Mercy: The best of who we are

The sun rises over Cincinnati. (Tracy Kemme)

What an opportunity Pope Francis has given us in the Year of Mercy! It feels like something beautiful is dawning. It is a chance to rediscover and put forth the best of who we are.

A few weeks ago, I went to an Advent production at a local church. It is a fairly new and up-and-coming "mega church" that presents itself as "relationship, not religion." The huge sanctuary filled up with people, including many young families, for the show. Outside the sanctuary, the building buzzed with activity. There was a coffee bar, couches, meeting rooms, and activities happening for people of all ages.

Strangely, I found myself sad as I observed it all. Not sad because something good is happening there. Clearly, many people are finding something for which they are seeking and delving deeper into a relationship with God. Not sad because it isn't a Catholic church. Several of my closest friends are of faiths different than my own and I have always treasured the gifts of the many expressions of the Christian faith. I was sad because there was an energy there that my denomination of Christianity so often fails to communicate. The Catholic church less and less is a place that young adults call home.

On Christmas, I was talking to my cousin, who is a few years older than I am. She has two young daughters in Catholic school. While she loves their community of learning, she shared with me that she has some serious, deeply felt issues with the Catholic church. In fact, there are many things about the church that she "can't stand." I get it. I told her that I hear her and understand where she is coming from. But I also felt sad again. It is hard for someone like me who has dedicated my life through a vocation of the Catholic church to hear, time and time again, that many of my peers find nothing in the Catholic church to keep them there.

I have wondered myself at times, "Is the Catholic church still relevant? Will it continue to draw new members?"

Through my journey as a Catholic sister, I have fallen more in love with the beauty of our faith and I can say a resounding, "Yes!" It is relevant. I do not think my church is perfect; far from it. I probably share some of the same concerns that my cousin has. But at the heart of Catholicism is a rich spirituality that floods my life with meaning and impacts the world in transformative ways.

Thank God, Pope Francis has brought much of what I love about Catholicism to the forefront of his papacy. In the Year of Mercy, he invites each of us into that journey of living our deep faith in concrete actions of love. Pope Francis invites us to follow his example, and, well, the example of Jesus. This call to mercy is a good reminder that as Catholics, we are, first and foremost, Christians — followers of Christ.

And, as Pope Francis says in Misericordiae Vultus, "Jesus Christ is the face of the [Creator]'s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. . . .With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. . . .This love has now been made visible and tangible in Jesus' entire life. His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously. . . .The signs he works, especially in favor of sinners, the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering, are all meant to teach mercy. Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion."

Everything is mercy; nothing is devoid of compassion. That is why I love my faith. Following Jesus calls us to something extraordinary, even revolutionary. And that is still the heart of Catholicism.

The many beautiful things about Catholicism often get lost in discussions about more controversial teachings. The Year of Mercy is a chance to continue to change what people imagine when they think of the Catholic church. Even Pope Francis acknowledges our need to re-focus when he says, "Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. . . . The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope." (MV)

The Catholic church is not simply a college of various levels of ordained men and rules about sexual morality. It is a living, breathing body of imperfect humans from all walks of life attempting to follow Jesus and carry on his mission of mercy. At least, at its best, that's what it can be. As the USCCB's hashtag for this year, #mercyinmotion, reminds us, mercy does not stand still! Mercy moves deep within our own hearts and moves us to love in action.

On the World Day of Peace, celebrated on January first, several offices of our archdiocese collaborate to host an annual Mass at Cincinnati's downtown cathedral. The Catholic Social Action Office, where I minister, is one of those offices. This year, we planned a pre-Mass procession involving 14 local groups representing how the 14 works of mercy are lived out in our archdiocese. Each group carried a candle down the center aisle, and placed it near an image of Mary, the Mother of Mercy.

World Day of Peace Mass at the St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, holding up examples of the works of mercy in our Archdiocese of Cincinnati. (Karen Kane)

Among those groups processing were: St. Vincent de Paul; the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Clean Water Project, providing drinkable water to children all over the world; the Little Sisters of the Poor; the HELP program that empowers people coming out of prison; Su Casa Hispanic Center, a program of Catholic Charities that offers support to the local Latino community; the Catholic Inner-City School Education fund; the Archdiocesan Climate Change Task Force; Healthy Moms and Babes, which supports women in crisis pregnancies; the Archdiocesan Bereavement ministry; and Retrouvaille, a Catholic program that supports couples having marriage struggles.

And those were just some. Watching the procession, I was moved. This is our church at its best! I thought.

Our church shows mercy every day in countless ways. On an expansive scale, I think of Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the system of Catholic schools and hospitals, the Catholic Volunteer Network, Catholic Charities and many more. I can't fathom how many people and systems are touched by the ministries made possible through these organizations. I think of the rich body of writing our church has on Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with Rerum Novarum on the rights of workers in 1891 and covering the topics of peace, justice, human dignity, poverty, racism, care for creation, and more, all the way up to Pope Francis' Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si'.

This is our faith, which we are proud to profess in Christ Jesus!

As Pope Francis says, "Mercy is the very foundation of the Church's life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church's very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love." (MV)

I'll say it again: What an opportunity Pope Francis has given us in the Year of Mercy! I have already been touched deeply on a personal level by the year's invitation. As Sister Nicole so beautifully described in her December column, we are each called to a conversion of heart. People changing on a deep level will be the root of society changing on a deep level. I'm grateful that the Pope urges that. I hope and pray that we fully embrace it, explore it and live it.

The Year of Mercy can help us to be our best as a Catholic church. Individuals, parishes, schools, organizations, dioceses and beyond should be leaning into the Year of Mercy with great gusto. I'm not saying that simply as a publicity stunt or because I think it will somehow cause thousands of young adults to come flocking back to the Catholic faith.

I'm saying it because mercy is who we are, and it is certainly time to be the best of who we are.

[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]