peter who denied knowing Jesus Christ and separated himself from the Lord at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. His sin was also grievous. However, what separates Peter from Judas is Peter's willingness to admit his betrayal and to receive the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. Judas could not do this and put himself to death before asking for and receiving such forgiveness. As we reflect upon the mercy of God during this Lenten season, it is beneficial for us to realize that Judas, too, would have been forgiven had he not let his pride stand in the way.
St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who is a very well-known and popular saint in the Church, knew well the understanding of God's mercy and Mary as the Mother of Mercy for all of us. Unlike Mary, St. Therese was not free from original sin but she certainly lived a life free from any serious sins against God. However, she understood that God was all merciful and that the acceptance of His mercy by all of us brings Him great joy. St. Therese cultivated the art of accepting failure. She would delight in her unsuccessful actions, not because they were unsuccessful, but because she knew they would bring her God's unconditional mercy. She would say that "God has so much love to give, and he can't do it; people present only their own merits, and these are so paltry.” She always knew that God was willing to forgive her failures joyfully and this brought her great joy.
As we continue our Lenten journey during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, we look to Mary, the Mother of Mercy, in a special way as Pope Francis has called us to do. We reflect upon the words of St. Paul that we heard read at Mass on Ash Wednesday, "And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting their transgressions against them . . . We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:18-20). These words are truly the epitome expression of God’s mercy which stands before all of us and should be the source of our life and joy.
May Mary, our Mother of Mercy continue to intercede for us.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 19, 2016