October 2004

 

Reflection on Divine Mercy ©

In the ancient Book of Wisdom, we find a verse that gives us reason to hope in the face of both adversity and the consequences of sin: Lord, you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we can’t cause our Creator deep distress or that he can’t admonish and chastise us. It simply tells us that God is ever ready to extend his mercy in a spirit of unconditional love. As Psalm 145 reveals, The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

When we make bad choices in life, the option of returning to the right road is always open to us. Indeed, God is always eager to lead the way. And, he is even more eager to do so if we are afflicted by the bad choices of others.

But what is of particular interest to me is the manner in which God extends his infinite mercy.

Most often, God does not act directly but uses other people as instruments of his mercy. This is likely so that we may be bound to others in a communion of grace and gratitude. God’s kingdom is made up of people, pilgrims on a common journey, united in faith, hope and love.

There is a popular story told of St Francis of Assisi regarding his “conversion”, or decision to commit his life to following Jesus. The event is significant because he alludes to it in the first verses of his spiritual Testament, written near the end of his life: “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: while I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”

There is a famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, sometimes called the Peace Prayer. It begins, “Lord make me an instrument of your Peace”, and it goes on to ask the Lord to use us to sow joy where there is sadness, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness.

Aside from its genuine poetic beauty, I think this prayer reveals an essential truth about mercy, namely that it is granted in abundance by means of human instruments. God granted St. Francis to be an instrument by which God would embrace the suffering leper. And by that action, he not only touched the heart of the leper, he also transformed St. Francis.

This recalls the words of St. Paul, We always pray for you, asking that our Gods will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So it is with acts of divine mercy. Oftentimes they appear as mere gestures of human kindness or even religious charity. Yet are they not the expression of God’s own Spirit of love? God reaches deep into the daily lives of his people to bring about profound transformation and he most often does so through encounter with others.

Encounter is the ground of transformation. It calls for large doses of faith, hope and love because it typically draws us out of our zone of comfort. It challenges our understanding, our judgment and our decisions. Encounter projects into our particular reality a deep sense of “otherness”, and the sanctifying presence of Christ.

Luke’s Gospel contains such an encounter in the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. Because of his station in life, he would have been regarded as a “leper”, and avoided by most people. Yet, in a way, Zacchaeus also reminds me of St. Francis. He was a man of power and wealth. And like St. Francis who came down from his horse to embrace the leper and then live with lepers for a time, Zacchaeus came down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus was transformed by this experience. We are told that he gave half of his possessions to the poor and paid back four times over those that he had defrauded. After his conversion, St. Francis sold all that he had, relinquished his inheritance: “…afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” He took a profound decision to walk in the footsteps of Jesus for whom he had come to develop a deep affection.

It helps us, I think, to recognize that such stories are not limited to biblical or medieval times. Each day, people allow themselves to be used as instruments of divine mercy. They do so often without the assurance of where their road will lead them. All they know is that they are acting in the knowledge of “otherness” and reacting to a higher purpose than satisfying their own basic needs. If they are people of faith, they do so in a spirit of obedience and they serve faithfully in humility.

If they serve the poor, they come to see that they too are poor. If they assist those who vulnerable, they come to see how vulnerable we all are. If they seek to show how God loves them, they melt at the thought of God’s love for them.

I have been in Africa twice this year. Both times, I was seeking to understand what people are doing about the plight of those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Both times, I have brought back with me evidence of God’s mercy, and his love for the poor.

God has chosen countless instruments of hope, healing and even joy. He has caused people to encounter themselves in others.

While the conditions of suffering are largely unabated, the capacity of people to see a great light that is undiminished by the darkness is the product of relentless acts of charity. I have seen people make such a wonderful difference in the lives of others, and they have been transformed by this experience, as I have been by the experience of witnessing such outpouring of authentic love.

I met in Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland and South Africa, dozens of people who are responding to God’s call, sometimes reluctantly, but always faithfully. I saw people working tirelessly even as the laboured without benefit of comfort, security or even recognition. Theirs are the gentle hands of mercy, the sparkling eyes of hope and the comforting smiles of love.

I saw the footsteps of Sr. Miriam Duggan, a Franciscan Missionary Sister, who is the Superior General of her order in Ireland now but who was such an instrument of divine mercy.

Sr. Miriam went to Uganda in 1979 as a physician. Trained as an obstetrician/gynaecologist, she became the senior medical officer at St. Francis Hospital-Nsambya, the second largest medical facility in the country. Soon, Sr. Miriam was seized by a desire to do something about the high incidence of HIV/AIDS among the population she served.

In the course of her years in Uganda, she accomplished many wonderful things. At the hospital, she opened a unit to care for the widows and orphans of those who have died of AIDS; a treatment centre was later added. She served on the president’s AIDS commission and fought hard to have the Church respond energetically to the cry of the poor. To help curtail the growth of the pandemic, she conceived a prevention program based on behaviour change in young people. The program, called Youth Alive, was so effective that it has been adopted in many African countries. Uganda’s president and first lady actively endorse programs that encourage young people to postpone sexual activity and that persuade couples to be faithful to one another. The infection trend has actually been reversed in Uganda as a result.

But it is her initiative in a single parish that perhaps brings the most glory to God. Sr. Miriam went to the pastor of one of the poorest parishes in Kampala and simply but pointedly said to him that he must do something for those who suffer.

I met with Fr. Joseph Archetti, and he told me of what he did as a result of this compelling appeal. This first step was perhaps the boldest. Except on Sundays, the narthex of the church of Our Lady of Africa – Mbuya was turned into a voluntary testing and counselling centre.

Within two years, various treatment and support services were being offered and the 204 volunteers, including two doctors and 16 nurses, fill all spaces in the church and in portable classrooms that cover the church grounds. They offer medical support to deal with AIDS and opportunistic infections, nutritional supplements, basic food, skills training and loans to start a small business, adult literacy, and health and behaviour change education. Funding comes from as far away as Europe and North America.

On Sundays, chairs fill the narthex; more than 4,000 people attend the five masses the Italian pastor celebrates. Sr. Miriam’s initiatives have carried on and, in many cases, have flourished.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is such sadness, let us sow tiny seeds of joy. Where there is despair, let us bring hope. And where there is darkness, let us be instruments of a light, which cannot be diminished by the darkness that surrounds it.
Lord, we thank you already for such a privilege, the gift of encountering ourselves in others. God have mercy on them and on us, for we are all poor. Our joy is in knowing your mercy and love, particularly when we confess our poverty in humility and trust.