The Gospel is full of instances when Jesus reiterates that his mission is not one of self-serving promotion, but the conformity to the Will of God. The phrase “the one who sent me” illustrates this well, directing our attention from the person Jesus of Nazareth to the Christ who was sent to the world by our loving, generous, merciful God. As I like to point out, the beginning of John’s Gospel makes this so clear — no one has ever seen God, but the Son has revealed God (John 1:18). If we want to know what God is like, look at the Son: see how he loves, how he heals, how he forgives. This is how God acts.
As Christian women and men, our call is to point to God by our deeds and actions in the same way that the Son has. In looking at our way of being in the world, others should be able to see the love, healing, and mercy of the God who created us. This is how St. Francis of Assisi sought to live, which explains in part why he has been hailed as one of the greatest Christians to have ever lived — he, as best as one can, pointed beyond himself to God and it changed the lives of countless numbers and impacted the church forever.
That impact was felt this past week in Brazil as Pope Francis, whose name is taken after that of the Saint who so closely resembled Christ that his life pointed to God and that, as tradition has it, he received the Stigmata as a visible sign of his participating in the life and passion of Christ with whom he was so intimately conformed.
John Allen, in an article last week, anticipates the pope’s celebration of the Sacrament of Penance with several young people as perhaps the personal highlight and capstone of his visit on the occasion of World Youth Day. Allen writes:
Every pope seems to have a signature spiritual idea. For John Paul II, it was courage: “Be not afraid!” was his catchphrase to invite the church to recapture its missionary swagger after years of introspection and self-doubt. For Benedict XVI, it was “faith and reason,” the idea that religious belief and intellectual reflection need one another to remain healthy.
For Francis, the best early candidate for his signature touch is mercy, expressed in his repeated emphasis on God’s endless capacity to forgive.
Confession, of course, is the church’s premier sacrament of mercy, so Friday, Francis is both substantively and symbolically going to the heart of his own spiritual message.
Citing a study done in Italy that compiled a count of which words appeared most frequently in the public addresses (homilies, Angelus addresses, catechetical teaching, etc.), Allen wrote that “joy” and “mercy” were the two most common.
Pope Francis has offered a model in his short time as Bishop of Rome of what it means to live the Christian life in terms of preaching what the Gospel actually calls us to live and, from what can be seen to date, practicing what one preaches. It is no accident that so many seemed so moved by a man who goes out of his way to be approachable, for the God of Jesus Christ has revealed to humanity that God is more approachable than we could ever imagine! Jesus refused no one!
Allen includes a telling quote by Pope Francis, which highlights precisely this awareness of the God who forgives: “The Lord never gets tired of forgiving, never. We are the ones who get tired of asking him for forgiveness.”