From Paris to Mumbai to London; from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino, we have witnessed murderous rampages motivated by terrorism and/or mental derangement. The result is a horrific toll in lives, personal loss and grief, and lasting wounds to the souls of nations and peoples.
No matter what our religious or political beliefs, senseless hatred, rage and bloodshed are more than most of us can process – psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. Life goes on, but as we go about our daily routines and responsibilities, and tend to our children, there is increased apprehension. We are alert to news reports cautioning about the possibility of ongoing murder and mayhem.
Many people ask: What does faith have to say about all this? What has God revealed to us about an appropriate response? And what about forgiveness? How are we to show mercy and live by “fraternal love” in the face of heinous crimes?
Pope Francis has proclaimed Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016, as a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The theme for the year-long observance is “Merciful like the Father,” a phrase inspired by the Gospel passage in Luke that reads: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). Christ’s powerful words command us to imitate our heavenly Father by offering love and forgiveness to others without measure, rather than judging or condemning them as persons, even when their actions are evil.
This call to forgive unconditionally is certainly not easy to fulfill, especially in the face of heinous acts of murder and violence. Pope Francis makes a point of saying that mercy and forgiveness do not devalue justice or render it superfluous. On the contrary, the pope says, those guilty of wrongdoing “must pay the price.” But justice is not hatred and vengeance. God himself is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
Those who are the victims and survivors of horrible crimes will never find peace and healing in hatred and vengeance, but only by handing everything over to the justice and mercy of God. Christ is both crucified and risen. In him, evil has been overcome by the power of faith, hope and love. Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” If we live for this world only, Paul’s admonition may seem inadequate or impossible. But in the light of God and of eternity, what Paul says is compelling and doable by divine grace.
On Dec. 8, when Pope Francis pushed open the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he did so as a “simple, yet highly symbolic” act to “highlight the primacy of grace.” He told the crowd of 70,000 pilgrims: “The fullness of grace can transform the human heart and enable it to do something so great as to change the course of human history.” Our holy father wants us to remember: “Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be most desperate creatures. But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.”
Mark Twain once described forgiveness as the “fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” The fragrance of our prayers rising up to God as a result of hatred and violence is rightly offered for the repose of the souls of those who have died and for the living who bear the wounds of personal loss and grief. But if we are to be true to Christ and his words, we must also pray for those who have committed such horrendous crimes or who are ensnared and tempted by the devil to do so.
We can all learn something from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in 1897. When she was only 14, she read in the newspapers about a criminal named Pranzini who was convicted of having committed three murders in one night. Staunchly unrepentant, he awaited his execution. Thérèse was determined to win for him the grace of repentance. She prayed for this triple murderer. She did penances for him. She had a Mass offered for him. She writes: “I wanted at all cost to prevent him from falling into hell.” Thérèse hoped for a sign that her prayer was heard, and afterward it was reported that at the last moment, on his way to execution, Pranzini had asked for a crucifix and had pressed his lips to it three times. Thérèse was delighted, and thereafter called Pranzini “my first child”; that is to say, a sinner whom God’s mercy had brought to spiritual rebirth thanks to her prayers.
As for us, and the Jubilee Year of Mercy in our daily life, I invite everyone to make a special effort to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to help others who are in spiritual, moral or material need. We are challenged to be agents of mercy, striving to bring hope; to shed the light of Christ on those in darkness and despair; and yes, to implore mercy amid the crimes and sins of our time.
For an evolving calendar of jubilee events and activities – all grounded in service and prayer – you can go to www.archdioceseofhartford.org. Whatever you do, however great or small, you can be confident that it will be made spiritually fruitful by the power of our merciful God.