What do we mean by ‘mercy’?

Categories: Year of Mercy

Pope Francis asked Catholics to “gaze attentively” on mercy to become a more effective sign of God’s action on earth. He said that “we need to constantly contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace. Our salvation depends on it.” To help honor his request, The Visitor asked a panel of clergy and lay people to consider questions about mercy. Here are their responses.

Q: What is mercy?

Father Oelrich: I imagine that for many, the realities of mercy and justice are opposites. Justice is setting things right when something is out of balance. Mercy is simply ignoring the imbalance.

In truth, however, mercy is the perfection of justice in a broken world such as ours. A very traditional definition of justice is honoring the truth of the relationship.

If a friend has done or said something hurtful, creating distance in the relationship, the only way for intimacy to return — which is the truth of the relationship of friendship — is for the one hurt to extend mercy [and] forgiveness when the other acknowledges the hurt. Mercy restores the right balance, the just relationship.

St. Therese of Lisieux, a doctor of the church, rejoiced that God was just, because looking on her weakness, in order to maintain justly his relationship as Father to his child, he would have to extend mercy.

The spiritual writer Father Henri Nouwen said that in our world, broken as it is, the way we say “I love you,” is very often by saying, “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

Mercy is the beautiful gift that restores us to right relationship after it has been lost by sin, hurtfulness, carelessness, foolishness. Mercy restores us to communion with God. Mercy restores friendships and family relationships. Can mercy restore communities and, even, the communion of nations?

In a world so terribly burdened by violence, greed and wrongs of every sort, the only hope in many cases for restoration of authentic relationships is the radical justice of extending mercy.

Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of the St. Cloud parishes of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius.

Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of the St. Cloud parishes of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius.

Q. What is the difference between the church’s view of mercy and the world’s view of mercy?

Father Knoblach: In a world increasingly sensitive to injustice and oppression, the Christian view of mercy can seem somehow opposed to justice. The appeal to mercy is interpreted as condoning, dismissing or excusing what is wrong, unfair or evil; mercy seems like simply a way to avoid being punished or taking responsibility.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently of this problem in “The Face of Mercy,” no. 20-21. According to the classic definition, justice renders another what is due, a fundamental requirement for civil society. Mercy in no way contradicts justice, but perfects it on the way to building a civilization of love. While justice gives what is due, mercy bestows more good than is strictly due.

Mercy is not a kind of benevolent toleration of evil. It does not simply excuse faults, failing to hold others accountable, making justice irrelevant. Offenders must still pay the price and restore the balance of justice. But, as the pope says, “This is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it.”

In God’s Kingdom, revealed in the words and ministry of Jesus, mere justice is not enough. We are called not simply to obey the law but to become saints, to live in accord with the new law of love: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” To be merciful like God does not ignore injustice, but neither does it stop at justice. It mirrors the goodness of God whose love, revealed in the mystery of the cross, aims always at reclaiming the dignity and friendship of all God’s children.

To demand justice is a necessary stage in this redeeming work, but it does not end there. It passes through justice to arrive at mercy, rooted in the free gift of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, offered to and for all.


Chris and Jill Perius, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Staples, are parents to Madison, 6, and Kaylee, 4.

Q: How as parents do you communicate God’s mercy to your children?

Chris and Jill Perius: The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. God never gives up on us. As parents we never give up on our children either. Children bring great joy and pride to our lives as they learn and grow; they can also challenge us to our deepest core.

We try to teach our kids forgiveness and how to learn from their mistakes, just as God forgives us over and over again for challenging his love in our trials of life. It is important for children to learn from mistakes and how to overcome them to be better examples of God’s love for others and in their own lives. We encourage our children to always do their best and to ask for help when they need it. God is always willing to help us if we let him.

Helping others and treating others as they would like to be treated are ways we encourage our children to be examples of God’s mercy. Love one another and let God show you his love and mercy in your life.


Father Gerald Mischke is a retired priest of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Q. How does the sacrament of reconciliation reflect God’s mercy?

Father Mischke: In Jesus’ life, in the church’s tradition and in the Scriptures, there are many aspects of God’s gift of mercy. But especially in the sacrament of reconciliation we are very consciously made aware of, and personally given, the undeserved and totally gratuitous gift of mercy.

When I think of mercy, I think of forgiveness. This is, for me, so powerfully and personally experienced in both the receiving of this sacrament and in absolving a repentant sinner in Jesus’ name.

Knowing what it is to receive God’s mercy, and then being empowered to celebrate and proclaim that forgiving mercy to a sinner like myself, is one of my greatest joys as a priest.


Sue Hanks is program manager at Catholic Charities Hope Community Support Program, which is dedicated to helping people with mental illness live healthy, productive and independent lives.

Q: In what ways do you encounter mercy in your
day-to-day work?

Hanks: Every day. The single mom that is in an abusive situation experiencing physical and emotional abuse, being able to work with her to gain stable safe housing and ongoing support services.

Or, the homeless mother that came to us wanting to reunite with her two kids, but needed to obtain housing. The barriers she faced were many, including a criminal background and chemical abuse issues.

The true meaning of mercy was to work with her to provide compassionate treatment even with the barriers that were present. It is the graciousness and appreciation of those we serve that reminds me of the mercy we provide on a daily basis.

I recently read a quote: “Mercy is deliverance from judgment.” Within my first week of work with the Hope program, I was significantly impacted by the incredible gift that each and every staff shows in their ability to be nonjudgmental in their work with all individuals they serve.

It is truly humbling to be a part of an individual’s life as they struggle with the darkest moments — whether that be homelessness, lack of family connections, no social life — due to symptoms of mental illness. To walk this path, to determine and assist in the journey toward recovery, gives us an opportunity to encounter mercy and hope.

Mercy is defined as being tenderhearted, loving and compassionate. It is tenderness of the heart toward the needy — this is what we experience day in and day out at Hope Community Support and for that I am grateful