Pope Francis greeting inmates at a Bolivian prison last year  

“I have asked friends for their definition of this word,” writes an English parishioner to a British Catholic weekly. “We have consulted dictionaries and trawled the internet. So far not one of us has found a meaningful contemporary understanding of the word ‘mercy’.”

He has a point. The word on which the Jubilee of Mercy hangs — a rich theological term that is the keynote of the Francis papacy — is obscure to the modern mind. It conjures up a pleading man with a gun to his head, a quivering criminal awaiting sentence, maybe a peasant on Lesbos wrapping a blanket around a refugee family washed ashore. But beyond? In his letter in last week’s Tablet Mr Wilson from Worcester suspects it may also have to do with sin and forgiveness, and recoils. “I think this should be a year of ‘love and compassion’ or of ‘showing loving kindness’,” he suggests, “not a year of receiving God’s forgiveness for sins with which some in the Church seem to think we are all obsessed.”

 Oh dear. When he reads The Name of God is Mercy, released last week, Mr Wilson will be dismayed to find Francis obsessed with human sin and God’s forgiveness — although much more with the second. “Mercy is divine and has to do with the judgment of sin,” the Pope declares.

He is convinced that this is an age of mercy, a Kairos, in which the world is wakening to this quality of the divine and that the Church is being called to manifest that mercy far more explicitly and recognisably that it often has. The Church exists not to “condemn” people but to bring them to an encounter with “the visceral love of God’s mercy”, Francis says, in a pithy mission statement.

But not to condemn doesn’t mean abolishing the idea of sin, or diluting the truth. Mercy can no more be separated from sin than compassion can exist without suffering. What disturbs Pope Francis about the modern age is its corruption, which he defines as a mental habit, a way of living, in which “we no longer feel the need for forgiveness and mercy, but we justify ourselves and our behaviours. “The world is sick because “either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them,” as he puts it elsewhere.

That’s why it needs to know God. Humanity ails because it lacks the concrete experience of mercy. Hence “the fragility of the time we live in — believing that there is no chance of redemption, a hand to raise you up, an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet.”

Lines like that make you realise that Francis has direct experience of which he speaks. He knows God because he has been “mercy’d” — Francis likes the idea of mercy as a verb, like the Latin gerund miserando — and can name the experience articulately but without betraying his privacy.

Only once does he really get personal, when he describes the loss from cancer of his first spiritual director, Fr Carlos Duarte Ibarra. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was just 17. “I cried a lot that night, really a lot, and hid in my room,” he recalls. “I had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God.” But mostly he speaks objectively, yet from a heart that has been moulded in the classic human-divine meeting place: where human wretchedness allows itself to be touched by God’s mercy. “Only he who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his mercy really knows the Lord,” Francis says at one point. “For this reason I have often said that the place where my encounter with the mercy of Jesus takes place is my sin.”

The Name of God is Mercy
is not, pace the publishers, the Pope’s first book: papal content — his homilies, interviews, addresses, pensées — has been lining bookshop windows virtually since his election. And at 150 pages, this four-hour interview by veteran vaticanista Andrea Tornielli with the Pope last summer is only a bit longer than Francis’s famous interview with Father Antonio Spadaro in September 2013, which also came out as a book.

But let’s not quibble: this is the first interview with the Pope conceived as a book, one that chases a single, all-embracing topic  — God’s mercy: the Pope’s experience of it; our need of it; the world’s need of it; the Church’s call to embody it, and why all these matter so much we need a Jubilee — between two hard covers. Most of it we have heard before, scattered in homilies and interviews and papal audiences. But nowhere is the Pope’s take on mercy so vividly brought together on single canvas.

Mr Wilson’s difficulty with finding a coherent definition isn’t wholly solved here, but then, what words can capture such a rich concept? In English the word mercy derives from merces, meaning reward. But much better is misericordia — that’s Latin, Italian or Spanish — which means, says Francis, “opening one’s heart to wretchedness”. (It helps to cut the word up: cor = heart, miseri = the poor, i.e. those who suffer, those who long — the beati of the Beatitudes).

Human wretchedness might be material or spiritual, deprivation or sin, but whatever form it takes, it elicits from God the kind of compassion a parent typically feels for his or her child. The New Testament Greek word for mercy, eleos, captures the Old Testament Hebrew idea of hesed, meaning covenant love, as well as raham, which roughly means “wombiness”. God loves us, says Francis, “with a visceral love”; hence Jesus, who “does not look at reality from the outside … as if he were taking a picture” but “lets himself get involved”.

So mercy is both attitude — parental, visceral — and the action that flows from it, specifically the 14 ‘works’, culled from Matthew 25, that the Church has always understood to embody God’s womby love for his creatures: feeding, clothing, sheltering, visiting them in prison, instructing, and so on. (One of them is admonishing sinners, which is an act of mercy to those stuck in sin who don’t know it.) Hence the Church should be out there (“she does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the street”) offering through its works, its sacraments and its teaching the medicine that is way stronger than all sickness.

“What should we do for the homeless man camped in front of our home, for the poor man who has nothing to eat, for the neighbouring family who cannot make it to the end of the month due to the recession, because the husband lost his job?” he asks — and then answers: “We have received freely, we give freely … We touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge.”

James Keenan, the Jesuit moral theologian, has a neat way of putting this. Mercy, he says in his book on the corporal and spiritual works, is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another”. Whenever you respond mercifully to a person who is poor — addicted, ill, needy, old, or lost in confusion and sin — you choose not to turn away from their scary chaotic lives, but to go in there with them.

That’s how God is: with us, with the world. It’s what the Incarnation is about. God enters our chaos, but in order to call us out of it. Mercy is about saving people. Mercy goes out to meet them where they are — Francis deplores a stay-at-home, keep-Jesus-in-the-sacristy Church — but doesn’t leave them where they are. Mercy begins where our excuses end.

“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers and sisters live,” the Pope tells Tornielli. “We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it.” He adds: “Caring for the outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock.”

There is a lot of paradox here. Those best able to enter into another’s chaos — their darkness — without being overwhelmed by it are those most conscious of their own “wretchedness”, as Francis puts it. “The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins,” — the Pope lumps them together, as Jesus did sickness and sin — “the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many ‘wounded’ we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.”

It’s circular: the one who is forgiven much forgives much. Or as the Beatitudes puts it: “Happy are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”

And the converse? It’s when the Pope gets onto mercy’s opponents that the scale of the Gospel’s challenge becomes clear, for the enemy of mercifulness is righteousness — at least, self-righteousness — which is a disease not just of the secular narcissist with no need of God, but of religious folk who use Truth as a stone to hurl. Jesus sends forth his disciples “not as holders of power or as masters of a law”, says Francis, but shepherds.

Reprising a homily to the new cardinals in February last year, the Pope says the approach of the “scholars of the law”  — who criticize Jesus in the name of doctrine, as some conservative Catholics do with Francis — is “repeated throughout the long history of the Church.” The Pharisees are always with us. They are “men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries”.

Whereas the “logic of the law” is driven by a fear of losing the just and the saved, “the logic of God” is in Jesus’ desire to save the lost and sinners. The logic of the law leads to the expulsion of the leper in order to protect the healthy from contamination; God’s logic is Jesus seeking out the leper, touching him and seeking his integration. “In so doing, he teaches us what to do, which logic to follow, when faced with people who suffer physically and spiritually.”

Who are these “scholars of the law”, these people who “feel pure”, in whom prevails “a formal adherence to rules and to mental schemes”? The Pope clearly has in mind a certain kind of religious person — the kind happy to lecture wrongheaded sinners, but unwilling to enter their chaos; or who believe that to defend the truth of the Church from contamination people must be treated according to the letter of the law, when the law is a means; and the supreme law of the Church– as Pope Francis often reminds us (it’s in the Code of Canon Law) — is the salus animarum, the health of souls.

But in this age of the technocratic paradigm — a term Francis borrows in Laudato Si’ from the theologian Romano Guardini — “the logic of the law” is a pretty good description too of our contemporary bureaucracies and corporations, of our contemporary Western ethic of autonomy, of a mindset that sees the planet and other people as instruments, objects to be manipulated rather than creatures deserving of our veneration.

The New Yorker was right to describe The Name of God is Mercy as “a tough-minded reflection on an urgently needed public virtue”. In the new, Darwinian, sink-or-swim dispensation of our time, when people wish to choose their gender and who is fit to be born and when it makes sense to die, when God is either a pointless, ineffectual idea or a rabid, cruel, vengeful projection of our darkness, mercy starts, scandalously, from the given-ness of the world, and the goodness of our Creator, whose only Son entered our chaos to show us that eleos.

And what he showed was that God’s mercy is God: his supreme attribute, his identity card, his very essence. As Pope Francis puts it, mercy is “the divine attitude which embraces, it is God giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive.” It means not just that God is good, and just, and true; it means he is on the lookout for the slightest little opening, the merest crack, the smallest turn of our head, in order to embrace us with his misericordia.

We are free not to turn, but when we do, it’s all waiting for us. Is that a coherent definition of mercy? Probably not. But it’s what the Pope wants us to know.

Austen Ivereigh is author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Allen & Unwin, 2015).

Dr Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, is an author, journalist and commentator, who is a well-known voice on TV and radio on church affairs. From 2000-2004 he was deputy editor...