When he announced the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also asked bishops and religious superiors to nominate priests whom he could commission as “missionaries of mercy” – priests who are good confessors, good preachers of the message of mercy who could travel the globe proclaiming the mercies of the Lord. On Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis did indeed commission a large group of priests including a goodly number from North America to serve as missionaries of mercy and happily some of them are in this Middle Atlantic area. You’ll hear more about them as the Year of Mercy unfolds.
For now, however, I would like to offer a few words about another missionary of mercy, namely, the great St. Patrick, whose feast day will be celebrated in a matter of days. The story of St. Patrick is well known but its outline bears repeating especially in the context of this Year of Mercy. Briefly, St. Patrick lived between 386 and 461. He was born Britain but was captured by pirates and brought to Ireland. During his time of enslavement, he was converted to Christianity. After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped but did not remain in his native land. Instead, he returned to Ireland as a missionary, bringing to that country the message of mercy, salvation in Jesus Christ. By all accounts, St. Patrick was extraordinarily successful winning over the Emerald Isle for Christ and for the Church. And so in these days we honor St. Patrick as ‘a missionary of mercy.’
II. Jesus, the Original Missionary of Mercy
In today’s Gospel, however, we encounter the original missionary of mercy. Jesus Christ, Eternal Son of God the Father, was sent into the world to reveal the face of the Father of Mercies, to save us from our sins, to heal the wounds of sin and division, and to unite us in goodness, truth, and love. The first reading from Isaiah and today’s responsorial psalm both describe and celebrate the mighty power of God – a God who opened a pathway through the sea for the chosen people, a God who defeated the Egyptians so that his people could escape into the desert. Now, however, in Jesus, we see the real intent of God’s mighty power. As Pope Francis has said, God’s mercy is the mark par excellence of his omnipotence. His mighty power is revealed in the mercy and forgiveness he extends to us. Jesus is the original and ultimate missionary of mercy!
We find the original Missionary of Mercy, the Lord Jesus, hard at work as the scene from today’s Gospel reading from St. John opens. Jesus is teaching in the temple area when suddenly there a commotion. It’s the Scribes and Pharisees bringing before him a woman caught in adultery. Suffice it to say that these Scribes and Pharisees were not on a mission of mercy. They were using the case of this unfortunate woman as a pretext to trap Jesus. Misusing the law, they devised for Jesus a trick question: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
If Jesus in his mercy answered that the woman’s life should be spared, the Scribes and Pharisees could accuse him of breaking with the Law of Moses. If, on the other hand, Jesus answered that the woman should be executed, not only his reputation but also his mission of mercy would be fatally compromised. Of course, Jesus did not fall into their trap. He noticed that the Scribes and Pharisees had themselves disregarded the law which required that not only the woman but also the man caught in the act of adultery were to be judged before a tribunal. So, Jesus didn’t answer them but bent down, took a stick, and wrote in the sand. Some Scripture scholars think he was spelled out for the Scribes and Pharisees what the real provisions of the law required them to do. As they read what Jesus wrote, they saw Jesus had not only escaped their trap but they also saw that the very law they were using to trap Jesus and condemn the woman … “backfired” on them. So one by one they left…
This leaves Jesus alone with the woman, free to exercise his ministry of mercy. Jesus asks, “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Unlike the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus looks at her with respect. No longer is she a prop or pretext for a plot, she is a human being made in God’s image and loved for her own sake. She is who we are when we go before God with a contrite heart! The Lord has come as a missionary of mercy not to condemn but to save. So he says to her not as a threat but as an invitation, “Go, and sin no more.” In those few words, Jesus is inviting her to a conversion of heart, the same invitation which he relentlessly issues to you and me, even though, most of the time we don’t reject it, we just put it off for another day.
Sometimes when we speak of God’s mercy, we imagine that in forgiving us the Lord is quietly condoning our sins, telling us that they are not as bad as we thought. But God’s mercy is not a “get out of jail free card” from our old Monopoly game; that really sells short how marvelous God’s mercy really is. When we welcome God’s mercy, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we allow God’s mighty power to enter our hearts not only to cleanse us of our sins but to strengthen us to sin no more, to lay aside those sins that bring so much unhappiness to ourselves and others, that cause us to lead a double life to one degree or another – those sins that make it difficult for us to live with ourselves and with our consciences.
III. The Process of Conversion
At the top of this homily I spoke of St. Patrick who converted from a pagan way of life and instead became a follower of Jesus and one of the greatest leaders in the long history of the Catholic Church. I should imagine that his conversion as well as the conversion to which Jesus invited the woman in today’s Gospel, followed the pattern that St. Paul outlines for us in our 2nd reading from Philippians.
That conversion is not a matter of trading in one set of rules for another. No, St. Paul says, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . .” What Jesus wanted the woman caught in adultery to discover was real love, and the power of real love to transform the human heart, tortuous as it is, so that it freely embraces what is right and good and true. To put the matter more directly, when we fall in love with Christ in an absolute way, those hurt feelings we hold on to, the anger and resentment we harbor, those sinful habits we cling to as closely guarded secrets – those possessions and comforts we don’t think we can live without – all that becomes worthless and we’re willing to leave it behind. When the priest pronounces the words of absolution in confession, we hear Jesus inviting us – “Go and sin no more – and we hear St. Paul saying to us, “You can leave these sins behind – so long as you open your heart through faith in Christ to the power of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection over sin and death.” It’s not a matter of our earning our righteousness by following the rules but rather of our allowing Christ to come and take possession of our hearts, allowing ourselves to be loved as we have never before been loved – such that we forget what lies behind and we press on to what lies ahead – namely, life in Christ Jesus beginning now but consummated fully in heaven.
That is why Patrick went to Ireland. That is why Pope Francis sent out missionaries of mercy. That is why Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. That is why we are here today, at this Basilica, to celebrate this Mass – in the hope of finding that mercy which surpasses everything we’ve ever known.
May God bless us and keep us in his love!