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‘Go rebuild my house’

Empowering the Church of the Poor through the Eyes of St. Vincent

To celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today, let me share with you this specific portion of the paper I delivered at World Catholicism Week in De Paul University, Chicago USA this week.

The first hermeneutic key of Pope Francis’ papacy is “mercy.” His homilies and speeches are replete with these words: “A little bit of mercy can make the world less cold and more just.” “God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones.” “Let the church be always a place of mercy and hope where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

What gives unity to all these statements that merely appear like “quotable quotes”? “Mercy” did not have a good press in modern popular consciousness. On the one hand, it is seen as mere sentimental feeling, affective but not effective. On the other hand, mercy also is also reduced to “acts of charity” — effective but lacking in affect.

Beyond this binary, let us explore the theological vision that underlies Pope Francis’ discourse.

First, mercy is the definition of God. Pope Francis once published a book entitled: “The name of God is mercy.” To quote the Latin American theologian, Jon Sobrino: “In the beginning was mercy.” If the Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word,” that Word concretely shows itself in mercy. This God reveals Godself as one who responds to pain and suffering.

In Exodus, God said “I have seen and witnessed the affliction of my people. I have heard their cry.” So, he tells Moses: “Go and liberate them.” In the New Testament, mercy is the “visceral love of God” to people who suffer — a feeling that comes from one’s internal organs, from the mother’s womb, from one’s guts. His guts went out to pain and suffering. Jesus felt this when he saw the crowd who were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6: 34); or when he was confronted by the pain of the widow of Nain who lost her son (Luke 7:13). The God who is mercy takes on a face. And his name is Jesus.

Second, if mercy defines God, it should also define our humanity. That is why the story of the Good Samaritan occupies a central place in the theology of Pope Francis. He does not allow any ambiguity: there are just two kinds of people — you are either the priest/Levite or the Samaritan. You either pass by or stop and help the man stranded on the road. Fence-sitting and neutrality is not a Christian option.

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In the midst of my calls for justice in the War on Drugs in the Philippines, my sisters advised me to just shut up. Many human rights advocates and church people landed in courts or were killed, some of them were my friends. My family was worried the same thing would happen to me. To be honest, I am also afraid even until today. But what else will you do if your parishioners are killed left and right? How can you ever sleep without doing something, anything – whatever? What would be the meaning of the Eucharist that I celebrate when killings happen around the chapels where we celebrate the Mass? My response defines the meaning of my priesthood. But even if I am not a priest, my response defines the meaning of my person, of my humanity.

Third, mercy and compassion also defines the nature of the Church. If we speak of internal reform of the Church in our times, that reform must start from “outside”, from the streets, from the peripheries where people cry in pain, or better still, where the poor no longer have a voice to cry at all. The criteria for church reform is beyond the administrative, the managerial or the sociological, even as these dimensions are necessary. It should be an answer to whether this church of ours still responds in mercy to the suffering of millions in our midst.

In short, the Church must be “merciful as the Father is merciful”, must be compassionate as the Father is compassionate in Luke 6: 36. The American theologian, Marcus Borg, offers a good lens to read this crucial biblical text. He argues that our following of God (“imitatio Dei”) shifted from the politics of purity and perfection to the politics of mercy and compassion. The injunction to “be compassionate as our heavenly father is compassionate” in Luke 6: 36 has superseded the Matthean axiom, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5: 48. “Compassion [and mercy], not holiness [and perfection], is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God”. Or, better still, holiness and perfection are defined by the quality of our mercy and compassion.

Where do we locate St. Vincent in all these?

The Vincentian spirituality sees mercy as the heart of the Vincentian charism. For Vincent, as for Pope Francis, mercy is the distinctive feature of God. For sure, Vincent’s Christology was still the high Christology of his times — God coming down from heaven. But Vincent gave incarnation a twist, a distinct focus: the reason for God’s incarnation is mercy. God is a God touched by suffering. Vincent says: “Ah, how tender the Son of God was! … This tender love was the cause of his coming down from heaven. He saw men deprived of his glory. He was touched by their misfortunes” (SV XII, 264). Many researchers identify Vincent’s Christ as the Lucan Christ, and Luke — the exegetes tell us — is the Gospel of Mercy.

If God came down from on high because he was so touched by suffering, how could we not be? Vincent has this oft-quoted verse you see everywhere: “The poor people who don’t know where to go or what to do, they are suffering and their numbers increase every day; these are my burden and sorrow”. And if the God in Jesus became the servant of all, so is it in Vincent. For him, the poor, the homeless, the sick become “our lords and masters”. We know, he is not original in this. Such evangelical inversion is already found in Matthew 25.

I think that it is only from this context that we can understand the myriad Vincentian apostolates worldwide and the structure of our communities. Religious practices therefore should proceed from and lead us to the love of God in the person of the poor — so much so that “we can leave God for God”; or that we can “sell our chalices” to answer for the needs of the sick. Our liturgies, our habits, our community life and structures too should lead us to, and not hinder, the mission. And lastly, religious vows which, for many in medieval religious life, are the end-all and be-all of one’s consecration, were decentered by Vincent, and re-casted towards compassionate service.

It is from this theological paradigm on mercy that we can recover an old theological category called the “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” as Pope Francis wants us to. This is supposed to be the specialization of the Vincentian Family. But these terms fell into disgrace because of its dualistic language, product as it is of an outdated theology. But in our violent times where the victims meet us at our doorsteps — refugees, victims of calamities, the sick and hungry during the pandemic — the corporal works of mercy actually becomes revolutionary. The first thing the victims need is water and food, medicine, blankets and clothes to keep them warm, roofs to cover their heads, some place to bury their dead.

Many look down on them as “dole outs” and some progressive liberation theologians even criticized them for helping legitimize the status quo. But in the context where I come from, to feed the widows and orphans can be seen by the police as cuddling “criminals”, “communists” or “terrorists”. To bury the dead or protect the victim becomes a subversive act against a government that wants to exterminate them.

Moreover, to rethink these categories is even more prophetic in times of globalization. It can take the form of new structural advocacies. “Feeding the hungry” means ensuring access to food sustainability when multinational corporations dictate on the prices of basic commodities. “Giving drink to the thirsty” means preventing the incursion of powerful mining companies into our watersheds that provide water to communities. Water is a universal human right that is now denied to many, Laudato si tells us. “Clothing the naked” and “sheltering the homeless” means working for land acquisition or sustainable housing program which governments prefer to allocate to big business.

“Comforting the sick” and “burying the dead” means fighting for viable health care for all citizens or making medicine accessible to all against the hegemony of big medical companies. “Visiting the prisoner” can also mean working for a more just legal and judicial systems that send the innocent into prisons, or merely kills them. In the world where I come from, people doing “corporal works of mercy” in new global contexts are tagged as terrorists. Some were killed; others just disappeared.

Mercy is not a sentimental feeling. It is first of all the nature of God. And like Jesus, mercy or preferential option for the vulnerable and suffering is a subversive act.

Happy Divine Mercy Sunday to all.

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.

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