By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Some reflections about the Bogotá Congress celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy. In the present situation which is characterized by several bloody wars in the Mideast and a dangerously escalating east-west confrontation, respect for the so-called political élites is shrinking in the populations.  But a new social phenomenon is emerging: in different European countries as well as in the US we observe that young people at the age of between 20 and 35 years, eagerly want to engage in a social task, in order to construct a more just society and a better peaceful world.


A personal experience made by the author is that in Germany most of the pupils leaving high school after their final exams, before beginning their official studies want to make a “Voluntary Social Year” in which often they work as assistants in a medical ambulance like the Red Cross or the Maltese order, usually in a foreign country. Others want to help in the education field and work with handicapped children, while others again want to devote their energy to work with the poor in charity organizations.


How could it we otherwise explain the phenomenon which was seen in the beginning of the US election campaign, where 75 year old Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders – a very outspoken critic against the speculative financial forms of capitalism in the US who calls for a more social and just society – was during the primaries enthusiastically supported by the youth? The same goes for the 67 year old British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn who receives most of his support from the youth. What is obviously moving many young people – irrespective which country one looks at – is that they desire to engage practically in order to solve the burning social problems of society. They dream of a more just and social world. The German weekly “Die Zeit” in a background article (Nr. 40) documented that Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of wild capitalism and neoliberal economics which is illustrated by the widening gap between poor and rich, is attracting an increasing amount of young people in GB who conceive themselves as “counter pole” to the established political class. They are young people who reject corrupt politicians and feel disgusted by the hypocrisy of the political established class. The same is also true for the wide support which the young social democratic President of Canada, Justin Trudeau is getting from many young people around the world, as “Die Zeit” reported.


The desire by young people is also reflected and responded to by Pope Francis who devoted last year’s Bishop Synod to the subject of “Family”, while he recently has announced that next year’s Bishop Synod in Rome will be devoted to the subject of the “Youth”. This is very interesting since across the continents the youth is facing a lot of unemployment and is the victim of a consumerist drug and video game oriented society.


Bogotá Congress celebrating the extraordinary jubilee of Mercy

On this background the recent “Bogotá Congress celebrating the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in the Americas” (August 27-30) could serve as inspiration: It was organized by CELAM (Latin American Bishops Conference) and CAL (Pontifical Latin American Commission)  gathering several hundred leading church representatives from Latin America, the U.S. and Canada as well as representatives from laic organizations and intellectuals. In order to intellectually prepare the different debates and working panels some encyclicals and church writings  were recommended for being studied more closely before the Congress took place, among them “Dives in Misericordia” (On the Mercy of God -John Paul II) , “Deus Caritas est” (Benedict XVI) , the final Document of Aparecida and the recent  encyclicals by Pope Francis. There was obviously a reason to celebrate the extraordinary jubilee in Latin America, which Cardinal Ouellet the chairman of CAL in his speech characterized as “a continent with a single faith, uniting Millions of Americans, whether we are descendants of indigenous peoples of this continent or of European immigrants who arrived later.” According to Ouellet, the Church has the task to be a “better witness in societies which are rich in historic and religious values, but remain marked by poverty, injustice corruption and secularization”.


True mercy is “the most profound source of justice” 

An important precursor to the Pope Francis’ jubilee celebration was Pope John Paul II exhortation issued in 1980, shortly after his election as Pope, under the title “Dives in Misericordia”. It was conceived in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, paying close attention to the needs of our times, the question of the Church mission that should be  more centred upon man, i.e. more anthropocentric.


In his document, John Paul II complained that present-day thinking is very much excluding the idea of mercy from life and from human heart. He made reference to the famous parable of st. Luke’s gospel, the “Prodigal son”  which describes a young man, who after having left his family in order to look for adventures, and after having wasted the entire inheritance of his father, ended up as a beggar, living in poverty and misery. He returns home one day telling his father : “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”  The son’s behaviour was obviously based on folly and sin and despite the fact that he lost his sense of dignity, he has matured: “The son is ready to undergo humiliation and feel shame.” But the father “is faithful to his fatherhood, he is immediately ready to welcome him home.  He is joyful and he makes a big feast to celebrate the return, so that the elder brother who has never gone away from his father is hateful and jealous. The father “had compassion, he ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.” The very generous and loving attitude by the father, who shows mercy, is as the Pope comments this: “The father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved, the good of his son’s humanity. Although his son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved.” From the standpoint of St Paul, love is not “resentful”.


The document by Pope John Paull II serves as an illustration. He essentially wants to demonstrate that mercy, when it is truly manifested, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. What he sees as basic challenge of society is to overcome the gap between poor and rich. He states at one point that while enormous progress has been made by man in the field of technology and science (…) “in various parts of the world, in various socio-economic systems, there exist entire areas of poverty, shortage and underdevelopment. Therefore true mercy is, so to speak “the most profound source of justice”


Pope Francis: Treating people with mercy “always awakens creativity”

In the footsteps of his precursors, Pope Francis sent a Video Message to the Bogotá Congress which was short and precise; an awakening call to overcome within the church the “thinking is formal structures”, the “inner divisions” and engage in a new missionary way in order to renew the spirit of “evangelization” in the Americas. In an indirect allusion he pointed to what is tragically unfolding in certain parts of Latin America: “Given the many attempts to fragment, divide and set our people at odds, such events help us broaden our horizons and to continue our handshake.” He used as reference for his speech St Paul who being a man who considered himself one of the worst sinners, as blasphemer, a prosecutor and  man of violence, experienced the mercy of Christ who “treated me with mercy.”


As Pope Francis commented, the attitude of treating people with mercy “always awakens creativity.” And like his predecessor John Paul II he referred to the parable of the prodigal son and stated that many people are “scandalized” when they see how God acts in the parable of the merciful father namely “how the father treats his younger son upon seeing him return home. We might be scandalized that he embraced him, treated him with love, called for him to be dressed in the best robes even though he was so filthy. We might be scandalized that upon seeing him return, he kissed him and threw a party. We might be scandalized that he did not upbraid him but instead treated him for what he was: a son.”


Mercy is not a theory to “brandish” but an emotional / spiritual engagement of man to transform reality and use the bad so as to create something good. He combines his reflections with a criticism against our throwaway culture, which gets rid of all that is seen as unnecessary: “We are part of a fragmented culture, a throwaway culture. A culture tainted by the exclusion of everything that might threaten the interest of a few. A culture that is leaving by the roadside the faces of the elderly, children, ethnic minorities seen as a threat. A culture that little by little promotes the comfort of a few and increases the suffering of many others. A culture that is incapable of accompanying the young in their dreams but sedates them with promises of ethereal happiness and hides the living memory of their elders. A culture that has squandered the wisdom of the indigenous people and has shown itself incapable of caring for the richness of their lands.”


The Pope urged the participants to draw the lesson from Aparecida, the fifth General Assembly of Latin American Bishops, which got introduced by Pope Benedict XVI. In their final document it was stated that the Church is fighting for the “option of the poor.” Bishops were called upon to engage in a new missionary effort, to fight fratricidal wars, terrorism, drugs and educate the future political leaders of the Latin American nations in order to defend the inalienable rights of man. According to Pope Francis Aparecida was a call to become “Missionary disciples”. He used this reference in order to speak about something which he sees at present as a dilemma in the Latin American Church: “We may have the best plans, projects and theories about what to do, but if we lack that ‘show of mercy’ our pastoral work will be cut off midway.” Simultaneously he attacked “self-righteousness and formal thinking”, demanding a much more engaged way of educating seminarists, by teaching them concretely the “path of showing mercy”. In reality we are ‘missionaries of mercy’, yet often we are better at ‘mistreating’ than at treating well.”  What lacks in the theological education is inspiration: “We have failed in our seminaries to inspire, accompany and encourage pedagogy of mercy, and to teach that the heart of pastoral work is showing mercy.” Therefore he urged the participants: “Be pastors who know how to treat and not mistreat.”


Cardinal Ouellet focused in his speech on the history of missionary work on the continent and the “blood that had been shed on the continent from North to South East and West.” It converted persecutors, inspired sacrifices, galvanized troops, sustained resistance and animated struggles for freedom and justice; it also inspired poets, restored communities and multiplied priestly and religious vocations which express the faith of a people graced by a special gift of the Holy Spirit. He also referred to the different communities, in the form of catechist movements, the many associations, fraternities and movements which disseminate the “Social thought of the Church and her preferential option of the poor. The many pilgrimages to shrines of the Mother of God, works of mercy for the prisoners, the numerous charisms of movements and communities that distinguish themselves through their works of evangelization and mercy.” He combined his remarks with a call that the lay faithful become more involved and engaged in public life, which is a major concern for Pope Francis who tells them not to be afraid to get their hands dirty and have the courage to expose themselves in order to purify the public morals of our societies.  He emphasized that Pope Francis is concerned “that lay people become involved in the public life of our countries as intelligent and upright Christians, who assume their responsibilities and invest in projects which can improve the lot of the poor, social justice, the protection of creation and peace in the Americas”.


Obviously what is needed today is a much more engaged and passionate fight for the “Common Good” of society. This is only possible if the political elite is spiritually renewed, orienting their actions along those principles which were outlined in the final document of Aparecida “The option of the poor” and in the social doctrine of the Church. In 1981 Pope John Paul II released his encyclical “Laborem Exercens” in memory of the 90th anniversary of the first Church social doctrine Rerum Novarum, which Pope Leo XIII wrote 1891. As Pope John Paul II explained the Social Doctrine was a response to the problems which the working class in Europe had to suffer in the 19th century, who suffered from being exploited under the worst forms of capitalism at that time. The system of early capitalism was the result of the social political system of Liberalism and its doctrine solely strengthening the capital owner, not giving attention to the right of working man. Work was seen merely as “production means”.


The dilemma reflected in the “Philosophy of Progress”

According to Pope John Paul II man is the only created being that has the God given responsibility to be fruitful, multiply and cultivate the earth and mirror the creator in the visible world; it means that all wealth of earth which can be discovered by man and applied in different and flourishing innovations, should however never violate the God given order and that means giving meaning to the human labor. Since man “is subject” and not “object” of the work, and the dignity of work is based on the subjective dimension “work exists for man and not man for work”, Pope John Paul II wrote, and attacked the “materialist economic view” which sees work like a merchandize as well as the capitalist system which treats man like an instrument.


“Christian Caritas is independent from parties and ideologies. It’s not an instrument to ideologically transform the world nor is it in the service of a mundane strategy”, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical “Deus Caritas est”. In this document the Pope showed that the social doctrine of the Church evolved out of a conflict which was characterizing the 19th Century labor conflicts.  A conflict between a wild capitalist system and a Marxist inspired ideology of class struggle, both being expressions of misconceived “Philosophy of Progress.” Since the 19th century, he recalled, societies have been dominated by different variations of that which he calls “philosophy of progress” whose most radical expression is Marxism. Marxist strategy is based on the idea of “pauperization”.  It goes as far as saying that whoever helps in a society that is ruled unjustly, de facto is serving an unjust political system, since it makes it bearable. Therefore as Benedict XVI states, the charity engagement is denounced as something which “stabilizes the system”. But in reality we deal with an inhuman philosophy, a materialist, utilitarian view of the world. A better world can only be constructed if one acts now for the good with passion, independent from any party program and strategies.

October 2016




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