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Bishop Raica Keynote Address

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“Merciful like the Father"
Most Reverend Steven J. Raica
Bishop of Gaylord
Keynote Address for Year of Mercy Conference "Becoming Heralds of God's Mercy"
October 31, 2015


I am indeed honored to be part of the events today! As the “Year of Mercy” gears up, it is so good to see many of you from around the diocese who share the enthusiasm of this magnificent pastoral initiative of the Holy Father.  The special Year of Jubilee of Mercy – with the theme: “Merciful like the Father”.

What a great group this is!  Here we are gathered together – the diocese in microcosm. Thanks also for coming from near and far to be part of today’s event. We as a Diocese – and in charity link ourselves with the See of Peter – to put before our eyes the very notion of mercy once again. A special thanks to our diocesan staff and the many individuals who worked together to assemble the outline as to our celebration of the Year of Mercy here throughout the Diocese of Gaylord!

In some ways, it is fitting that we focus our energies on Mercy on the vigil of All Saints!  While the world is celebrating the dark, scary, frightful and the ghoulish, we turn our attention on what makes us – not scary or dark – but filled with light, a beacon of hope and promise, sharers in the love and mercy of Christ our Savior for a waiting and watchful world.  “Blessed are the merciful … for they shall receive mercy!” is the theme of World Youth Day next summer in Krakow!

We have used the word of mercy quite a bit over the years … every liturgy we begin with “Lord, Have Mercy!”  And “May the Lord, have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life!”  This word “mercy” is sprinkled throughout the liturgy to the point where we almost don’t know its there.  Like a bas relief, we want to shine a light on this word during this year as a way to introduce or re-introduce an old friend that has been with us all along.

Mercy is the English translation of the Latin word: Misericordia.  Etymologically it comes from misere (misery, necessity) and cor/cordis, (heart).  It signifies having a heart full of solidarity with those in need.  I suspect in our daily parlance, we would refer to “compassion” (suffer-with) or “forgiveness”. 

“Indeed, for the people of Israel, mercy arises from the confluence of two currents of thought: compassion with the pity that it entails and fidelity with love as a requirement.” So often translations provide nuances with words such as tenderness, pity, compassion, clemency, kindness and grace or gift of God.  That is a rich thesaurus of meanings in the word: Mercy! 

The Jubilee year was inspired by Pope Francis.  Earlier this year on the feast of Divine Mercy, he published what is called the “Bull of Indiction” outlining the Jubilee year devoted to “Mercy”.  He certainly has been talking about mercy for some time. His gestures have inspired people – Catholic and non-Catholic – into understanding this word by the action contained within it.  His reach out to children and the disabled, his visit in prisons, his reach out to the homeless around St Peter’s – providing a shelter and shower, his meeting with immigrants or gypsies. He has demonstrated by his very action the care of a Father toward someone in need.  The Bull of Indiction also has a formal Latin title that carries with it another layer of mercy:  Misericordiae Vultus – that is the “Face of Mercy!” 

By it our Holy Father is suggesting that mercy itself is not some amorphous concept – or some term that merely exists in the realm of ideas – or some kind of a feel-good thought. It is a beautiful concept because when we hear the word “face”, we know it involves a relationship … it involves a something real, a face – of one who understands and cares. A face implies something real, something seen, something experienced, something we can recognize.  We all know how important it is to see someone’s face … it becomes part of the totality of the person – through which we can understand at a deeper and more profound level the very mystery of the person with whom I have a relationship.

The ultimate face of mercy is Christ himself! He reaches out to demonstrate mercy to those in need:  a blind man, a deaf man, a woman who lost her only son, the woman at the well. Some Jewish and others not!  It bespeaks a human response that is an icon of the divine. Additionally, another subtheme of this year is “Merciful like the Father” – recalls the evocative and iconic story of the Prodigal Son – where the Father keeps going out and looking for his son – waiting for him to return … then lavishes upon him the symbols of restoration of a relationship of son:  rings on his fingers and shoes on his feet, a banquet is prepared. He was lost and is found!  Mercy – “merciful like the father” – captures this depth of this dynamic.

Within our Catholic faith – we have already been blessed!  As we learn about the depths of our faith – we recognize that it is a faith that is not just restricted to Church.  Some today suggest that our faith should be restricted to the freedom to express ourselves in worship … “freedom of worship.”  That is something that typically happens in churches, temples, synagogues, or mosques.  Our faith is not limited merely to the dimension of worship on Sunday morning. Ours is a lived faith.  It permeates who we are, the totality of our lives.  Every dimension is imbued with the presence of Christ to live our lives totally and completely for Him.

This certainly was true in the early Church.  Even in times of persecution – when the Christian church did not have status and believers were considered as a threat to the prevailing political reality, Christians began to live a “new way”.  In part, they became known as “the way”!  Eventually they became known as “Christians”, at first as a derogatory term and a way to identify and confine those who were “different” than the rest of society.  But the way they lived was so different that others became increasingly curious and began to take notice.

here is a beautiful reading by an unknown author written sometime between the time of the Apostles to Constantine in the early 4th century – (that narrows it down!) – to a pagan named Diognetus – who was curious about this group called “Christians”. This unknown writer pens this manuscript of 12 brief chapters detailing and outlining the life of a Christian as it became known in the 1st and 2nd century. [You can find it on the internet – Letter to Diognetus]. The manuscript has since been destroyed in a fire in Strasbourg – but its translation continues and it is captures some of the life of who we are and how we seek to live our lives.  We will jump to Chapter 5 – of which I will read a few select paragraphs. It is poetic and beautiful … something that could almost be written for our modern age today – as we, as Christians who seek to live this new way, are increasingly suspect for our beliefs and way of living.  Listen to this and see if it rings true:

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. [They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. They do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.]

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

So, I am always struck whenever I read this passage because it certainly captures our efforts in the world – to introduce to it the rich concepts that enable a Christian culture to emerge … respect and honor for life, especially the most vulnerable; love of neighbor; care for the poor and needy; respect for right relationships.  It is a motivating factor that permits us to see in all the face of God and the hope that a relationship with God engenders – a place where real fullness of life can be experienced and a happiness that can result.

The Holy Father entitled his Bull: “The Face of Mercy”.  I am discovering more and more the significance of the face.  Looking at Psalm 42 – a magnificent psalm that especially draws us who live in the north country into the life of one who is searching and looking:

            As a deer longs for flowing streams
            So longs my soul for you, O God.
            My soul thirst for God, for the living God.
            When shall I come and behold the face of God?

Similarly, Psalm 27:8 is a litany about seeking God’s face:

            You have said, “Seek my face.”
                        My heart says to you,
            Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
                        Hide not your face from me.

Likewise, and it is one of my favorites, Psalm 4 brings some of these notions together:

            “What can bring us happiness?” many say.
            Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.

Think about this for a moment – we are all looking for a face … something that is so familiar; that resonates and echoes something so deep; something that roots itself in our origin and our ultimate destiny.

Practically, we can see that this happens as part of the very experience of life itself.  When a child is born, for example, the first thing that child does is look for its mother.  Doctors and nurses introduce that newborn child to its mother – laying it on her stomach to help it bond … it looks for its mother and recognizes the mothers sounds, feel, touch, face and voice.  It begins to recognize from when he/she came and to whom he/she belongs.  Then, the child begins looking for the father.  And then, brothers and sisters if there are any.  After some time, the child is introduced to other family members – grandmas and grandpas.  Then after some time the child meets others – friends from the neighborhood – and school.  This is my best friend!  We live in that context where true friendship develops.  We can’t wait to be with our friends at school.  Then we have our own first experience of deep friendship and love … and we being to recognize that in some way we are incomplete and look for a partner, a boyfriend or girlfriend who fills a deeper longing and we can’t get them out of our mind … and the dance of love continues.  We look for that face.  Then in marriage, you look for the beloved and look for the face and hear the voice of the one who completes lacks that you have in life. One more time we look the voice, the sound, the quickening of the heart whenever we are in the midst of the one who holds us dear and journeys with us through life.

Isn’t this the same? – analogous to our own search for our ultimate destiny – our desire to live forever rooted in the fact that we are made for an Other – whom we seek in the adventure of life. It is an encounter with the very Mystery of life itself.  More than a moment of fleeting pleasure, it is an encounter with the infinite reality of God and becomes the source of my real happiness!  “When shall I come and behold His face?” “Your face Lord do I seek.” “Let the light of your face shine on us.” Then we will know true happiness and fulfillment.

Today, we are to consider the “works of mercy”.  It is at the very heart of our search to see the face of Christ as the face of compassion, the embrace of mercy the caress of the Nazarene in the incompleteness and need of life itself.

We know them from our earliest days and from reading Matthew 25 (and one from Tobit 1 and 12)– the dramatic and powerful scene of the final judgment. 

            Feed the hungry (Mt 25:35)
            Give drink to the thirsty (Mt 25:35)
            Clothe the naked (Mt 25:36)
            Welcome the Stranger (Mt 25:35)
            Visit the Sick (Mt 25:36)      
            Visit the Imprisoned (Mt 25:36)
            Bury the dead (Tobit 1:17 & 12:12).

Similarly the “spiritual works of mercy” enable us to accompany those with spiritual lack:

            From the standpoint of vigilance

  • counsel the doubtful;
  • instruct the ignorant;
  • admonish sinners

From the standpoint of reconciliation

  • comforting the afflicted
  • forgiving offenses willingly
  • bearing wrongs patiently

From the standpoint of including all of the above

  • prayer, focused on asking God on behalf of the living and the dead

I would venture to say that all of these are pretty straight forward. We understand them and anything that we would hear about them really becomes a boost to help us. When taken together, they all, in one way or another, speak to the poor … those lacking in something that would make them more completely, more totally themselves – from our physical or corporal lacks to our spiritual lacks.  It is a desire to speak to the whole person – not just a part. Frequently, it cannot happen unless there is another present, who becomes the face of mercy, of compassion, or forgiveness, of patient suffering, of sharing the necessities of life and companionship. This face also becomes the face of Christ – as we are told – “whatever you do to the least, you do to me”!

Pope Francis underscores this notion in his letter to the world called, the “Joy of the Gospel”.

God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9)…. He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: “Blessed are you poor, yours in the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat,” and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf. Mt 25:5ff.)

For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political, or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy.” This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspire by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.” This option – as Pope Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty.” This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor … WE are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them, and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (EG 197-198).

In light of the Holy Father’s clarion call and focus on the poor and those most in need, it is good to recall that there are four (4) kinds of poverty that correspond to the works of mercy.  This is taken from The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, published by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization:

  1. First, the one that we all think about immediately on hearing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy is the physical or economic poverty … no food, drink – the need to satisfy hunger and thirst; no roof, no clothes, no shelter, to which could be added unemployment and serious illnesses or disabilities.
  2. Second, cultural poverty – with illiteracy and the lack of educational opportunities, the lack of a future with the social and cultural exclusion it entails – represented by counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; admonish the sinner.
  3. Third, the social and relational, from solitude and withdrawal, the death of a spouse, the death of family members and close friends, external and internal difficulties of social communication of all kinds, discrimination and marginalization, to isolation by imprisonment and exile – this is represented by – welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and visit the sick; and forgiving offenses and bearing wrongs patiently.
  4. Fourth, spiritual poverty such as disorientation, inner emptiness, distress, and even despair about the meaning of one’s own existence, moral and spiritual confusion, self-abandonment, the absence or marginalization of the religious dimension, apathy or overwhelming indifference – offering comfort and prayer.

It is noted that Jesus praise or condemnation in Matthew 25 – the “corporal works of mercy” and really addressing  the omission of good – what we called the “sins of omission” – “since the point is to act with the greatest amount of justice.”  We recall the warning of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).  This can be pretty sobering for one seeking to live out the Christian life. “This ‘greater justice’ proposed in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is not merely a quantitative intensification of life before god, but a qualitative one, since it is not purely a more detailed compliance with the law but is realized in terms of self-giving and service in the image of God’s ‘extreme love’ manifested in Jesus Christ (“he love them to the end,” Jn 13:1).

As Pope Francis reflects, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee year, “will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy “ (MV 15).

In several situations already, I have used the dramatic and evocative event of the 33 miners in who were trapped 2,300 ft underground in Chile back on August 5, 2010. It has touched me so much – a real modern day parable. Many of you recall the event – that captured the world’s attention and became an international emergency.  They had been trapped underground with very limited resources.  Above ground, no one knew if they were dead or alive. But it was believed that there was a slim chance that they could be alive – and we should do all we can to bore down and see if that were true.  On August 22, they sent a probe down to the affected area – and the miners sent back a note – “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Then the work began in earnest to figure out a way to reach them to get them out. Meanwhile some food and water was sent down – since they survived two weeks on canned tuna / mackerel and water.  They organized themselves as well in to a little community – including a place to pray. They were freed on October 13, 2010. 

What is amazing about this redemption story is that they could not free themselves … they lived in darkness.  It depended on another.  Another to reach out – to show them a way out – that they were not along. For those first 2 weeks, it was a painful existence.  As one expert said, the greatest difficulty they had to contend with was more psycho-spiritual … not knowing whether someone was even looking for them.  In some way or other, we all want to be found … we don’t want to be alone … we want to journey to life together – and slow down occasionally when someone is lagging behind because of illness or lack of education – to bring everyone up to speed again. We want to see face that says, “I care.”  So many say, if only I could see my mother or dad or my son or daughter one more time.  We want to see that face that loved and embraced and kissed us. It is the face of mercy.  Even then, it is the face of Christ that embraces and caresses and proclaims – you are found, I love you – and thus becomes “merciful like the Father”.

So the corporal and spiritual works of mercy demonstrate clearly that Christ is acting in our world today through us – who belong to him.  We seek to remediate the poverty that prevents us from becoming whole – to see His face to become happy and joyful and fulfilled in this life and therefore experience a greater freedom to satisfy the needs of the heart. It is the heart that connects with the very mystery of Christ and recognizes it when it is near. My heart beats a little faster because it connects with my origin and destiny.

I also take this opportunity to put in a word for one of the hidden secrets and treasures of our Catholic Faith – our Catholic Social Teaching.  The expressions there for our reach out in moment of solidarity with the underprivileged, seeking to shine a flashlight on systemic injustices, and becoming aware of how we can address issues related to migration, labor, elements of a just society that serves the common good, and respect for the dignity of life can enhance our participation in this Year of Mercy as we seek to be the leaven of Christ in our culture and society.

Finally, to bring all of this into a landing, we are mindful of the Mercy that touched Mary – our Blessed Mother – especially in the Magnificat.  We read, “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” And “He has remembered his promise of mercy … to Abraham and his children forever.” Our Lady articulates the promise that His face is not far … and that his mercy will embodied in the incarnation of Christ her Son.  The face of mercy has come to us and through us – it must reach out to touch those waiting to be found.

I am grateful for the many initiatives already activated in parishes – soup kitchens, food pantries, St Vincent de Paul Conferences, Stephen ministries, home visitation, Scripture study, Christ Renews His Parish, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Council of Catholic Women, Rachel’s Vineyard, our Catholic Schools and Educational and Faith Formation initiatives, our Catholic Human Services, the presence of the Augustine Center, Knight of Columbus, Hispanic Ministry, our Justice and Peace Office, Eucharistic Adoration, support for missions, especially to Matagalpa, Nicaragua, and Maiduguri, Nigeria and many other organizational activities and associations that bring to life the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. 

At the very heart of the life of Christ for us is this: Jesus came to make disciples! - not just 2000 years ago, but today – throughout the Diocese of Gaylord – disciples and followers. We are people who have met Christ and our lives have changed. As result, we live differently than everyone else. Consequently, we are the face of mercy that has infiltrated our culture and society, i.e., people who live a “new way” with our “eyes fixed on Jesus”, who is “merciful like the Father.”

May God bless you and may we walk together on this beautiful journey!

+Steven J Raica