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“Mercy and Truth Will Meet”: Horizons in Twenty-First Century Mission

May 22, 2014:

“Mercy and Truth Will Meet”: Horizons in Twenty-First Century Mission
Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.

Symposium on Mission Honoring Francis Cardinal George

Catholic Theological Union
April 11, 2014


One of the hallmarks of Catholic Theological Union throughout the nearly five decades of its existence has been its conscious and deliberate response to the missionary mandate of Christ and his Church. In those years, CTU has prepared hundreds—indeed, into the thousands—of young men and women to serve the cause of the Gospel in countries beyond their own homelands. It has also welcomed seasoned missionaries to come to reflect upon their experience and broaden their own knowledge so as better to serve Christ’s call.

   And CTU has also been an important site of reflection on the meaning and direction of mission, building upon the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Those familiar with this work here in this regard will recognize some of those themes:

  • The mutuality of mission between those who are sent and those who receive them – a veritable medley of gifts and strangers;
  • The transformation of the missionary in the encounter with others – the sensitivity needed to enter another’s garden and the experience of mission in reverse;
  • Inculturation as a privileged moment of the manifestation of the Gospel in cultures;
  • The pursuit of justice as constitutive of the Gospel message;
  • The meaning and prospects of interreligious encounter, especially with the Abrahamic faiths;
  • Prophetic dialogue as the mode of being and acting that holds together important dimensions of how the message of Christ is to be proclaimed and lived;
  • Peacebuilding and reconciliation as enactments of the experience of Christ’s presence.

All of these themes, and more, have characterized the development of a theology of mission at CTU through the years. Indeed it behooves a school of theology and ministry to be in the forefront both of deepening the Church’s understanding of mission and of implementing these understandings in the preparation and development of missionary practice.

   This understanding and implementing is an ongoing task, one prompted in a special way by new teachings on mission coming from the Magisterium of our Church. The publication of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium is a singular moment in which to turn once again in a deliberate way to a renewed reflection on the Church’s missionary mandate and practice. Evangelii gaudium not only evokes new reflection; the document itself is about evangelization in our time. Its enthusiastic reception, both within the Roman Catholic Church and well beyond, indicates how it has touched a profound chord in the hearts of Christians about the fundamental meaning of Jesus Christ for our times and the implications of the Christian message for a globalized world.

   In these reflections, I would like to take up the challenge that this Apostolic Exhortation provides us, and suggest at least one perspective that emerges from it that can indicate an important development in our understanding of mission today. It is anchored in what has already become the signature theme of this pontificate—the theme of mercy—and points to one dimension of its enactment, namely, our engagement with truth.

Mercy: Key to the Message of the Gospel

At the very center of being a Christian is our encounter with Jesus Christ. To experience that encounter is to experience God’s mercy which means that “when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (EG 6) – infinitely loved by a God whose very being is an unbounded love that reaches beyond our failings and shortcomings and offers us forgiveness: “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lam 3: 22-23)

   That we could be so loved should fill us with joy, a joy we cannot keep to ourselves but—like this great love imparted to us—urges us to share it with others. This Pope Francis sees as the heart of the Christian mission. Here he echoes the words of his predecessor, John Paul II, who in his 1980 encyclical on mercy, Dives in misericordia, says forthrightly: “…mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission.” (DM, 6)

   Mercy here should not be understood in its more narrow modern meaning as an indulgence extended to wrongdoers by a more powerful lawgiver who foregoes the right to punish wrongful acts. Nor does mercy mean indifference to evil, sin, wrongdoing, and injustice. Rather mercy has to be understood in the most fundamental biblical sense of the word hesed, sometimes translated as “loving kindness.” In the Hebrew Scriptures it is considered as one of the most fundamental characteristics of God: one who is slow to anger and abounding in kindness (cf. Num 14:18). To know God is to know and experience God’s mercy. God, the pope reminds us, never tires of forgiving us; if anything, we are the ones who tire of seeking mercy (EG, 3).

   The experience of infinite love impels us to share that love, and embody the enthusiasm with which that love has been bestowed upon us. Mission means giving this love, and our lives, to others out of the experience of this divine mercy (cf. EG 10). As he memorably says in the Apostolic Exhortation, “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (EG 10)

   Citing Thomas Aquinas, Pope Francis reminds us that mercy is the greatest of all virtues, and that all the other virtues revolve around it. “For it is in mercy that God’s omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree.” (EG 37)

   This treasure of mercy is entrusted to the Church. “Such a community,” the pope says, “has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.” (EG 24)  The Church is not to turn in on itself, either to become preoccupied with itself or to hoard the great gift given it. Rather, it is called to “go forth”:

In our day Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples’ echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary ‘going forth.’ (EG 20)


This going forth, this “missionary option,” as the pope calls it elsewhere (EG 27), becomes capable of transforming everything, even the Church’s accustomed ways of doing things. Here he cites John Paul II: “All renewal in the church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.” (ibid.) But perhaps even more importantly, the experience of mercy and the mission of mercy should create in all Christians a “missionary heart” that knows the experience of God’s mercy and “never retreats into its own security….” (EG 45) It has a deep compassion for the weakness of others and well as an acknowledgement of our own weakness and shortcomings: “It has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit….” (ibid.)

   What are some of the implications of this renewed missionary impulse, this “going forth” not only of every Christian as truly missionary, but of the whole Church itself? Let me name but three such implications. Francis makes the first of these clear at the very beginning of his exhortation: it requires the ongoing, even daily, encounter with Jesus Christ. It is in this encounter that we experience once again the overwhelming love that is offered to us, a love that calls us to a deeper conversion to Christ. In other words, our going forth will only be effective in witnessing to what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ if we can mirror forth God’s redeeming mercy in our own lives. The cultivation and deepening of a genuine missionary identity, therefore, will be essential to our witness. Who we are, as missionaries of mercy, will take precedence over what we do.

   Second, that witness finds most suitable expression when it is manifested among those whose lives have pushed them to the margins of society: the persecuted, the downtrodden, the oppressed. Francis has said repeatedly that the Church must be a Church of the poor and for the poor. If the Church cannot be this, it cannot witness adequately to its Lord. A Church going out of itself, a Church going forth, most go to those places and seek out those people who live in the “thinnest” of spaces—spaces not cushioned by what counts for human success, achievement or wielding of power. Those who have been wounded, those whose precarious existence makes them most vulnerable to the vagaries of the indifference, neglect or outright wrongdoing of others—this is where God’s mercy is at once most manifest and most needed. Here the missionary not only announces God’s mercy, but here is also where the missionary comes to experience God’s mercy already at work before the missionary arrives. To be in these thinnest of spaces is to be schooled and challenged to a deeper experience and understanding of how God’s mercy is at work in the world. Francis’ now famous image of the Church as a field hospital captures this sense of mission in a most imaginative way. Work in a field hospital sets aside those issues that can only be relevant in relatively good situations and seeks out the essentials that make the difference between life and death, between extinction and flourishing.

   Third, the “going forth” of the missionary Church is but an extension of the “going forth”, the missio of the Son and the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, into a world that is loved and to be redeemed. Our going forth takes us up into the going forth of the Trinity, a going forth that in turn manifests the deep relations of communion within the Trinity itself. “Going forth,” therefore, does not mean “going away from.” Rather, it means entering into the communion that God has with the world and that is manifest in the Trinity itself. By our going forth, we become who were are meant to be. We become the image and likeness of the God who has created us, who has redeemed us, and who calls us to the final reconciliation of all things.


An ongoing struggle for people in contemporary societies will be not restricting our understanding of mercy to mere indulgence toward wrongdoing. That more profound sense of unbounded love, which is God, must constantly inform us and our grasp of the meaning of God’s bountiful mercy. What can help us keep this focus are a number of other perspectives. One of the most important of these is truth. The compassion that mercy calls forth can sometimes lead to a dismissal of injustice and wrongdoing as temporary faults that will be washed away in the tide of God’s mercy. But truth serves as a constant reminder about what God and the world truly are. Indeed, echoing again here John Paul II in Dives in misericordia, mercy reveals the truth about God and about ourselves. (Cf. DM, 6) The truth about God is that mercy, unbounded loving kindness, is who God is. The truth about ourselves is that we have been created in God’s image and likeness. Each human being bears in this image and likeness a dignity that we will also struggle to understand. At the same time, we have turned away from God, and distorted that divine image in ourselves in countless ways, ways that have only been rectified through the “going forth” of the Second Person of the Trinity into our world as Jesus Christ. His death has destroyed our death, and his being raised to new life portends the restoration of our dignity and our capacity to image the God who has created us.

   One of the consequences of our straying from God is what we have done to God’s creation. We are now more than ever aware of what this has been doing to our physical environment. What I wish to focus here upon is our continuing capacity to create what John Paul II called the “culture of death.” We perpetrate and perpetuate injustice. Even our efforts at making things better remain riddled with wrongdoing. The redemption that God has given us in Christ is the great gift that, little by little, arights what we have done to the world. We pray for, and do our own part in, advancing the Reign of God proclaimed by and embodied in, Christ himself.

  Building upon the teaching of John Paul II, Pope Benedict enhanced our focus upon and understanding of the importance of truth in living out the life of love—most especially in his encyclical Caritas in veritate—“Love in Truth.” Truth must be understood here in its two biblical dimensions, given in the two Testaments of Holy Scripture.

   Truth is in the Hebrew Scriptures an attribute of God. God does not have truth; God is truth. And this truth is manifest in God’s faithfulness, God’s reliability in whatever circumstance might present itself. Truth represents the steadfastness, the surety upon which creation has been established, a steadfastness and surety that is grounded in God’s very being. In turn, this steadfastness is shown in God’s justice, the right relationships between God and all things that are given in creation. Justice therefore is the concrete manifestation of the truth of God, that ever-enduring mercy that lasts forever. (Cf. Ps 136) That is why God is spoken of so frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures as a God of justice, a God who desires justice.

   But truth is also to be understood as the opposite of falsehood. Here, in the New Testament, especially in the Johannine writings, we have Christ coming to bring truth into a world marked by falsehood, proclaiming a truth that will set us free (John 8:32). Indeed, in all of this, Christ is the “way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) In Christ we come to know the truth—about the world, about God, and about ourselves.

  Pope Francis is keenly aware of the role of truth in an evangelization that speaks so strongly of God’s mercy. After his exposition on mercy in Evangelii gaudium, he launches into an analysis, and a diagnosis, of the ills of a globalizing world. His critique of some of the directions of globalization—and of the economic system that drives it—has been among the most commented upon and criticized parts of the Apostolic Exhortation. But a mission of mercy requires speaking the truth about where the world is going wrong—not just in individual actions, but within how the entire meaning of the world is being framed. The pope speaks of a “globalization of indifference” in which the poor are left behind and excluded from the promises of globalization; of a “throwaway culture” that considers some people expendable or necessary victims of larger economic and social forces. Without speaking the truth about the world—from the perspective of a God who is truth itself—mercy can become a vacuous and harmless concept that may soothe the consciences of some, but does nothing to bring about true justice.

   Here I am reminded of a theme that has been most prominent in the speaking and writing of the person we honor today, our archbishop, Cardinal Francis George. With the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a pastor, he has tirelessly pointed to the assumptions about U.S. culture that have made it difficult to hear the message of Christ. His life experience as a missionary Oblate has only helped him see more clearly the strengths and shortcomings of American understandings of freedom and the role and place of the United States in the contemporary scene, especially as viewed by others around the world. If we are to share the gifts of Christ, if we are to build the communion that is grounded in the Holy Trinity and meant to be manifest in the life of the Church, we cannot fail to see the beam in our own eye as we diagnose the splinter in the eyes of others. (Cf. Matt 7:3)  He has been singular among contemporary U.S. church leader in helping Americans see that some of the aspects of U.S. dominant culture that are less than self-evident truths.

   In living out a mission shaped by the experience of God’s mercy, the missionary calling today requires this commitment to truth—both the truth that is God in God’s own very self and the truth about the world that God has created and redeemed. This is hardly a new charge for the missionary. Its enactment has been perhaps most evident in the explicit commitments to social justice and to solidarity with the poor that have been so much of missionary identity and activity in the past half century. It was also evident in missionary congregations’ self-scrutiny about their complicity with colonialism and their lack of respect for local cultures in the 1970s and 1980s. What we may need today, in light of the message of mercy, is a new commitment to truth that gives us the longer view on the work of justice that leads to full reconciliation. That means not restricting our understandings of justice only to short term and evident goals. It will mean too taking up more decidedly in our missionary endeavors the challenge of forgiveness. This cannot be a cheap forgiveness that ignores or suppresses the truth about the past and the suffering of victims, but must be a forgiveness that helps build a better, more just, more peaceable future for our world.

“Mercy and Truth Will Meet; Justice and Peace Will Embrace”

It has become a common practice among peacebuilders who are Christians to reflect on the words in Psalm 85:10 as a formula for asserting and balancing dimensions that go into building a genuine and long-lasting peace. This practice was first suggested by Mennonite peacebuilder John Paul Lederach, one of the world’s leaders in conflict transformation. It calls attention to four essential elements of peacebuilding. Psalm 85:10 reads: “Mercy and truth will meet; justice and peace will embrace.” Mercy, truth, justice, peace—all essential parts of a true peace, yet often difficult to bring together in a harmonious fashion.

   One might say that, in Catholic missionary thought and practice over the past half century, we have been particularly focused upon justice and peace as constitutive elements of proclaiming Christ and the meaning of God’s reign. And this has been an important development, one that we would not want to be without and for which much still needs to be done. What Pope Francis has done for us in Evangelii gaudium has given us an added dimension that has indeed been present both in Church teaching and in missionary awareness, the role of mercy. What I have suggested here, building also on Church teaching and the ministry of our archbishop, is the importance of truth. These are not posed as alternatives to justice and peace—in no way. But rather, in the best of Catholic tradition, it suggests a greater inclusion or enhancement. Mercy and truth enhance our understandings both of justice and of peace—a justice that is about more than punishment and a peace that is only the absence of conflict. And justice and peace remind us that mercy is not mere indulgence and truth has a deeply holistic character where it is only fully manifested in the shalom, the peace of God. Together—mercy and truth, justice and peace—will help us meet the challenges that lie before us in our fidelity to the missionary mandate given us as we move deeper into the twenty-first century.




Featuring: Robert Schreiter, CPPS