«To leave ninety-nine sheep to go looking for one! At times I say to myself, “the Good Shepherd’s behavior is irresponsible!” Yet this has an amazing effect. If I am, thanks to God, amongst the ninety-nine and I see that the Good Shepherd goes to search for the hundredth sheep, who is lost, until he has found it and brought it back to the pen, I can say to myself, “if one day I become a lost sheep, I am sure that this shepherd will come, search for, and also save me.” This is the Good News, it is the Gospel.»
Card. Cristoph Schönborn
Catechism and homily By S.E.R. Cristoph Schönborn
Archbishop of Vienna
Praise be to Jesus Christ!
Dear Mother Elvira, dear brothers and sisters, I have so much in my heart that I would like to tell you about God’s Mercy and, “Mercy and truth will meet,” that I do not know if three hours will be enough time for me. I would like to start with two scenes from the Gospel. I am always struck by the contrast between the mercy of Jesus and the mercy of the disciples. I often find myself in the mercy of the disciples and I discover that I am almost scared in front of the strong, demanding mercy of Jesus, which is truly merciful. I’ll take two examples from the Gospel: the first is in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus sent the disciples two by two on their first mission. Never alone: this is one of the fundamental rules of the Gospel. No one can go and announce the Gospel alone, there must always be two because, like Saint Gregory Magno says, charity cannot be done alone; someone else is always needed with whom to live charity. Therefore Jesus sends them two by two. When they return home from this, their first mission, Jesus tells them, “Come, let’s go to a solitary place, where you can rest for a while.” There were so many people that they did not even have time to eat. So they departed in a boat on the lake of Galilee to go to a quiet place, but the people saw them leave and walked along the lake, arriving before Jesus did. They arrived, probably at Tabga, where the multiplication of the loaves took place. When Jesus saw the crowd, he was moved with compassion because, “they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The term in Greek is “spanchna” which means entrails, in Hebrew it’s “rahamim” or “rechem”, which is the maternal womb. Jesus was moved, of his life, his being, like a mother is moved in her womb for her child. Seeing the crowd, He was full of compassion and mercy, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mark adds, “He sat and taught them many things.” He taught all day long.
I am very struck by the first mercy of Jesus, which is giving the Word of life, teaching many things. All day these five thousand people, not counting women and children, listened to Jesus teach; He taught the journey of life.
Now comes the mercy of the disciples, let’s see how merciful they were: “By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, ‘This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’” Matthew says that they told Jesus, “Send the crowds home!” I suspect that at the end of this long day they felt a certain emptiness, an emptiness called hunger, and wanted to finally relax. They went to this deserted place to have a little peace, rest, and vacation, to be alone with Jesus, but the crowd followed and for this reason they said, “Send them away!” This is the mercy of the disciples. The crowd came to see Jesus and the disciples sent them away. When I examine my conscience as a Bishop, as a priest, I often meditate on this. Yet, Jesus gives them an impossible answer, “Give them some food yourselves!” In the Gospel we have the apostles reactions, “You are crazy!” They do not actually say this in the Gospel, but they surely thought this. “You are crazy, we have to go and buy two-hundred days wages of bread so we can give them something to eat!” That amount of money was the annual salary of a laborer. But they did not have any money, they did not have anything. Jesus said to them, “Give them some food yourselves!” Jesus asks impossible things, the mercy of Jesus often seems excessive or impossible. How does He do it? What He expects from his disciples is truly impossible, while what they want and say is more than understandable, “We just want a little peace, send these people away!”
The mercy that Jesus teaches is difficult, but it’s the only kind that is true. I will now offer you all a second example, where the mercy of Jesus seems to be harsh. In the 15th chapter of Matthew, Jesus once again withdraws with the apostles: this act is important in the life of Jesus, he withdraws in order to pray. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Leave everything, but don’t leave the prayer.” Jesus departs and he withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a pagan area, amongst the pagans, and behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and cried out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” How many parents here today, can understand the cry of this poor pagan woman, “My daughter is tormented by a demon,” yet Jesus doesn’t say anything, not even a word. How is this possible? Is He not touched by the sufferance of this woman? Why doesn’t He respond?
So then we see how the Apostles seem merciful: “Approaching Him, the disciples begged him to grant her request.” They see the pain of this mother, and they beg Jesus, “Give her what she asks, grant her request,” and they immediately add reason as to why they’re so merciful: “Grant her request, because she’s calling out after us, she keeps calling out after us.” Behold the mercy of the disciples: it wasn’t a response because of the misery of the woman, of the mother who begged Jesus for her daughter, but it was, “this woman keeps calling out after us, make her be quiet!” I think a lot about us Bishops: we are afraid of the shouting, of the press, of the mass-media who calls out after us. So we want Jesus to resolve all of the problems so that we can be at peace, be tranquil, but this isn’t the mercy of Jesus!
The Mercy of Jesus goes way beyond this; Jesus responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus tells her, “I have come for the Hebrews, I am Hebrew, I am the Messiah of Israel, I did not come for you, pagans, this is not my work, this does not concern me!” How harsh! So what does this woman do? She comes and prostrates herself in front of him and she says, “Lord, help me!” She continues to cry out in her misery, her compassion for her daughter. How does Jesus respond, what does he say? “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” to the dogs. This is complete contempt. The harshness of Jesus is terrible, how can he act like this? Yet this woman doesn’t let herself be upset by the apparent harshness of Jesus, and she says, “Yes Lord, you are right, it’s true, we pagans, I a poor pagan, don’t have any right to the bread that is for the children, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” And now Jesus cannot refute her any longer, she’s earned it, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”, and at that moment her daughter was healed. What is this mercy of Jesus? He seems to only be harsh, but in His divine mercy, truly divine, he lead this woman to a fantastic act of faith, of complete faith, he didn’t immediately give, like many of us are tempted to do in order to immediately resolve problems; this is not mercy! Jesus makes her walk in the faith, he makes this mother suffer until she understands: “I don’t have any right that you Jesus come to my aid and heal my daughter.” Yet she had a desire that didn’t cease in the face of difficulty, in the face of the apparent failure of her request. Behold, the mercy of Jesus.
I invite you all to take a few steps, in order to better understand the mercy of God, through the Word of God and the human experience, of which we are wealthy. In reality, what is mercy? Where are the limits? The line between mercy and leniency, between mercy and injustice? Sometimes being severe is more merciful then letting everything go, “everything goes” they say today, everything is possible, you can do anything; this is not mercy. Parents that allow their children to do anything aren’t merciful, they use the mercy of the disciples, they don’t want that their children call out after them, and for this reason they give them money, a computer, they put them in front of the television… but this isn’t mercy. Love supports much but also demands much.
Today we live in an age of Social Darwinism. I have studied this question a lot and I have made public speeches, and always on this point: is it true, what Darwin said? That the strongest survive, that this is the law of nature, survival of the fittest? Woe to you, the weak, woe to you the poor! If this is the model of society, then woe to us! Today, psychology often says, “You must make yourself worthy, you must amount to something, you must be successful.” Mercy is considered a type of weakness, like something that success, life, and ourselves doesn’t need.
Friedrich Nietzsche, this poor, great philosopher, has said that Christianity is the religion of the weak, and that for him, mercy is a miserable God, that Christians are inferior men, because mercy weakens man, it makes him powerless. And then there is the suspicion that mercy humiliates the others. If you are merciful, I am up here and you are down there. Yet, on the other hand, I hear many times the reprimanding that the Church is merciless. How many times have I had to hear this! For example, merciless with regards to divorced people who re-marry. So then I always say: Look at what Jesus did when they asked him, “But Moses allowed us to send away the wife, to give her a note of divorce.” How did Jesus respond? “For the hardness of your hearts did Moses allow you to divorce your wives. For the hardness of your hearts!” When I hear it said that the Church is merciless I ask, “But you parents, who have divorced, were you merciful towards your children? Who caused your children’s suffering? Was it because you made them carry the yoke of your conflicts on their backs? Who is really merciless?” Which is often followed by a moment of silence.
The Church is the only one, the only institution in our society that defends marriage! That defends the weak, who are the children that have need of parents. I say this because even the marriage of my own parents failed, I experienced the divorce of my parents. One of the most beautiful moments in my life, and maybe also one of the most difficult, was when some youth, at a school, asked me, “Cardinal, what was most difficult moment of your life?” I was a little surprised by this question and spontaneously – I didn’t think – spontaneously, from my heart I answered: “The moment that I knew that my parents would divorce.” There was total silence, all the youth were listening. Then I added, “But see, I was also able to experience the beauty of reconciliation. My parents didn’t ever get back together, but they reconciled with each other, and my father, before his death – he had cancer – came home to celebrate the last Christmas of his life together with his family.” If we experience the mercy of Jesus, of God, of his forgiveness, true, the wounds remain, the scars of the wounds remain, but there’s true healing, there’s something more, the novelty of forgiveness. Maybe it’s for this that the Lord allows us to suffer so much, so that we can know the greatness of his mercy.
Yes, the Church is merciful. But what does mercy consist of? First of all, mercy is the most intimate heart of God Himself. The mercy of Jesus doesn’t come from ideas or feelings, but comes directly from the heart of the Father. Jesus tells us, “I tell you, what you have heard, what you have seen, comes from my Father.” It’s the translation, in human gestures and words, of the mercy of the Father Himself, and for this Jesus said to us, “Whoever sees me, sees the Father.” When we see the mercy of Jesus in action, we see the Father, we see God. Yet there are two ways to say mercy in Hebrew, and this is very interesting. Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful meditation on this in the Encyclical “Dives in Misericordia”. There are two words, “khesed” and “rehem”. “Khesed” is faithfulness, and “rehem” is the maternal womb. Pope John Paul II explains that these two aspects are like the faithfulness of a father and the tenderness of a mother.
Both of them are part of the mercy of God: The masculine and the feminine aspect. Dear friends, how much we need fathers today! Fathers. There’s need of the “khesed”, of the firmness, of the faithfulness of the father. It appears to me that our society today lacks this in a big way, in our lives, and we have a great need of this. I remember the death of Pope John Paul II: there was an enormous crowd, they say four million people, who wanted to see the body of the Holy Father at Saint Peter’s Basilica. They waited in a very long line in Saint Peter’s Square, up to fifteen or sixteen hours just to spend a moment in front of the casket of the Pope. I, as a Cardinal, was able to pass immediately, I didn’t have to wait for hours, I admit: the red cap is the “passport” to Rome. However, I asked many of the youth, “Why are you going through all this trouble waiting?” They all answered, “He was like a father, we have lost a father, we want to thank him.” This paternity of Pope John Paul, and in a way that’s more hidden and reserved with Pope Benedict: we have a great, great need of this.
I know Pope Benedict very well, I’ve known him for thirty-seven years. I was a student and pupil of his at Ratisbona, when he was a professor, and then I was able to be close to him for many years, as he worked on the new Catechism. I can say and testify that he is a man of great humility, of great simplicity. One time I asked the caretaker of the palace of the Congregation when he had arrived as the new prefect: “How is this German Cardinal?” And he responded, “He is a true Christian.” What a beautiful testimony: “He’s a true Christian!”
If you’re not too tired, then let’s now ask ourselves, a bit philosophically, using our brains: “What is mercy? Is it something natural or something supernatural? Is it something human or is it only a Christian attitude?” Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who spent his entire life fighting God and against God, said this terrible phrase, “The weak and the unsuccessful must perish! This is the first principal of our love for man. And there must be such an aim so as to help them disappear. What is the most harmful of the vices? Compassion, Christianity!” To us this seems exaggerated, but when you see the wave in favor of euthanasia that there is today, it’s this “religion” of the strong that states: make the weak disappear. The call for euthanasia is putting into effect exactly what Nietzsche calls – protesting against Christianity – “The first principal of our love for man.”
The fight for euthanasia has become, at least in Europe, the exemplary fight of this false mercy that doesn’t want to see suffering. A colleague of mine from school, who became a doctor, told me: “Sometimes grandchildren come to me and ask, ‘doctor, our grandmother is suffering greatly, and is very ill, with cancer, she suffers a lot, doctor, she can’t… Can you help to end her sufferings?’” So then he responds, “Kill your grandmother yourselves!” It immediately becomes clear what exactly euthanasia is: the act of killing! Excuses are wanted, so that the doctor can make it “humane”. “Kill your grandmother yourselves!” Behold the truth! Another terrible example: Down’s Syndrome. Today it is possible to perform diagnoses while the baby is still in the mother’s womb to see if, not for certain, there is the probability of the child having Down’s syndrome. So the doctor tells the mother, “Your child might have Down’s syndrome.” What is that supposed to mean? That you can kill it if you want, abort it! And the poor mother is put under terrible pressure.
Our society today has eliminated two-thirds of the children with Down’s syndrome. Two-thirds of these births have disappeared. Why? Not because they were healed, but because they were killed in the womb. This is the sad mercy of our society: kill the sick and the incurable.
The mercy of Jesus has another foundation. There is something inherently natural about mercy; we all have a natural inclination to have compassion for those who suffer. A mother, when she sees that her child is sick, is moved with compassion, it’s natural. And we spontaneously say that it’s inhumane to not have compassion for your child. Yet today, on the other hand, this compassion isn’t enough anymore because there’s a lot of pressure from another type of compassion, of false mercy. So much pressure that we are in need of strong help from above because the enemy, the devil, hides himself behind this false mercy. Not mercy, but hate for man and because of this we need the strength of Christ. Natural strength is not enough to embrace, like Jesus, the leper. To embrace a leper is impossible. To not turn our eyes from the misery of the many youth today, who suffer from the leprosy of drugs and of alcohol, is difficult. We need a strength that is greater than our natural strength because human nature rejects and does not want to see too much evil.
Now let’s take a look at the question: mercy for everyone or just for a select few? There’s a scandalous speech of Jesus’ when he was at Nazareth, the village where he was born, where he grew up, and where many of his fellow citizens expected that he would perform miracles. He said, “There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian, a pagan.” Is mercy for everyone, or only a select few? Jesus didn’t heal everyone, many times he healed one then another. It’s an obvious dilemma. But there is an answer and we see it here. Mercy isn’t something that’s abstract, Jesus doesn’t ask us to love humanity, but to love our neighbors. In the Gospel the most obvious example of this is the Good Samaritan.
Jesus didn’t ask us to do the impossible, we can’t heal all the wounds of the world, but we can see our neighbor, who has fallen at the hands of some outlaws. We can be like the two clerics, the priest and the Levite, who passed by, or we can be like the good Samaritan. What does this mean? Certainly, even the Comunità Cenacolo can’t resolve all the drug related problems in the world. Does it mean then that we just leave everything be, because we can’t do anything else? No, mercy is something that is real. Parents together with their children, the cross, the suffering, patience, and with prayer can be reborn. Don’t pass by the wounded along the way: this is Jesus’ answer. This response has a profound effect, it’s contagious because I see it here, concretely, in front of my own eyes, it is possible to be reborn, to start living again. So then this is the mercy that all of you have lived and experienced: it’s the mercy of Jesus. One final question: what will happen to all those whom we can’t help? Our response is: there’s the Lord! There’s the Lord! We can trust that we have all been subjects of the mercy of Jesus, and that Jesus will be mercy for the others as well.
I finish with the ninety-nine sheep that the Good Shepherd left in the desert, to go looking for the hundredth, who was lost. At times I say to myself, “This behavior of the Good Shepherd is irresponsible! To leave ninety-nine sheep to go looking for just one.” Yet this has an amazing effect. If I am, thanks to God, among the ninety-nine, and I see that the Good Shepherd goes looking for the hundredth sheep, until he has found it and brought it back to the pen, I can say to myself, “if one day I will also become a lost sheep, then I am sure that this shepherd will come, search for, and also save me.” This is the Good News, it’s the Gospel. Thank you for your patience and for listening to me!