January/February 2016

The Year of Mercy: ‘Merciful like the Father’

Michael A. Hayes

Walter Kasper’s important work on Mercy – The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life1 has been referred to by Pope Francis: ‘this book has done me so much good’.

‘Mercy must be understood as God’s own justice and as his holiness’ says Kasper, ‘only in this sense can we make the image of the good and merciful father, whom Jesus proclaimed to us, shine again. We could also say: it is necessary to draw a picture of a sympathetic God. This is doubly necessary in the face of ideological distortions of the God image’. (Kasper, p.13)
Here Kasper offers three insights into an understanding of mercy that will bring forth the image of God as the good and merciful father: justice, holiness, and the development of an image of a sympathetic God.

The Church’s self-understanding of justice as a virtue is not in terms of the legislation but in terms of relationship to ‘other’ and how an individual lives out the capacity to take on the instruction of Jesus: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mk 12.31). There is a clear and inextricable link between the exercise of justice understood in this way and the common good. Justice is concerned with upholding the common good of the whole of society; it seeks to change an unjust society; it has concern for the rights of others whether in dignity, property, or reputation. Justice, therefore, correlates to a primary given of human experience, ‘otherness’, the ad alterum. For St Ambrose justice is ‘that which renders to each what is his or hers, and claims not what is another’s; justice disregards one’s profit in order to maintain a common equity’ [De officiis, Bk 1,24 (PL 16:62)]. This proposition originates from the demand of scripture for the Christian to have an active commitment for one’s neighbour and that responsibility for humanity is a shared task (see, for example, Jn 13.34-35; Mk 12.28-31; Mt 5.43-48; Lk 10.25-37). This understanding of justice helps to develop and maintain the flourishing of human life in the context of community.

The Scriptures apply the word Holy to God and by implication the things of God – which of course includes all of creation. The vision of Isaiah is all about the immensity and otherness of God, ‘I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne…above him stood seraphs…and they were shouting to one another: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts”(6.3)’. In the book of Leviticus we hear God extending his own holiness, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy’ (20.26) he tells Moses. This is echoed in the first letter to Peter, ‘Be holy because I the Lord am Holy (1.16)’. God’s people are holy not just by their own choice but by the choice of God in the first instance. The call to holiness is constant for the Christian who must always strive to be holy in every aspect of their lives ‘after the likeness of the Holy One’ (1Pet 1.15). Indeed, the Church herself in Lumen Gentium identifies the tension between the sinner and the call to holiness, ‘The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of renewal’ (8).

A dictionary definition of ‘sympathetic’ will refer to such things as ‘feeling, inclined to, expressing sympathy’; ‘congenial’; ‘compassionate’. These all imply a relationship of some sort. So when Walter Kasper refers to the development of a sympathetic image of God, he is referring to a God who acts with, is agreeable towards, and is compassionate for, God’s own creation. The classic example in the scriptures of the sympathetic image of God is the account in chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel of the Prodigal Son. The narrative recounts the relationship between a father and his two sons, the disappearance through greed of one son and the fidelity yet envy of the other son and concludes with the father addressing his son who had not gone away, ‘My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found’ (11.32).

That is why it is so fitting that the official logo for the Year of Mercy should contain the words, ‘Merciful like the Father’!   

1     Kasper, W., Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Paulist Press 2014.

Footwashing: An action for Lent?

Thomas O’Loughlin

Is washing feet a once-a-year ritual for Holy Thursday evening?  This article suggests that perhaps it is a practice that has a wider value for Lent and an important element in the liturgy as the School of Discipleship. Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Two scenes
Try to imagine these two scenes. The first took place at a meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1998 when Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, addressed them. There were men and women in modern clerical dress, others, mainly men, in the exotic robes of yesteryear, some with complex claims to authority derived from the apostles and others from the fact of their empowerment by the Spirit. Some had centuries of repeated arguments to create barriers between them while others could barely enter such a thought world. Tracking who considered whom a ‘real’ minister and who would be willing to receive ‘ministry’ from whom would require a computer, yet they could all be united in one ritual: footwashing.

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Written for Our Instruction (4): Salvation in the Letter to the Romans

Thomas D. Stegman SJ

The fourth in a series of articles on the rich theology contained in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Thomas D. Stegman SJ is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, USA.

Our study of Paul’s treatment of the Holy Spirit showed his appreciation of sanctification, the gift of the Spirit that enables its recipients to grow in holiness. Sanctification is one of several ways in which he describes God’s saving action through Christ. The Letter to the Romans is a fertile source for understanding Pauline soteriology (from the Greek so–te–ria, ‘salvation’), a term employed by systematic theologians to describe what salvation through Messiah Jesus involves. Chief among Paul’s ways of describing salvation are redemption, expiation, and forgiveness of sins; justification; and reconciliation. As we will see, he maintains that salvation is both a present and future reality.

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Preaching Luke with love (2). Sending the seventy-two

Gerald O’Collins SJ

In response to Pope Francis’ call for better preaching, we conclude a series taking examples from all four gospels. This is the second of two articles on the Gospel of Luke. Gerald O’Collins SJ is adjunct professor of Australia Catholic University.

Luke offers us spiritual treasures, marvellous passages that are found only in his Gospel and that have shaped Christian life, prayer, and imagination from the beginning. Down through the ages, the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29–37) and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19–31) have challenged believers to help distressed and impoverished people they meet. Christian prayer has taken up the wonderful prayers with which Luke opens his story of Jesus: the Magnificat from the Virgin Mary (Luke 1.46–55), the Benedictus from Zechariah (Luke 1.68 79), and the Nunc Dimittis from Simeon (Luke 2.29–32). Artists have returned over and over again to the scenes of the Annunciation (Luke 1.26–38) and the Nativity (Luke 2.1–20).

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Sacramental marriage and Canon Law – a case for review?

Paul Hypher

In a personal view, this article argues that the Roman Catholic Church should give serious consideration to a radical rethink of its sacramental theology regarding marriage, and of Canon Law. It should question the presumptions behind Canon Law, and establish new principles based on the mature and free decision-making required for any valid natural bond marriage, and on the adult faith-filled consent required for sacramental marriage, without conflating the two.

Paul Hypher is a retired priest of the diocese of East Anglia.

The presumption in Canon Law is that all marriages between baptised persons are sacramental. The complication and suffering caused by this presumption highlights the need for a radical review of Catholic Canon Law.

The Church’s doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage goes back to the teachings of Christ. We cannot however escape the fact that it is Canon Law, rather than doctrine, which usually determines which marriage is valid, and which not, and also which marriage is sacramental (and therefore indissoluble) and which not.

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