Ian McCormack finds this collection from Pope Francis both satisfying and challenging.
THE CHURCH OF MERCY
His first major book: A message of hope for all people
DLT, 192pp, pbk
978 023253121H, £9.99
Pope Francis really gets under your skin. I mean that as the highest form of compliment. The Church of Mercy is not a book of comforting platitudes or complacent clichés. This is a book full of startling insights and unsettling demands. In this, the Holy Father follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ himself. And like the teaching of Our Lord — which the religious elites of his time found so difficult to accept — these words of Pope Francis have a habit of settling in the subconscious of the reader and dramatically reappearing at the most challenging and downright awkward moments. They resurface with a direct challenge: what does this mean for me? What does this mean for the Church? What must I do to play my part in the call to dangerous discipleship which runs through this book like letters in a stick of rock?
It strikes me as I write this that there is an irony here for NEW DIRECTIONS readers. If these sorts of questions — and much of the phraseology used in The Church of Mercy —were employed by a Fresh Expressions merchant with a fancy title and a big desk in the diocesan office, we would dismiss them out of hand. Yet coming from the pen of the Holy Father, with the full weight of the teaching office of the Church behind them, they carry authority and conviction, and cannot be ignored. As I say, this is an unsettling book — and all the more valuable for that.
The subtitle of the book is misleading. This is not a full-length monograph, but a collection of the Pope’s sermons, addresses and general audiences. It is one of many that have appeared since Francis became Pope — and it is among the best. The English translation is excellent, the layout attractive, and the sources properly annotated (albeit at the back of the book, which is slightly irritating). But it is the words of Pope Francis himself which make The Church of Mercy truly valuable.
Several themes emerge as central to the Pope’s message. Foremost among them is a challenge to each and every baptised Christian: ‘How do I let myself be guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that my life and witness of faith is both unity and communion? Do I convey the word of reconciliation and of love, which is the Gospel, to the milieus in which I live?
… Do I create unity around me? Or do I cause division, by gossip, criticism or envy? What do I do?’
For those whose vocation is to ordained ministry, the challenges become even more telling. Priests are called to walk with their people: sometimes in front to guide the community; sometimes in the middle to encourage and support; and some times at the back to keep the community united and ensure that nobody lags too far behind to remain within. ‘What could be more beautiful the Pope asks, than a parish priest who knows the lives of his people, even down to the name of each family’s dog? But there is a dangerous and difficult side to priesthood as well: pastors must be prepared to allow themselves to be led, like St Peter, to places that they do not wish to go.
Bishops do not escape: to be an apostle is first and foremost to be a person who prays. When we think of a bishop, we must ask ourselves if this successor of the apostles prays first and then proclaims the Gospel’?
All of this culminates in a challenge to the Church as a whole: she is called constantly to go out to the edges of society, to the `outskirts of existence’ to proclaim the Gospel to all the world. Are we missionaries by our words … or are we Christians closed in our hearts and in our churches, sacristy Christians? Are we Christians in name only, who live like pagans?’
`Sacristy Christians’ is a wonderful phrase, and a phenomenon which will be instantly recognisable to most of us. But one of the surprising joys in reading this book was in discovering that Pope Francis has a gift for the memorable turn of phrase. God’s touch is a ‘caress of love’. Christians must be ‘revolutionaries through grace!’ Priests are called to be ‘shepherds with the “odour of the sheep”‘.
One final point: there are those who have attempted to portray, in the Pope’s fluent ease with modern forms of communication and media, and in some of his pastoral encounters, a deep-seated shift in the teaching of the Church, and in particular a drastic discontinuity between Francis and his predecessor. This book suggests that nothing could be further from the truth: Benedict XVI is quoted frequently here, and the Holy Father writes (as we would expect) from a position of solid doctrinal orthodoxy. That is precisely what makes The Church of Mercy such a satisfying and yet challenging read.