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Blessed Are The Merciful

May 19, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In last week’s consideration of the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [justice], for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6), we saw that those being referred to are souls who intensely desire that their wills are in accord with God’s will. They want what God wants, and their desires are always satisfied.
In the first volume of his commentary entitled The Gospel of Matthew (TGM), William Barclay observes that for many, the desire for goodness and justice is “wistful and nebulous rather than sharp and intense.” They are content with “a part of righteousness.” In this Beatitude, however, our Lord is describing “the hunger of a man who is starving for food, and the thirst of the man who will die unless he drinks” (TGM, pp. 99-100).
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, in The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, affirms that “God always gives a deep spiritual joy to those who do his will in spite of trial and difficulty” (n. 859). The happiness experienced when we yield to the world’s enticements, to the triple concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life (cf. 1 John 2:16), is fleeting and transitory and leads to unhappiness and misery. Especially assisted by a particular gift of the Holy Spirit, fortitude, those who wholeheartedly live the fourth Beatitude are given strength to persevere, to stay the course.
Indeed, “Christ promises joy only to those who seek justice and holiness” (ibid., n. 860), an abiding interior joy that cannot be taken away by anyone or anything, even in this present life.
Now, on to the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). It teaches a principle that is one of the most dominant themes in the preaching of Jesus throughout the New Testament: the necessity to forgive in order to be forgiven, that we must practice mercy toward others if we are to obtain mercy from God. Jesus was quite clear when He commanded His disciples to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
We are similarly warned in the Letter of St. James that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). And in the Our Father, Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), and followed with an explanation: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Before continuing, let us look at the meaning of the word mercy as used in Sacred Scripture. In the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), it is defined as “the loving kindness, compassion, or forbearance shown to one who offends.”
Fr. Hardon expands on this in his Modern Catholic Dictionary by defining mercy as “the disposition to be kind and forgiving. Founded on compassion, mercy differs from compassion or the feeling of sympathy in putting this feeling into practice with a readiness to assist. It is therefore the ready willingness to help anyone in need, especially [one who is in] need of pardon or reconciliation” (p. 348).
Derived from the Hebrew hesed (which is difficult to precisely translate into English), mercy has two fundamental meanings in biblical usage, both evident in the definitions given above. The first “is usually expressed by forgiveness for unfaithfulness and sins. The second meaning indicates the attitude toward the need and suffering — not necessarily the sin — of the other and is expressed in what we call we call works of mercy” (Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Beatitudes: Eight Steps to Happiness, p. 65).
Certainly, both shine forth in the life of Jesus and we, likewise, are called to live out both forms of mercy. In the fifth Beatitude, however, “the primary meaning of mercy…is certainly the first, that of the forgiveness and remission of sins” (ibid., p. 66), as becomes apparent when the connection between the condition and the reward is noted.
“Mercy, love’s response in the face of evil,” affirms Fr. Hardon, “is best shown in forgiving those who have offended us” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 105). A fruit of charity, it is ready to suffer for the good of others and “in this way, forgiveness bears witness to authentic Christian love. Mercy is love shown to the unlovable and to those who have been unjust and ungrateful” (ibid.).
It is in direct opposition to the common practice of the world which seeks vengeance, as evidenced by courtrooms filled with plaintiffs seeking retribution for supposed wrongs committed against them. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, with his typical candor, rewords the fifth Beatitude as practiced by the masses: “Blessed is the man who thinks first about himself” (The Cross and the Beatitudes [TCB], p. 27).
One of the most illuminating parables demonstrating our firm obligation to forgive others is that of the unjust steward (see Matt. 18:23-35). After the king, moved by pity, forgave the steward a debt of ten thousand talents (an incalculable debt that is impossible for sinful mankind to repay), the ungrateful steward refused to forgive his fellow-steward a debt of only one hundred denarii (a mere trifle compared to the debt he had just been forgiven).
The king’s just response was swift and sure, as it will be on judgment day for those who refuse mercy to others: “In anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:34-35).
It would be good at this juncture to note a condition attached to the parable, namely, “forgive your brother from your heart.” As expressed by Archbishop Sheen, “a person is merciful when he feels the sorrow and misery of another as if it were his own” (TCB, p. 27).
In others words, a mere external show of sympathy is not sufficient to fulfill Christ’s command to be merciful. “Our participation in the mercy and love of God must be vital,” says Fr. Hardon, “originating in the depths of the heart so that we might have the same mind which was in Christ, Who emptied Himself, obediently accepting death on the Cross (cf. Phil. 2:5). . . . If we do not forgive those who have hurt us [from the heart], our hearts remain closed to Jesus and their hardness renders them impermeable to the merciful love of the Father” (BCCC, p. 105).
On our own, forgiveness from the heart would not be possible. The Catechism, however, explains the solution: “It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart,’ that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC, n. 2843).
Accordingly, as has been the case for each of the Beatitudes we have thus far considered, a particular gift of the Holy Spirit comes to the aid of one who is authentically living out the Beatitude of the merciful — and the way is opened for a great showering of graces.

Counsel And Mercy

Counsel, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the gift of the Holy Spirit that corresponds to the fifth Beatitude. Following the thought of St. Augustine, the Angelic Doctor writes, “The beatitude of mercy specially corresponds to the gift of counsel, not as eliciting but as directing mercy” (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 52, art. 4).
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, in his spiritual classic entitled The Three Ages of the Interior Life, posits two principal reasons why counsel corresponds to the Beatitude of the merciful: 1) Mercy is necessary for us to truly know how to give fitting and useful counsel to those in need of it; and 2) whereas prudence hesitates in difficult circumstances in choosing between the rigor of justice and the compassion of mercy, the gift of counsel generally inclines us toward mercy.
Why? Mercy may encourage the sinner and will perhaps result in his re-entry into the order of justice (cf. p. 88).
Moreover, the depth of mercy of which we are speaking is expansive toward all of mankind. “It concerns the tribulations [and forgiveness] not only of those we love, but even of those who hate us,” declares Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, “not only of people who delight us with their charms, but also of those who repel us” (The Sanctifier, p. 321).
The pinnacle of mercy is shown by Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when looking down upon those who crucified Him on the cross, uttered as one of His seven last words: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
“When we avail ourselves of God’s grace, responding with mercy to the people who offend us,” explains Fr. Hardon, “they become for us instruments of our sanctification” (BCCC, p. 105).
The reward we are promised for living the Beatitude of the merciful is nothing less than obtaining the mercy of God at the time of death — that we will be forgiven our sins and granted entrance into the heavenly banquet and enjoy eternal beatitude.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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