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BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, PASTORAL LETTER 2016 - MOST REV. VALERIAN M. OKEKE Archbishop Of Onitsha
Author: MOST REV. Dr. VALERIAN M. OKEKE
Published on: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL

 

1.         INTRODUCTION:

            “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures’ forever. Oh give thanks to the God of gods, for His mercy endures forever. Oh give thanks to the Lord of lords, for His mercy endures for ever… Oh give thanks to the God of heaven for His mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1-26)

 

RETROSPECTION AND GRATITUDE

            The Psalmist in the above Psalm 136 captures my inspiration and disposition as we join the Holy Father, Pope Francis and the Universal Church to celebrate the Holy Year of Mercy. With grateful hearts we offer our thanks and worship to God for the prodigies He wrought among and for us, for the wonder of His graces and mercies on us this past year as a family of God on mission – the local Church, as a people living together in a state and nation, and as individual sons and daughters of God.

            My brother bishop, priests and my beloved people of God, among the many grace-filled events of the last year for which our Archdiocese and indeed the Nigeria people are immensely grateful to God, we must include, the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the Episcopacy of His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze – the first of such in sub Sahara Africa. Our gratitude recalls God’s gift to our local Church and the Universal Church of such a Prelate, and for making it possible for him to serve his people and the universal Church as a Bishop for 50 years. This is a very peculiar grace especially given its rarity. Today, Francis Cardinal Arinze is one of the 40 most senior Bishops by ordination in the whole world. He is also one of the 9 Cardinal Bishops in the world. Again, within the year the number of our priests golden jubilarians increased and the diocese now has five priests who have served in the vineyard of the Lord for fifty years. While we thank God for the gift of Cardinal Arinze and our golden priestly jubilarians, we also thank him that within the year on May, 2015, an Auxiliary Bishop; Most Rev. Denis Chidi Isizoh was ordained for our diocese. His ordination is a special grace to the Church in Onitsha and it enable us to double our efforts in witnessing to Christ and fulfilling the mission to which he called all of us. We equally thank God for the elevation of four of our priests to the rank of papal chamberlains, for the 130th anniversary of the arrival of our hero missionaries and for the completion and commissioning of an Episcopal residence in Aguleri in honor of our saintly priest -  The Blessed Michael Cyprian Iwene Tansi. To God be all the glory and honor for his merciful love.

            However, it is with heavy hearts that I recall the fatal accident that claimed the lives of scores of persons during a tanker accident at Asaba Motor Park, Upper Iweka Onitsha, on Saturday May 30, 2015. We pray for the peaceful repose of the affected brothers and sisters, divine consolation on the living, and for the fortitude to bear the loss on the families. We pray also that from the fallen grains that God would bring forth new and great yield for the affected families.

            Still on a note of gratitude, we shall not fail to thank God for the positive reception of the pastoral letter of 2015. It was based on the Christians teaching and democratic politics. Our country was reaching a threshold and it was important to emphasize our obligation as Christians to ensure that our faith permeates all aspect of our lives. Politics is a central plank in our daily living as human beings since it affects almost every aspect of life. We are grateful to God that while some people were predicting that our country will hit the rocks in 2015, that year witnessed one of the best elections in our democratic history where a ruling party lost a presidential election and accepted its loss most gracefully. Our country witnessed for the first time a transition of the Federal Government from a ruling political party to an opposition party without violence and without court cases. It is our dear hope that in this manner our political engagement will continue to more and more wear the Christian look, and cease from being a do or die affair in which the end justifies the means be they good or evil.

 

2.         CHOICE OF TOPIC

            In his teachings, Pope Benedict XVI, advised that “in our time, humanity needs a strong proclamation and witness of God’s mercy”. (Benedict XVI, Angelus Message, September 16, 2007). Earlier, during the glorious pontificate of St. John Paul II, much emphasis was laid on divine mercy in his teachings especially in his 1980 pastoral letter, the Encyclical; Dives in Miscricordua, which was on the Mercy of God.

            Recently on the 2nd anniversary of his election to the chair of Peter, March 13, 2015, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy on April 11, 2015 the Pope issued the Papal Bull, Misericordiae Vultus directing that the Holy Year of Mercy a special time of grace will open on Immaculate Conception.

            To mark the commencement of the Jubilee year of mercy, the Pope opened the Holy door of mercy in St. Peter’s Basilica Rome, and enjoined all local Churches to do the same at their Cathedrals and some privileged places of worships. We recall that this day 8th December, Feast of Immaculate Conception, is very significant since it also marked the Golden anniversary of the end of Vatican II. At this very significant council, the Church made a Spirit guided effort to open up from its traditionalist leanings to the new world. It was in all a great argionamento, a renewal of every aspect of the Church’s life and we are grateful to the council Fathers for responding positively to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In line with this Spirit, Pope Francis chose to proclaim a Jubilee year devoted to the often neglected Virtue of Mercy which remains nevertheless central in Christian life. To highlight this centrality all the further, the Pope published his first papal book on January 12, 2016 with the title: the Name of God is Mercy. This book reveals the Pope’s vision of God’s mercy in a series of interviews. In the words of James Carroll, Pope Francis book, “offers a tough reflection on an urgently needed public virtue”. (The New Yoker, Jan 12, 2016).

 

3.         In line with the aims of the Jubilee of Mercy, I have chosen to reflect with you on mercy to deepen our understanding and practice in our Christian life, especially as it patterns to our local context. The invitation of Pope Francis and the proclamation of the Jubilee of mercy has intensified my inspiration and quickened my resolve to focus on Mercy. I have decided to base my reflection on the title: Blessed Are the Merciful. It is our intention to reflect on this urgently needed Virtue with the grand aim of disposing us to obtain the blessings of this unique beatitude where the merciful will be the recipients of mercy. Our reflection will start by an effort to highlight the meaning of Mercy and its centrality to the Christian life and Mystery. The biblical background and foundations of mercy will be examined. We will then consider how Mercy is an attribute of God, and its relationship to forgiveness and justice. A look at some sacraments will reveal our encounter with God’s mercy in them through forgiveness and reconciliation. A brief highlight of the frequency of the prayers for mercy in the Church’s worships will lead us to see the implication of mercy in our everyday life in our local context in Nigeria, especially how our behavior in public services can sometimes be a contradiction of the obligation of mercy. This will lead to a consideration of the Christian communities as seats of mercy, our Blessed Mother, Mary as mother of mercy, and finally some senses in which the merciful are blessed.


 

 

CLARIFICATION OF CONCEPT

 

4.         Mercy as a concept is better described than defined. The meaning of mercy is revealed in the scriptures especially in God’s relationship with humanity and more with His chosen people.

            However, we can make the concept very simple to understand by explaining that in the preaching of the Prophets, mercy signifies a special power of love. (cf. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, no.4).  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, when love and misery meet, there is born mercy which is one of the essential forms of charity, situated in the very heart of Christianity. (Summa Theologiae 2a, 2ae, 30). If mercy is an essential form of charity that is, it is an aspect of love, then mercy is part of the nature of God who is love. St. John tells us that God is love (1Jn4:8). We can also give a simple definition of mercy as the virtue which enables a person to make a genuine effort to relieve misfortune of others, whatever is its form. In fact we can say that mercy is the best way to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor. (cf. Matt 22:36-39).

 

5.         Mercy is proper to God’s nature and the true sons and daughters of God also exhibit mercy since God made us in his own image. Mercy is therefore divine and human. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father; it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus , no 9)

            The scripture show divine mercy as that power of love which is compassionate, which forgives offences and sins, which liberates, which does not keep record of wrongs, which reinstates from abnormal to normal status, which looks for the lost and provides for the have not.

            God’s merciful love is his response to human misery. He responds because he cares, he is compassionate, he is merciful. The greater the human misery, the more abounding is God’s mercy. No wonder God reveals his name and identity to Moses as merciful and compassionate.

 

6.         Mercy is a Virtue. It is compassion in action. It is a good habit which enables one to have real passion with another one who suffers, inspired by the true love of God who always enters our situation in order to make it better. Mercy is an action of the Blessed, an attribute of the graced. Mercy is beatitude.

 


 

 

MERCY: IT’S CENTRALITY IN THE CHRISTIAN MYSTERY.

 

7.         In very simply terms, mercy is kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly. This sense which is one of the widest senses of our use of the world entails that the receiver of mercy somehow deserves to be dealt with in less compassionate way. It is often the case when someone is obviously guilty of some misdeed on account of which he serves some retribution. That is why mercy is also defined in line with this as, compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.

 

8.         Mercy is also defined as, kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation. In this sense there is no implication that the receiver of mercy is an offender. In a way the definition exaggerates the context to mercy by describing it as “bad or desperate”. But the situation that can elicit the act of mercy does not need to be so negative. Mercy can thus be seen as help rendered to someone in need of some help. It is all the more praise – worthy when the giver of help is not necessarily obliged to render the help. A learned adult who sees a young school child trying with difficulty to do his homework and decides to assist him to understand and master what he is required to do is not necessarily moved by the desperation of the young one, but by a desire to be of help or to make the task less difficult than it would otherwise have been.

 

9.         Generally however, proper understanding of mercy entails that there must be some essential factors that surround is practice. One of these is that there must be a situation of lack. This can be in the form of an offense committed by somebody who in the process loses his innocence. This lack can also be in the form of weakness, some inability to achieve certain goals or conquer certain situations by one’s own power. All these are on the side of the object of mercy. The giver of mercy must on the other hand be in position to dispense the act of mercy. He must have the power or ability to pardon an offender for instance or to help someone in need. There must also be some readiness on his side to do the act of mercy. This readiness is often described as compassion which etymologically means to suffer with (cum passere). That is why Joseph Delanay in the old Catholic Encyclopedia described mercy as “a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and if possible to alleviate another’s misfortune.

            From Delanay’s definition, it stands clear that mercy does not necessarily always entail concrete acts though there must be some readiness to act. It is not only those who perform the corporal or spiritual works of mercy that are really merciful. Even though most often a will moved to have compassion will most likely assist the object of compassion where the possibility is present. But merciful feeling and willingness to help can also exist without the subject having the means or being in position to help. What is clear however is that where the possibility exists, mercy will entail both the compassion and the actions to alleviate the misfortune, the weakness or generally the lack.

 

10.       From the forgoing it is quite clear that mercy and charity are very much related, but the two while related are not be confused. For St. Thomas Aquinas mercy is a spontaneous product of charity, but it is reckoned to be a special virtue that can be sufficiently distinguished from charity. In addition to joy and peace, mercy is one of the fruits of charity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 1829).

 

            Scholastic thinkers consider mercy to have much to do with justice. It shares the qualities of justice because like justice it controls relations between persons. Mercy like justice is ad alterum (ie towards another). Its real moving force is the misery which one person sees in another person, especially in so far as this situation is considered to be involuntary. The works of mercy, especially the corporal ones coincide with the various forms of almsgiving. Almsgiving is itself founded very much on mercy. And, etymologically the word alms is a corruption of Greek word for mercy: elenmosyne.

 

11.       It is this mercy directed towards our fellow human beings, who are all the children of God that links mercy so directly to the Gospel that links mercy so directly to the Gospel message. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners’. (Ccc. No. 1846). Ordinarily the fall of man should foreclose his relationship with God. At creation God bestowed on him all that he created, and which he found very good. He made him master of them all. He created him in his own likeness and bestowed on him a dignity that was not accorded to angels. The fall was like a rejection of the goodness of God; a machination to acquire the splendor of the creator, and a lack of humility and gratitude that aspires to supplant the origin of life, or at least be his rival. God’s justice expelled our first parents from paradise, but the history of salvation indicates very clearly that His mercy followed them. His plan was not the total damnation of the human race. He chose Abraham and his direct descendants, and made a covenant with them so that they became a stepping stone to the eventual conquest of the devil by the descendants of Adam and Eve.

 

12.       God’s relationship with the people of Israel was like a preparation for the ultimate salvation of the human race and ultimate triumph over evil. It was by no means an easy relations which was countlessly repudiated by the people of Israel and their rulers. But the faithfulness of God and his mercy for all his children entailed that after each episode of repudiation, God’s mercy and compassion ensured a renewed beginning and re-launching of the covenant history. It was a process that came to its eventual fruition in Christ’s mission is primarily that of compassion.

 

13.       To save humanity Christ became Emmanuel – God with us. A man like us in all things but sin. Christ’s life, his teachings, his mission in general epitomizes the mercy of God. Hence “mercy is revealed as a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ mission”. (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 20). His mission was generated by God’s mercy for his children who were sinners, and his willingness to save them and make them his own again. Christ exhibited this in the countless acts of mercy recounted in the Gospel. When the people of Israel wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery, Christ did not agree with the justice of their law which prescribed capital punishment. His mercy was the liberating factor to the woman who went with Christ’s instruction to avoid the allure of sin. Even at the foot of the cross he was quick to grant a mercy to the repentant thief, forgiving him and promising him paradise. His ministry is underlined by the proclamation of God’s readiness to grant mercy and forgive. “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice”. (Matt. 9:13). And, he showed the example of mercy to sinners even when they were not repentant: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.

            Christ’s mission is moved by his mercy on sinners which went as far as laying down his life for them. It is on account of the centrality of this mystery that the Supreme Pontiff, Francis, proclaimed that “the time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call for mercy once more (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 10). This call at the root of the mission of Christ and consequently at the pivotal point of the Church’s Witnessing. It would be a grave responsibility for the Church and its members to check. By fulfilling this mission the Church reaches the height of authenticity. Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life (MV. No. 10) Pope Francis reminds us while quoting his predecessor John Paul II, that “the Church lives an authentic life when she proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer” (M.V, no. 11; D.M. no. 13).

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