“I’m all out of darts of love, kid; all I have left are shafts of justice.” Each semester the philosophy classes of Fr. A.C. Fabian, O.P., included the same inimitable exhortation to pursue excellence, right up through the final exam. “Half-time heroes” he would say “can be end-of-the-game zeroes.” Then, with a gleam in his eye only he was capable of mustering, he would continue, “I don’t want any of you showing up in my office whining: ‘Oh come on, Father, gimme a break’ [he made whining sounds, too, naturally]. I just might look at you and say, ‘I’m all out of darts of love, kid; all I have left are shafts of justice.’”
We, his students, all knew Father was entirely capable of serving up shafts of justice on quizzes, exams or report cards. Admittedly his rock-star status was partly earned by his unmatched eccentricities (the sweaters, the recitation of class roll-call from memory, the phone call if you were absent, the ‘optional, informal review sessions’, the dreaded “see me, please”), but in fact something much deeper drew us to him. Despite his emphasis on justice in the classroom, the goodness Father Fabian showed to us as our priest (hearing our confessions, listening to our rants, and drying our tears) revealed that he also embodied that other, even greater virtue: mercy.
For many of us, mercy is a word we toss around lightly, recognizing in it vaguely religious connotations. We associate it with nondescript acts of kindness or a nebulous feeling of sympathy. But as Pope Francis exemplifies in word and deed, there’s more to mercy than Hallmark sentiments.
The Pope writes, “An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy” (Evangelii Gaudium 24).
Mercy demands a person hold power and goodness together simultaneously. If a person lacks one or the other, it’s impossible for him or her to be merciful! The mercy Christians practice isn’t a social program or an insipid pity. Mercy is a heartfelt response to misery.
Pope Francis writes, “We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others. Let us listen to what God’s word teaches us about mercy, and allow that word to resound in the life of the Church. The Gospel tells us: ‘Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy’ (Mt 5:7). The apostle James teaches that our mercy to others will vindicate us on the day of God’s judgment, ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, yet mercy triumphs over judgment’ (Jas 2:12-13)” (EG 193).
If we accept these words with courage and zeal, thereby allowing them to continually re-shape and re-orient our lives, we make present the primary dimension of the New Evangelization. Since “the salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy,” the Church must be “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (EG 112, 114).
Yet for us men and women, mercy is a virtue we acquire as the result of diligent practice, repeated application. Thus the particular genius of the witness of Pope Francis: Mercy is something seen. Mercy is something felt. Mercy is something done.
St. Catherine of Siena writes, “O eternal Godhead, how fitting mercy is to you! […] Your mercy created us and the same mercy redeemed us from eternal death…. In mercy you grant us consolation to coax us to love, for the creature’s heart is attracted by love.” This is the loving mercy shown by Father Fabian which moved the hearts and minds of hundreds of students during his teaching career. Mercy is the genius of the doctrine and deeds of Pope Francis. And mercy, embodied as a reflection of the mercy of God given to us in Christ, is the key to the New Evangelization.
Author’s note: My reflection on this topic draws from sources distributed by Fr. Andrew Hofer, OP, in a chapter talk delivered to our studentate.
Image: David Teniers the Younger, The Works of Mercy