We need constantly to contemplate the face of mercy.
Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus
In the searing opening scene of the musical drama, Les Miserables, there is an unforgettable dialogue between the law-obsessed police inspector, Javert, and the soon-to-be-freed convict, Jean Valjean. Watching the film over the weekend in an intentional effort to “contemplate the mystery of mercy,” I was struck by Javert’s insistence, which continues throughout the film, in calling Valjean by his prison number: 24601. Even in the face of the paroled prisoner’s passionate response, “My name is Jean Valjean!,” Javert persists in identifying him only as “24601.”
Having just read a reflection by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) on God’s name, a profound insight of Ratzinger echoed in my mind:
The adversary of God, the “beast”…has no name, but a number…six hundred and sixty six. It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number…But God has a name, and God calls us by our name.” (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 23-24.)
We hear much quantifiable data expressing the reality of suffering souls around the world: eleven million people displaced in the Middle East, four million Syrian refugees on the run, 300,000 exiles attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. But it was not until we saw a little Syrian child’s face half-buried in the sand and heard his name—Aylan—that the human story of so many millions of desperate people became real.
The year 2015 will be remembered as the year that the “worst refugee crisis since World War II” became headline news. It will also be remembered as the year the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy was inaugurated, the year when our Holy Father challenged us to delve deeply into the mystery of mercy, to receive mercy, to become mercy. Mercy, says Pope Francis, is “the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.” (Misericordiae Vultus, par. 2.)
Why? Because when we look into the eyes of another human being, when we see their face, when we learn their name, their personal story begins; a story that invites us to relationship, to empathy, to compassion. When we look into the eyes of those who are gravely suffering, we are called to go out of ourselves to meet them in their need, and to do what we can to aid them. This, in fact, sums up the definition that St. Thomas Aquinas gives the virtue of mercy, which he defines as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him." (Summa Theologiae (ST II-II.30.1))
While the debate rages on about whether or not to let Middle Eastern refugees into America, this much we can be sure of as followers of Christ: we are called to pray for the displaced, to help them, to offer aide, to act. When we do, we become the nickname of Mercy himself, "Jesus," whose name means, “I am the one who saves you.”
*There are many organizations through which we can offer assistance to those in need, including Catholic Relief Services.
This piece appeared first at Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."