Reading the text and commentary for the Focolare Movement’s “Word of Life” for May, 2015, brought to my mind an experience from two years ago when I was in Rome to meet with the editorial staff of the publishing house Città Nuova. On March 13, the very day that the meeting began, it happened that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, was elected pope. The following Sunday he appeared in St. Peter’s Square for the customary noontime Angelus address. He offered a reflection on Jn 8:1-11, the story of Jesus’s response to the woman caught in adultery. He illustrated the meaning and quality of divine mercy with a personal anecdote:
Feeling mercy. . . changes everything. . . . We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient…. Let us remember the Prophet Isaiah who says that even if our sins were scarlet, God’s love would make them white as snow. This mercy is beautiful!
I remember, when I had only just become a bishop in the year 1992, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima had just arrived in Buenos Aires and a big Mass was celebrated for the sick. I went to hear confessions at that Mass. And almost at the end of the Mass I stood up, because I had to go and administer a First Confirmation. And an elderly woman approached me, humble, very humble, and over eighty years old. I looked at her, and I said, “Grandmother” — because in our country that is how we address the elderly — do you want to make your confession?”
“Yes”, she said to me.
“But if you have not sinned…”
And she said to me: “We all have sins…”
“But perhaps the Lord does not forgive them.”
“The Lord forgives all things,” she said to me with conviction.
“But how do you know, Madam?”
“If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.”
. . . .
Let us not forget this word: God never ever tires of forgiving us! “Well, Father what is the problem?” Well, the problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.
Members of the Focolare understand that God is love. Inspired by John 17:21, they seek to live out Jesus’s prayer “That they may all be one.” To make this practical, each month a text is chosen and a commentary is offered suggesting how to make it the watchword for daily life. The text for this month is Ephesians 2: 4-5: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
Fabio Ciardi, the commentary’s author, points out that we can witness to the reality of God’s love by sharing the tenderness of mercy with each person we meet. God revealed himself to Moses as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). Ciardi explains that the Hebrew word used to name God’s merciful love, “raḥămîm,” recalls a mother’s womb, the place where life begins. The passage in Exodus also uses “ḥesed,” suggesting “faithfulness, benevolence, goodness, solidarity.”
As Pope Francis gently suggests in his anecdote, we who have become “alive together with Christ” are called to manifest an unceasing and tireless mercy like the Father’s. The pope sees this mercy manifested in the humble grandmother he met, and in Jesus’s response to the woman caught in adultery; Fabio Ciardi recalls other episodes from scripture—Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel, and the parables of the Good Shepherd, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son.
You may be familiar with Henri Nouwen’s commentary on Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”
In the figure of the father, Nouwen sees God the Father: “The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present” (The Return of the Prodigal Son