“This book has done me such good,” Pope Francis remarked in his first Sunday afternoon address in March 2013.
I immediately thought, “What book is he talking about and how can I get one?”
“Mercy by Walter Cardinal Kasper” and “nowhere yet” were the answers.
I had heard of this remarkable German theologian before, about 10 years ago in my first systematic theology class, but I really didn’t try to read anything of his until this endorsement by Pope Francis. And now I would have to wait more than a year until the book was available in English.
Finally, earlier this month, the English translation of Mercy (Paulist Press) was published. To celebrate the book’s release, Cardinal Kasper came to New York City to visit, among other places, my parish, St. Paul the Apostle.
Cardinal Kasper has been a well-respected theologian for decades and knows Pope Benedict and Pope Francis well. Of the many words that come to mind expressing the new tone Francis seems to be setting in the Church, mercy may be the one that captures it best. The pope acts mercifully, preaches of mercy, and sees God as merciful. For Kasper, mercy is “to have a heart for the poor” and is “the fulfillment of justice.” It is “grace for conversion.” As a pastor, theologian, and friend, Cardinal Kasper has been one of the influences on Pope Francis’ notion of mercy.
When Cardinal Kasper came to my parish he met with our young adult ministry, Apostolist, to talk with us about Mercy and mercy. I had the great joy and privilege to moderate a dialogue between the Cardinal and the more than 150 people present from the parish. Cardinal Kasper not only beautifully wrote about mercy but also exudes it. He’s a short, demure man who is always smiling. His peaceful presence just put me at ease. I really felt like I was talking to a wise friend or a dear relative. In Mercy he writes that the cornerstone of justice really is love and “the demand for justice must be surpassed in loving and merciful care for the other.” He goes on to say that because of our dignity, every human is owed “personal respect, personal acceptance, and personal care.”
For Kasper, mercy and love in the Christian life take on a personal nature. And while he met with us he exhibited that personal care. He laughed and smiled. He listened to us and he genuinely seemed interested in our lives, our faith, and our questions. His presence was sincere and his responses, authentic. One parishioner asked what he would tell Pope Francis about his visit to the United States and St. Paul’s. Cardinal Kasper started laughing and remarked how he would tell him of all of the young people who are joyfully alive in their faith. He really seemed enamored by the whole experience of seeing so many young adult Catholics wrestling with and growing from the challenges within their faith lives.
His theology not only contributes greatly to the Catholic intellectual tradition, but also to the Catholic pastoral tradition. Kasper sees God as mercy and the Church as the place where this mercy lives and loves. Spending time with Cardinal Kasper and reading his book really helped me reflect on mercy. What does a merciful Church look like? When and how can I be more merciful? Reading the book on the subway made me realize the countless places where mercy could be practiced. (Believe me, you want to act super nice to strangers when they see you reading a book called Mercy!)
Here are a few of my takeaways:
- When you get, give. — Many of us can remember a time when someone showed us mercy. When they gave us something we didn’t deserve or forgave unconditionally. Mercy, like many attitudes, is contagious. Spread mercy!
- God is kind and merciful. — God is mercy. No matter what happens, the love, kindness, and care of God are never beyond our reach. Carry no guilt or shame; just be open to receiving God’s mercy.
- They may not remember what you said, but they will remember how they felt. — Mercy is really about an approach or tone. People can do many of the same tasks in a day but those done with mercy are powerful. Pope Francis has not changed the theology of the Church, but his merciful approach resonates with people. Drive to work mercifully. Order dinner at a restaurant mercifully. Talk on the phone mercifully. It might just resonate with people.
Reading Mercy helped me realize how each action, day, and journey are a prayer, a merciful prayer. It brought me to reflect on my own relationship with mercy. But meeting Cardinal Kasper helped bring my new understanding of mercy to life. I have often admired Pope Francis for his new, merciful tone, and I see that in Cardinal Kasper as well. It is no wonder many have called him Francis’ theologian. They both identify some complex theology and breathe life into it with their words and deeds. How too can we, in our day’s journey, breathe life into mercy?