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A homily for The Year of Mercy

February 2016

Homily

Charles E Drennan, Bishop of the Diocese of Palmerston North, preached this homily on
the occasion of the opening of the Holy Doors for the Year of Mercy 2015 3rd Sunday of Advent,
Year C – 13 December 2015.

Recently I have been on holiday in India and Laos. My passport and visa arrived on the Friday prior to my Tuesday departure. All set to go, or so it seemed.

On Saturday my car was broken into. The thief having spotted on the front passenger’s seat what was to have been my cabin bag, I guess, thought it might have in it a camera or Ipad or even a wallet. It didn’t. The bag was empty; except for my passport and visa. Stolen.

Monday morning I’m in my office talking to the Ministry of Internal Affairs about emergency passports, ‘yes sir we have that service, it takes three days’. To cut a long story short, I got in my car, drove to Wellington, arrived at Internal Affairs at 11.30am had a new passport by 12.20pm arrived at the Indian High Commission consulate office at 12.40pm – ten minutes after their closing time, and obtained from them a new visa in my new passport by 14.20pm.

How? How did I achieve that? I didn’t. Others, two individuals in particular, one at the Ministry and the other at the Embassy responded to my plight with mercy.

Mercy is bigger than rules and protocols and normal procedures, mercy goes beyond even justice, mercy puts a certain kind of human logic aside and says we can go further, we can take pity, be compassionate extend a hand, for the benefit – sometimes immeasurable, often never seen – of the other.

So, mercy is practical, it’s earthy: actions in favour of those in need including those who, objectively speaking, have done wrong. It means saying ‘yes’ when you would be perfectly entitled to say ‘no’. And its source is not so much the logic of the head but the compassion of the heart. Indeed misericordia – the Latin root word – means heart.

Why a Year of Mercy? It’s easy to agree with Pope Francis’ concern that our world needs to become a more caring and fair place, with more person- rather than profit-focused societies. That need is of course not new. In our gospel reading today we heard John the Baptist saying if anyone has two tunics share one with the person who has none, and he then shamed the powerful tax collectors and military by naming their greed: no more intimidation, no more extortion, be content with what is your fair pay. I think we easily ‘get’ that. In so many countries still today it is the military and government officials who instead of serving their nation line their own pockets by abusing their fellow citizens.

But there’s more. This year is not limited to or defined by social action. The primary reason why Francis has declared this Year of Mercy stems from his spiritual journey: his realisation that to receive and to offer mercy is to partake in the very nature of God. Every human being should be a person of justice but that someone be a person of mercy cannot be forced or required or necessarily expected, because to be a person of mercy is to be a person of God, a person of faith, of religion. And so through acts of material mercy we are spiritually renewed, we come closer to God or, better put, we become aware of God working, in God’s way, according to God’s nature and God’s logic, through us. That’s why this is a Holy Year, drawing us into the true broad deep earthy Christian understanding of what holiness is.

The image painted on our Cathedral portico around the Holy Doors we have walked through, and through which thousands of pilgrims will walk during this Year; that image painted by Teagan Lewer, Emily Aull, Claire Franssen and John Richards, Year 12 students of St Peter’s College, captures brilliantly the reality that our practical works of mercy are essentially spiritual because, though ours, they contain the trace of God, of Jesus, working through us. In the students’ depiction it is from the wound of Christ’s open hand, sacrificed on the Cross for us, that the seeds of the Word, of life, of faith, of grace, of the sacraments, extend or fall into our world, our lives, our day. If you look carefully at those seeds they have painted you will see they retain the same shape as the wound in Christ’s hand, reminding us that our efforts at mercy are, through the doorway of our baptism and confirmation, always patterned on and indeed sourced in him. There it is: a spiritual year, a holy year, a year of action that flows not from a manifesto or from anger but from faith, and from hearts of love.

  • Exactly how this year will unfold, I do not know. But that it should change us and our city is clear. Holy Years or Jubilee Years are not new. They go back into Old Testament times, deep in our Jewish roots, and are first outlined in the book of Leviticus (from the Pentateuch, the time of Moses) where we discover the template for what today we would call a very holistic, all-encompassing yet simple, framework of spiritual renewal the measure of which is practical. Here’s the three key parts:
  • •    Make right your relationship with God – Kia tika to hononga ki te Atua
    •    Make right your relationship with each other – Kia tika to hononga ki tētehi atu
    •    Make right your relationship with the land – Kia tika to hononga ki te whenua
  • I’m not going to outline now what we can all read in chapters 25 and 26 of Leviticus but I do want to say this – and echo what was read out last Sunday in the Bishops’ Pastoral letter on Mercy (see www.pndiocese.org.nz). Let’s be clear, a year of Jubilee, a year of sustained mercy is not some kind of pious feel-good exercise.

That we would find right relationship with God in a holy year is pretty obvious – but I cannot but point out, as your Bishop, that the Book of Leviticus says the first measure of right relationship with God is regular observance of the Sabbath and respect for the sanctuary (cf. Lev 26:1-2), so for us this means a renewed commitment to participation at Mass every Sunday not just when we think it might suit us.

Here in our Kiwi culture, here is I think a huge challenge, but hopefully an engaging one too.
That right relationship with the land (cf. Lev 25:1-7, 13-28) forms part of holiness may for some be a surprise but respect for creation, ecology, has always been part of Jewish and Christian spirituality.

Many of us, perhaps pakeha in particular, have neglected this aspect of our spirituality and its implications for farming and fishing and mining and property development practices etc. We may well be unsettled by what we read in this sacred text; and the right relationship with each other strand (cf. Lev 15:35-55)? In its regard we tend I think to jump to thoughts of overseas aid and development projects, the work of Caritas abroad etc all of which is good. But we also have to note the Book of Leviticus has a very clear focus on the aspect of mercy towards our neighbor next door, in our street, in our community or society in regard especially to that dirty word, money.

The ancient example of mercy evoked in Leviticus, and echoed in our Gospel with the reference to tax collectors, is about canceling debt (Lev 25:54-55; and Deut 15;1-2), is about not ripping people off, is about how we determine the setting of bills and fees – it is as concrete and nitty gritty as that, and therefore asks for a deep review of business practice among those in particular who do have power over others: landlords, professionals, tradespeople, business owners. That interface of faith and wealth, faith and business practice is not infrequently a very fraught one as Francis has not been shy to point out. Try talking to the CEO of ANZ or BNZ or any of the other banks about why credit card interest rates are still at the exorbitantly high rates that prevailed when New Zealand had very high inflation. So, precisely for this reason – the sinful tendency to greed, to a ‘what can we get away with’ culture, a ‘how much will this stand’ approach to the setting of fees etc Pope Francis is convinced, just as I am sure in honesty we are too, that if we are to make a lasting impact on the growing poverty and increasing disparity of income in our society, then firstly we do need nothing less than a spiritual conversion.

In this way I am confident we will become or continue to be practical builders of a more just, more equitable, more merciful, more happy civic community of Palmerston North, Manawatu, and beyond. May our Holy Doors be gateways to a more hope-filled world