A Feature Review of
Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church
Reviewed by Tom Tatterfield
*** This book was chosen as one of our Best Books of the first half of 2014!
It has become rather commonplace to acknowledge the election of Pope Francis as a breathe of fresh air for the Roman Catholic Church, both in the western world and globally. Throughout the first year of his papacy, Christians and non-Christians alike have, with intrigue, fixed their gaze on Francis, having a curiosity stirred in them by his acts of compassion and humility. The Church of Mercy has finally arrived in print as a welcome work compiling various teaching moments of Francis throughout this initial year as Pope. The book is a collection of excerpts derived from homilies, addresses, his first encyclical (Lumen Fidei) and his apostolic exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium). The editorial work deserves special mention, gathering several texts and arranging them thoughtfully in order to properly portray the breadth of Pope Francis’s spiritual wisdom. The excerpts, each no longer than a couple pages in length, have been organized categorically around certain topics/themes (i.e. the gospel, evangelization, the Holy Spirit, pastoral ministry, idolatry, etc…), resulting in a very readable book replete with profound insight for the life of the Church. It is a window through which one might see the heart of Pope Francis and his vision for the Church.
Though this is a collection of different works delivered at different times to different people, there is a common thread running through the book drawing the various topics into harmony with one another: mercy (xi). The primacy of God’s mercy, for both this book and for Francis’s papacy, is made evident by the initial homily included (from the mass for the possession of Peter’s chair), where Francis proclaims God’s relentless pursuit of humanity, declaring, “God’s love for us is so great, so deep; it is an unfailing love, one that always takes us by the hand and supports us, lifts us up, and leads us on” (3). In my estimation, this is a helpful outline of the presentation of the Pope’s teaching in The Church of Mercy. The Church is herself supported, lifted up, and led beyond herself by the patient and merciful love of God. She is, in turn, able to be a merciful witness to the world. In this sense the book before us is a remarkably basic book, focusing the reader on many foundational elements of Christian faith and practice, examining the way in which Jesus establishes the Church, shows her mercy, and finally sends her beyond herself for the sake of the world. Don’t be fooled into dismissing the basic nature of The Church of Mercy, passing by simple aspects of the Faith presented here the way someone passes by a mustard seed, a loaf of bread, or a cup of wine. For in the words presented the heart of Jesus, his very love, permeates Francis’s teaching.
If this theme (mercy) and structure (God’s love supports us, lifts us up, and leads us on) is appreciated then this book is a helpful corrective to many reductive caricatures of Pope Francis and his teaching. For example, at the popular level Francis has become perceived as setting aside doctrinal matters in order to pastorally issue what are seemingly more progressive statements in regard to the poor, adherents of other religious traditions, and homosexuals. Some may be led to ask if Pope Francis setting aside the Church’s teaching in order to speak more directly to the culture in a merciful voice. The Church of Mercy is a helpful answer to this question (even if unintentionally so) because it is edited in a manner showing the living link between these two aspects of Pope Francis’s message, illustrating beautifully how these two strands are interconnected—both the active engagement with culture and the affirmation of the Church’s teaching. While many readers may be tempted to flip to sections aimed at the hot button issues to the neglect of the rest of the book, the organization of this book weaves Francis’s theological and pastoral concerns together in beautiful fashion.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this book is this manner in which it allows readers insight into the full scope of Pope Francis’s vision. Sections such as “A Poor Church for the Poor” (21-39), “The Choice of the Last” (97-108), and “Demolishing the Idols” (109-118) contain brilliant moments of prophetic truth telling when Francis locates injustice in the world and calls the church to address issues of economic injustice, rampant poverty, careerism, and the worship of money. These statements, however, are built upon themes already addressed in the book; they are building upon the more foundational (often doctrinal) truths of the Roman Catholic faith. For example, Francis exhorts the Church, teaching that when we step outside of ourselves and encounter others we will come into relationship with the poor (100). This act—being led outside of yourself—is shown earlier in the book to be built upon a pattern of cruciform discipleship taught by Jesus to the apostles (71-74). In another instance the Pope connects the abundance of war and violence in our world to the lack of contemplation of goodness and beauty (111). This observation stands in harmony with his encouragement that God can bring newness about through the revelation of himself (47). Therefore, if we, as Christians, desire to end the rampant violence of are world we need a newness that can only be brought by contemplating the transcendental realities present in God himself (the Good, the True, the Beautiful) that we encounter in Jesus himself. We learn throughout these pages that the revolutionary social changes are made precisely by being devoted to God who comes from beyond us to meet us where we are in the Church through the power of the Spirit. While more examples could be given, I hope this illustrates the splendid editing which shaped this book. The teaching of Francis speaks profoundly regarding contemporary issues, deriving his insight from the basic teachings of the Christian faith.
The Church of Mercy was a refreshing book, a true treasure chest of wisdom, which will both comfort and unsettle any attentive reader. It is, in a sense, a remarkably simple book for the beautiful (and challenging) vision it casts. For this reason it should be celebrated. If this book is any indication of the future of Christianity then we have much to be excited about. When the Church embraces this vision it will abound in mercy and humility, no longer using truth as a weapon to bash over enemies heads but meeting people face to face as fellow humans made in the image of God. The pursuit of truth does not need to be a stumbling block standing in the way of evangelization or charity. Pope Francis has insightfully noted that the pursuit of truth leads to the abounding of humility, “because believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth that embraces and possesses us” (8). The truth that enfolds us is Jesus Christ and it is through him we can learn to be a Church characterized by mercy.