“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). Alinari / Bridgeman Images

The Relentless, Saving Mercy of God

God knows nothing but mercy towards us

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When Pope Francis announced the Year of Mercy in December 2015, the Holy Spirit must have inspired him. Though the Church has had many dedicated years — Year of the Family, Year of the Priesthood, Year of the Laity, Year of Consecrated Life — most of these lost both momentum and interest along the way. And by the end of the particular year, they had been long over.

Not so with the Year of Mercy. In fact, the year seemed to gain more and more momentum and energy as the year went on. More and more people learned of the Year of Mercy and found ways to be part of it, to celebrate it, to enjoy it, to be nourished by it. And now, seven years later, there are still remnants of the Year of Mercy in the Church.

But it had to be so. It was time for the Church to reveal the maternal face of God once again. Pope Francis wrote a book on the topic — “The Name of God is Mercy” (Random House, $26) — and it served as a guide for the year. Time and time again, the Pope reminded us that God is mercy, that the mercy of God is relentless, that the mercy of God will guide us in this life and into the next, and that we will all be saved by the mercy of God.

Someone gave my name to Pope Francis, and I was subsequently appointed a Missionary of Mercy, to serve the Church in a particular way during the Year of Mercy. I will be grateful to God for all eternity to have had the opportunity to serve the Church as a Missionary of Mercy.

Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican on Dec. 8, 2015. CNS photo/Vatican Media

During that year, and even beyond, I had countless opportunities to preach about the mercy of God, to hear hundreds of confessions and to extend the mercy of God to his people. Perhaps the best thing about being a Missionary of Mercy is that every time I gave a talk on the mercy of God, every time that I preached about the mercy of God, every time I spoke with a penitent about the mercy of God, I myself believed it that much more.

I have come to believe that the mercy of God will save us all because God knows nothing but mercy towards us.

At this Advent/Christmas time of year, our minds and hearts turn to the Incarnation, to the truth that God became human in Jesus, and that forever more his love and his mercy would be tangible, would touch us.

Mercy is incarnate. I often say that I’m not sure that I can define mercy, but I know it when I see it. That’s for sure. I wish to look at one parable in the life of Jesus that reveals the mercy of God to us in flesh and blood kinds of ways. This might help us better understand the mercy of God.

Parable of the Merciful Father

We all know this parable as the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15, a chapter with three parables, each one rich in the abundant mercy of God.

Pope Francis is not the first person to suggest that the parable that we all know as the parable of the prodigal son is not named well. He prefers to call it the “parable of the merciful father,” because it really is about the mercy, forgiveness and love of the father, not about the sons.

The main points of the parable are well-known: After talking with his father, the younger son takes his share of his father’s inheritance, moves far away from home, squanders his money on loose living, gets hungry and decides to return home. He imagines he is not worthy of the father, but at the very least he can get a job as a servant in his father’s house. He has carefully prepared what he’ll say to his father when he arrives.

Meanwhile, the older son has fulfilled his father’s every wish, undertaking whatever he was asked to do and was always loyal. But when the father throws a party for the errant son, the faithful son becomes angry. He wants nothing to do with his father, his brother, any of it. He won’t even come into the house.


Good Works Show Unending Gratitude to God

Father Joe Corpora shares that this is not the place for an extensive discussion about faith vs. good works. I do believe this. Our good works, by themselves, will not save us. We do not do good works to save ourselves. Rather, we do good works as a way of showing our unending gratitude to God who is so good and generous and kind to us and who has saved us. Our sins, by themselves, will not disqualify us. Our sins pale in the light of God’s mercy. It is God’s mercy that overpowers both our good works and our sins — and saves us.

In his book, “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?” (Ignatius Press), Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: “If someone asks us, ‘Will all men be saved?’ we answer in line with the Gospel: ‘I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever.’ This means as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of a proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.” — Father Joseph Corpora, CSC


When I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1976, Dom Helder Camara, then the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, in Brazil, received an honorary doctorate. I was lucky enough to meet him and still have a picture of him and me on my desk.

In reflecting on this parable, the archbishop wrote: “I pray incessantly for the conversion of the older brother. The younger brother has awakened from his life of sin returning to them often over the past almost 50 years.

A closer look at the parable reveals similarities between the two sons. They both think that they can find their own happiness. The younger son thinks that by living a wild and crazy life, by doing whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, he will find happiness. But he does not. The older son thinks that by obeying every command of his father, and by doing exactly what he is asked to do, he will find happiness. But he does not.

Both are guilty of the same sin. They think they are responsible for their own salvation. The younger son thinks that he is too bad to receive the mercy of God. And the older son thinks that he is too good to need it. It’s the same sin.

Both sons mistreat their father by not understanding the depth of his love and affection for each son. Neither of them wants to go into the house. Yet the father takes neither one to task. He asks neither one to repent. Instead, he loves both sons and offers them his mercy.

The parable tells us that the father runs out the front door of his house to welcome his errant son. He does not let the boy finish his speech. Instead, he interrupts him, asks nothing of him, hugs and kisses him, and offers him everything that he has — the robe, the ring, the fattened calf. The father also offers him everything that he is.

Then he goes out the back door of his house to talk with his older son who refuses to come in. He pleads with him and invites him to be compassionate by offering him his mercy. The father says. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (v. 31). When he says “everything I have is yours,” he does not mean the fattened calf, the ring, the robe, the slippers. What he means is that everything that he is — mercy, compassion, love, tenderness, goodness, forgiveness — belongs to his sons as well.

The Father Speaks to Us

The words the father speaks to his older son are the same words that the Father speaks to us: “Everything that I have is yours.” All the mercy, forgiveness, compassion, love, tenderness and goodness that is God is also ours. God gives us everything that he is.

We do not know the end of the story. We really don’t know if either son accepts the father’s invitation to enter the home. I like to think that the father’s love and mercy are so strong that neither can resist it and that they both enter the house.


Popes and the Mercy of God

Father Joe Corpora adds that Pope Francis is sometimes called “The Great Reformer.” Certainly, history will look upon him as such. Part of what that reform has meant is to turn our minds and hearts to the mercy of God, or better yet to let the mercy of God penetrate our minds and hearts and spirits and souls. Though Pope Francis talks constantly about the mercy of God, he is not the first pope to do so.

In the opening address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope St. John XXIII said, “The Church has always opposed errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.” I love the phrase “the medicine of mercy.” — Father Joseph Corpora, CSC


We do know that the father loves his sons as each one needs to be loved. You can easily see why a more correct name would indeed be “the parable of the merciful father.”

Most of us have known ourselves to be the younger son or the older son at different periods in our lives. And sometimes we are both sons, even on the same day! God will allow us to be one son or the other, or both sons, if it will help us to know that it is his mercy that saves us.

In the end, we are all saved by the relentless, inexhaustible and unconditional mercy of God.

Attributes of Mercy

At this Advent/Christmas time of year, perhaps we think more than ever of the Incarnation. And part of what that means is that all the attributes of God are incarnational. This includes mercy.

There is a great play by Lorraine Hansberry called “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which a very poor family inherits some money, not a lot, but enough to make a difference in their lives.

One day the son lends $10,000 to a friend who convinces him that they can begin a new company. Unfortunately, the friend runs off with the money and is never heard from again. When the older sister, Beneatha, learns of this, she just tears into her brother, screaming and yelling at him for doing this.

Prodigal son
Fresco of the return of the prodigal son in the Church of St. Ignace in Prague, Czech Republic, by Jan Umlauf. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Their mother intervenes and says, “Have you loved that boy today?” Beneatha responds, “Love him? There is nothing left to love.” The mother says: “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning — because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.” This is mercy incarnate; this is an example where the mother’s words remind us that the name of God is mercy.

There’s another great story that shows the mercy of God incarnate. A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied. “Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.

Call to New Life

During the 10 years of his papacy, Pope Francis has invited us over and over again to lead with mercy. As far as I know, Pope Francis has not changed any doctrines of the Church. Rather, he has invited us to lead with mercy. What does this mean? There are some “movements” when we connect with someone’s life — correct, heal, encounter.

Pope Francis has asked us, by word and by example, to change the order of these. Encounter the person, heal the person, correct the person. While these movements are the same, the order is different — the new order makes all the difference. Pope Francis invites us to lead with mercy. That will make all the difference.

Let me illustrate encounter, heal and the call to new life with two stories, one from the Gospel of John and one from modern-day life.

“Christ and the Adulteress”
“Christ and the Adulteress” (c. 1512-15) by Titian (1488-1576) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Adam Ján Figel/AdobeStock

In chapter eight of the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we witness Jesus encountering the woman caught in adultery. They talk. He’s very gentle. She’s embarrassed. He writes on the ground. He looks into her eyes. Then Jesus heals her by not condemning her, by not punishing her” “‘Has no one condemned you?” She replied, ‘No one, sir’” (vv. 10-11). Imagine how healed she began to feel. Then Jesus invites us to a better life. “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” This is to encounter, heal, call to new life.

This same movement is clearly seen in the book “Dead Man Walking” (Vintage Books, $17) by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ. The book was made into a well-known movie with the same name, and now even is an opera.

Without having a clue as to what she is getting herself into, Sister Helen responds to a request from a man in prison for spiritual guidance. She agrees to visit this man on death row. She writes to him. She visits him. She gets to know him. She asks few questions. She encounters him. And he encounters her.

Through her many visits, through her accompaniment, he begins to heal. Although filled with hatred and a lifetime of anger, he begins to see that there might be more to life than anger and hatred and revenge. He begins to wonder if there could be something on the other side of hatred and revenge and anger. He begins to heal.

Then Sister Helen invites him to be honest about his life. What really happened the night of the crime that he was convicted for? What was his role in the deaths of those two innocent teenagers? What did he do? What is his role in this tragedy? And as he walks to his death, he apologizes to the parents of the boy whom he killed. It’s so easy to see that he is converted.

If Jesus had begun by correcting, then embracing, then encountering, the embracing and the encounter would not have happened because the woman caught in adultery would have felt judged from the start and would not have been able to hear any words of healing or of encounter.

Likewise, with “Dead Man Walking”: If Sister Helen had begun with correcting and scolding the man in prison, he would never have been healed or felt loved. If she had gone to the prison and asked him to repent, that would have been the end of their relationship. Nothing more would have happened after that.

Lead with Mercy

Encounter, heal, call to new life. This is what it means to lead with mercy.

In “The Name of God Is Mercy,” Pope Francis tells a story from when he served as the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. A priest famous for hearing confessions of everyone — old people, young people, bishops and priests, nuns and children — would come to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio every so often and say: “I think that I was too lenient in the confessional today. I forgave all sins. I was never harsh. I extended the mercy of God time and again, never asking any questions.” Then the priest would ask the cardinal for advice. The cardinal would say to him, “Well, Father, what do you do when you feel this way?” And the priest answered, “Well, I go to the chapel. I kneel down in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and I tell Jesus what I just told you — that I was lenient, that I was never harsh … that I forgave everything … and then I say to Jesus, ‘Well, if I have done wrong, you are the one who gave me the bad example!’”

Great story. The truth, however, is that we don’t have to look any further than the life of Jesus to understand and practice extending the mercy of God. And to lead with mercy.

The Incarnation reminds us that God became human so that the mercy of God might be incarnate, palpable and real. The mercy of God is saving us at every moment of our lives, even as I am writing these words and as you are reading them.

On my Christmas wish list, I have put the following: That I might know my sinfulness more than ever and thereby know the mercy of God at an ever-deepening level. And that I might share that gift with everyone around me. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift to give or to receive.

FATHER JOE CORPORA, CSC, serves as associate director of the Transformational Leaders Program (TLP) at the University of Notre Dame. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Father Corpora to serve the Church as a Missionary of Mercy.


What Is a Missionary of Mercy

In December 2015, launching the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy , Pope Francis designated a Missionary of Mercy to be:

— A living sign of the Father’s welcome to all those in search of his forgiveness.

— Facilitators for all, with no one excluded, of a truly human encounter, a source of liberation, rich with responsibility for overcoming obstacles and taking up the new life of baptism again.

— Guided by the words, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.”

— Inspiring preachers of mercy.

— Heralds of the joy of forgiveness.

— Welcoming, loving, and compassionate confessors, who are most especially attentive to the difficult situations of each person.

From the Jubilee of Mercy website, iubilaeummisericordiae.va 


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