Cardinal Ratzinger on Mercy

Tomorrow, 12 April 2015, is Divine Mercy Sunday, and it is appropriate to reflect once more on the theme of mercy, especially in view of what is to come in October of this year. Furthermore, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis officially convoked today in the Apostolic Letter Misericordiae vultus (whose official and authoritative Latin text is still not available, unfortunately) invites us to a deeper contemplation of the mysteries of God’s mercy.

In these days, after the tenth anniversary of John Paul II’s death also comes the tenth anniversary of the 2005 Missa pro eligendo Romano Pontifice, the Mass prior to the conclave. Presided by the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, it was the second time since the death of John Paul in which the eyes of the world lay fixed on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who would once more preach a homily that would resound through the entire Catholic world.

Revisiting this homily helps to provide some insights which are as relevant as they were ten years ago. In light of the 2014 and 2015 Extraordinary Synods on the family, which has seen the resurgence of proposals to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, the theological notion of mercy lies at the center of the debate. On one hand, there is the view represented by Cardinal Kasper, which proposes a theory of mercy that would mitigate the normativity of Christ’s doctrine on marriage; opposing the Kasperite doctrine is the view articulated in what Fr. Zuhlsdorf calls “The Five Cardinals’ Book”– that Christ’s own words on marriage are indeed normative and binding for all.

Although best known as the “dictatorship of relativism” speech, mercy is in fact a central theme in Ratzinger’s allocution in the Missa pro eligendo Pontifice. The text, worth reading in its entirety (or, if one is capable in Italian, hearing/watching it), is a homiletic tour-de-force, an accurate diagnosis of the state of the Church, an exegetical masterpiece, an eloquent appeal for a new pope who, like John Paul II, would be “a pastor according to the Lord’s heart”.

Note: as usual, I will produce the relevant part of the original Italian text with my own English translation. While an English version is indeed available on the Vatican website, the biblical translation used therein does not completely convey the idea of mercy as coherently expressed in Ratzinger’s Italian-language homily (the English translates Isaiah 61:2 as speaking of “a year of favor”, not “a year of mercy” as does the Italian).

Ratzinger’s commentary on mercy stems from his reflection on the first reading of that Mass, taken from Isaiah 61, which begins:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up broken hearts, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the mercy of the Lord, a day of vengeance for our God…

The Cardinal Dean then proceeds, in his classically measured and nuanced manner, to explain the text, especially the seeming contradiction between the “year of mercy” and the “day of vengeance”. And while he primarily addresses the Cardinal-electors who are about to undertake the solemn election of the Roman Pontiff, much of his message applies to all Catholics (my emphases added in bold).

La prima lettura offre un ritratto profetico della figura del Messia – un ritratto che riceve tutto il suo significato dal momento in cui Gesù legge questo testo nella sinagoga di Nazareth, quando dice: “Oggi si è adempiuta questa scrittura” (Lc 4, 21). Al centro del testo profetico troviamo una parola che – almeno a prima vista – appare contraddittoria. Il Messia, parlando di sé, dice di essere mandato “a promulgare l’anno di misericordia del Signore, un giorno di vendetta per il nostro Dio.” (Is 61, 2). Ascoltiamo, con gioia, l’annuncio dell’anno di misericordia: la misericordia divina pone un limite al male – ci ha detto il Santo Padre Giovanni Paolo II. Gesù Cristo è la misericordia divina in persona: incontrare Cristo significa incontrare la misericordia di Dio. Il mandato di Cristo è divenuto mandato nostro attraverso l’unzione sacerdotale; siamo chiamati a promulgare – non solo a parole ma con la vita, e con i segni efficaci dei sacramenti, “l’anno di misericordia del Signore”. Ma cosa vuol dire Isaia quando annuncia il “giorno della vendetta per il nostro Dio”? Gesù, a Nazareth, nella sua lettura del testo profetico, non ha pronunciato queste parole – ha concluso annunciando l’anno della misericordia. É stato forse questo il motivo dello scandalo realizzatosi dopo la sua predica? Non lo sappiamo. In ogni caso il Signore ha offerto il suo commento autentico a queste parole con la morte di croce. “Egli portò i nostri peccati nel suo corpo sul legno della croce…”, dice San Pietro (1 Pt 2, 24). E San Paolo scrive ai Galati: “Cristo ci ha riscattati dalla maledizione della legge, diventando lui stesso maledizione per noi, come sta scritto: Maledetto chi pende dal legno, perché in Cristo Gesù la benedizione di Abramo passasse alle genti e noi ricevessimo la promessa dello Spirito mediante la fede” (Gal 3, 13s).

La misericordia di Cristo non è una grazia a buon mercato, non suppone la banalizzazione del male. Cristo porta nel suo corpo e sulla sua anima tutto il peso del male, tutta la sua forza distruttiva. Egli brucia e trasforma il male nella sofferenza, nel fuoco del suo amore sofferente. Il giorno della vendetta e l’anno della misericordia coincidono nel mistero pasquale, nel Cristo morto e risorto. Questa è la vendetta di Dio: egli stesso, nella persona del Figlio, soffre per noi. Quanto più siamo toccati dalla misericordia del Signore, tanto più entriamo in solidarietà con la sua sofferenza – diveniamo disponibili a completare nella nostra carne “quello che manca ai patimenti di Cristo” (Col 1, 24).

The first reading offers a prophetic portrait of the figure of the Messiah– a portrait which receives all its significance at the moment in which Jesus reads this text in the synagogue of Nazareth, when he says, “Today this passage is fulfilled” (Luke 4:21). At the center of the prophetic text, we find a word that– at least at first glance– seems contradictory, The Messiah, speaking of himself, says that he was sent “to proclaim the year of mercy of the Lord, a day of vengeance [vendetta] for our God” (Isaiah 61:2). With joy we hear the announcement of the year of mercy: divine mercy places a limit to evil, as the Holy Father told us. Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: to encounter Christ means to encounter the mercy of God. The mandate of Christ has become our mandate through priestly anointing; we are called to proclaim– not only by our words but by our lives, and by the efficacious signs of the sacraments– the “year of mercy of our God”. But what does Isaiah mean when he announces “the day of vengeance of our God”? Jesus, at Nazareth, in his reading of the prophetic text, did not pronounce these words– he concluded by announcing the year of mercy. Was this perhaps the reason for the scandal which erupted after his preaching? We don’t know. In any case, the Lord has offered his authentic commentary on these words by his death on the Cross. “He carried our sins in his body on the wood of the Cross…” says Saint Peter (1 Peter 2:24). And Saint Paul writes to the Galatians, “Christ has ransomed us from the curse of the law, becoming himself a curse for us, as it is written, ‘Cursed is the man who hangs from the wood,’ such that in Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham should pass to the nations, and that we should receive the promise of the Spirit through the faith” (Galatians 3:13).

The mercy of Christ is not a cheap grace [una grazia a buon mercato], and it does not suppose the banalization of evil. Christ carries in his body and on his soul the entire weight of evil and all its destructive force. He burns and transforms evil through suffering, in the fire of his suffering love. The day of vengeance and the year of mercy coincide in the paschal mystery, in Christ, dead and raised. This is the vengeance of God: he himself, in the person of the Son, suffers for us. The more are we touched by the mercy of God, the more we enter into solidarity with his suffering– we become disposed to complete in our flesh “that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).

How clear, how stark the contrast between this idea of mercy and the Kasperite idea! The paradoxical juxtaposition of mercy and vengeance, of mercy and Cross, is revealed to constitute the essence of Christ’s victory in the paschal mystery. Mercy and suffering, mercy and the Cross, cannot be separated. In light of this, the Kasperite proposal, which is to admit to Holy Communion even those who continue living in unions objectively contrary to Christ’s teaching, appears as a “banalization of evil”, an appeal to “cheap grace”, a license to sin which jettisons the Gospel command. If Christ himself– true God and true Man– had to suffer in order to unleash the unfathomable Divine Mercy upon us all, is it not right that we also must suffer the pain of rejecting the sins which have become part and parcel of our lives? Does not the Cross of Christ compel us to examine ourselves in truth, and to tear away, although painful, the sinful things which through habit and repetition have fused to our souls?

Should we not recall, as Pope Francis recalls in Misericordiae vultus, that “admonishing sinners” is a Spiritual Work of Mercy?

I had the privilege of attending a Traditional Latin Mass for the Friday in the Octave of Easter. Since the celebration of Easter is extended over eight days, each Mass of the Octave in the Extraordinary Form retains the Gloria, the Creed, and the glorious sequence Victimae Paschali laudes. The priest, a rare tradition-friendly Jesuit at a prominently liberal Jesuit university, preached a homily focusing on this venerable hymn. He took as his starting point the line: mors et vita duello conflixere mirando— roughly, in my rendering, “death and life dueled face-to-face”. The priest recalled this cosmic war, this monumental combat which surpasses all conflicts, and beautifully contrasted it with the tender way in which the victory was first revealed:

dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?
Sepulchrum Christi viventis et gloriam vidi resurgentis…

Mary Magdalene, from whom Christ had exorcised seven demons, was a woman who abandoned her sins, and like the Apostles, relinquished her former squalid life in order to follow Christ completely. Yet, while the Apostles lay hidden and fearfully consigned to the gloom of the crucifixion, she, with devoted faith, approached the tomb to care for the Lord– and thus Mary became the privileged first witness of the fullness of Divine Mercy. By her continual journey toward Christ, even in the darkest and most painful of times, she merited to receive the mercy of Christ.

Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando– Mary was the first to learn that this ultimate clash of good and evil does not end in stalemate. By approaching the empty tomb, she received the Good News that the “day of vengeance for our God”, and thus the age of his mercy, had finally arrived, for Christ had descended to the underworld and triumphed over the grave. Dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, suffering and mercy, divine vengeance and divine mercy, are complementary components of the same reality. “This is the vengeance of God: he himself, in the person of the Son, suffers for us. The more are we touched by the mercy of God, the more we enter into solidarity with his suffering– we become disposed to complete in our flesh ‘that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ'” (Colossians 1:24). Cardinal Kasper’s proposal of a possible via paenitentialis which would lead to reception of Holy Communion by the divorced-and-remarried seems to unhinge this innate connection between suffering and mercy, for it does not ultimately require those involved to abandon their sin, in this case, an objectively adulterous union. In fact, such a path is no via paenitentialis at all but a via perditionis. Rather, those who seek mercy are called, like Mary Magdalene, to follow Christ resolutely, even in the darkest of times, even when the journey is difficult, even when separation from sin gives us great pain. A path of penitence, if it is to be a true via misericordiae, must first become a via Crucis.

As the Synod and the Jubilee of Mercy approaches, may the wisdom of our Emeritus Pope enlighten the priests and bishops of the world to remain in the truth of Christ.

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