How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 5.
Drop by drop; the water fell through the sugar cube into the glass of absinthe perched on the Royal Street bar. Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” blaring from the stage had summoned us in for a dance, just after we’d finished caroling with thousands of others in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. My husband, Mark, decided to try the famous New Orleans libation, and as we watched the sugared water slowly sweeten the bitterest of drinks, Leonard approached the bar.
“What are you guys doing in New Orleans?” he opened.
“We’re locals,” we offered. “We were caroling in Jackson Square. The archbishop led the singing.”
“I used to be a good Catholic,” he countered immediately. “But I haven’t been to Church or prayed in years.” (People confess the darndest things in bars!)
One thing led to another and before we knew it, my husband and I were sharing openly about our faith in God, and about the reality of a tender, merciful Father who loves us personally and wants to be in relationship with us. We disclosed that we begin every morning with Eucharistic adoration and Mass, encouraging Leonard to start to set aside time to seek God in prayer. It was then that he turned to me and asked: “What do you hear in prayer?”
“I hear God say, ‘You are my beloved daughter,'” I replied, grateful that the voice of Love has finally supplanted the voice of condemnation in my head. Leonard’s eyes widened like saucers and welled with visible tears. “Well, I’ve never heard anything remotely like that in prayer!” he exclaimed.
Leonard stayed close by us for the rest of the night, anxious to hear more about the Father who loves him. It was clear from our conversation that his relationship with his own father had been difficult, and that he, like so many other people Mark and I encounter, was suffering from what we’ve come to call “a father wound.”
More than forty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said in a sermon on God:
It is well known that the Greeks called their Zeus ‘Father’. But this word was not an expression of their trust in him!...When they said ‘Father’, they meant that Zeus was like human fathers—sometimes really nice, when he was in a good mood, but ultimately an egoist, a tyrant, unpredictable, unfathomable, and dangerous. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 32)
How many people have experienced their human fathers this way? And how many people believe this is who God is?
Being in ministries where we hear the personal stories of wounded souls on a daily basis, Mark and I know this number is not negligible. Sadly, there seems to be a consistent theme in too many narratives: physically or emotionally absent fathers, raging fathers, alcoholic fathers, abusive fathers—fathers more like Zeus that the Father whom Jesus Christ came to reveal.
Ratzinger said in the same sermon on God:
The crisis of fatherhood we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where…the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 29)
Perhaps the “tenderness revolution” Pope Francis is launching will not only unleash mercy on the world, but will prompt a healing in fatherhood itself, one that “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24, Luke 1:17). Such a turn might convince us that God is not Zeus, but “Abba,” who is mercy, kindness, compassion and love. This is the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ, and meant to be revealed by Christ in us, as a desperate world cries: “Show us the face of the Father!”
Note: This article was first published on Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."