Mercy bids us to open our hearts

by Caroline Mbonu

NCR Contributor

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Catholic faith tradition teaches that God continues to reveal the God-self as mercy in the face of Jesus Christ and this same Jesus Christ is made manifest in the lives of Christians. Thus, conforming and configuring to the image of Christ has been the call as well as the challenge before Christians, especially during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015-November 20, 2016).

The Letter of James seems to suggest a fundamental lesson of this Jubilee: "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers . . ." (James 1:22). Volumes of homilies have been preached and tons of materials written on the subject of mercy. Many can define and redefine mercy. But how many actually do merciful deeds? The celebration brought to the fore the many practical ways of being "doers" of mercy. In celebrating the Year of Mercy, therefore, the church, through the instrumentality of Pope Francis, invited us to actually do what the Gospel invites us to become: "merciful like the Father" (Luke 6:36). Mercy bids us to open our hearts to all peoples and feel the humanity of the other, to look into the eye of a sister or a brother in need and attend to her or his concerns.

The people in the Port Harcourt, Nigeria, diocese took this invitation seriously. Under the leadership of Fr. Polycarp Henetu, the diocesan coordinator for the Year of Mercy, we put together a robust program of events that cut across families, parishes, schools and institutions to celebrate mercy. And like in a typical African village setting where every family participates in celebrating a community festival, every segment of the diocese was involved in realizing the goal of the Jubilee Year. One such segment is Our Lady of Fatima College, Port Harcourt City, where the young people truly sought to appropriate the message of the jubilee year.

A visit to Our Lady of Fatima College confirmed my assertion of the level of participation in the jubilee event. With the guidance of the school principal, Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Sr. Loretta Ibobo, who also served with me on the diocesan committee of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the students embraced the celebration passion. Because it takes a village to raise a child, Sr. Loretta with her fine team of educators employed the jubilee celebration to open up for these youngsters, pre-teens and teenagers, fresh approaches to practical Christian living through mercy deeds.

These high school students were beginning to see themselves as apostles of mercy, not only to persons outside the school, but to their fellow students as well. The global economic downturn is not lost on the students; they feel it most because of their dependence solely on parental support. In the spirit of mercy, therefore, some students convinced their more economically viable parents to offer financial support to their less fortunate classmates. Indeed, the solemnity with which the students sang the song "Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me" says it all.

Asked how they intend to continue to practice mercy after the jubilee year, they amazed me with their large-heartedness. Jenet Jaja, for example, hopes to be able to teach the institutionalized physically challenged children "to glorify God with their bodies." She also intends to offer tutoring in English language and mathematics to children her age in the Remand Home, a correctional facility for youngsters with behavioral problems, because a proper education can correct bad behavior, she said. Happily, the Year of Mercy led more of Fatima College students to dig deeper into the Scriptures. Nengia Jamaba's fresh understanding of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) impressed her deeply. The parable, said the 15-year-old, has taught her how to apologize for wrongdoings, and she is also determined to live more simply and give to the less fortunate.

The celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy continues to shape and reshape the consciousness of Catholics in Nigeria and, I believe, around the world as well as in forging a peaceful co-existence among persons and groups toward attaining a hate-free world regardless of the terror and violence that has become endemic in many places. Our young students are no strangers to these occurrences; they remain determined to make a difference, to kindle a small fire of mercy in their corner of the globe, a fire that hopefully will become a big flame through their conscious act of doing mercy deeds in the years to come.

Undeniably, the Gospel world view that the jubilee year has sought to communicate found a footing at Our Lady of Fatima and indeed in the various segments of the diocese of Port Harcourt as we celebrated the jubilee event. As a final point, mercy cannot be separated from being present to one another with a sensitivity that tugs at the heart.

Thus, Pope Francis invites each person, to become merciful like the father, who is kind to the good, the bad and the ugly.

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]