Church puts priority on God's mercy, says scripture scholar

Mercy and forgiveness are the heartbeat of the Gospel, says Fr. Donald Senior.

Mercy and forgiveness are the heartbeat of the Gospel, says Fr. Donald Senior.

June 27, 2016

The motif of God's mercy is not a minor key but "the ground melody of the Bible and Christian heritage," according to Passionist Father Donald Senior, one of America's leading Scripture scholars.

"Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith," Senior said.

Yet, there are serious voices in the Church today who are uncomfortable with such an emphasis on mercy, he told participants at the New York Catholic Bible Summit June 18.

Senior, president emeritus, chancellor and professor of New Testament studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, gave the English-language keynote address at the bilingual conference.

Mercy and forgiveness reflect the true character of the Church, amplify the core message of the Scriptures and are the heartbeat of the Gospel, he said. Mercy springs from the love that defines God, who created the universe as an expression of his overflowing love.

God's lavish mercy, as revealed in the mission of Jesus, echoes throughout the New Testament, Senior said. "We Christians are called to be Christ's witnesses to the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin."

BETRAYAL OF MISSION?

Those in the Church who are uncomfortable with the pope's emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, he noted, wonder if it betrays the Church's mission to proclaim the truth and to take a prophetic stand against the evils of the world.

They question whether the focus implies that God's grace is cheap and the way to salvation is smooth and easy, he said.

Senior said Pope Francis acknowledged the concern as an expression of the classic debate over the relationship of mercy and justice.

"Justice is what is rightly due to each individual and is fundamental for civil society which must be governed by the rule of law," he said.

"While attention to the demands of justice is indispensable, mercy, from the Christian point of view, remains a higher and more important goal."

SINGLE REALITY

"Justice and mercy are two dimensions of a single realty that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. The danger of an exclusive focus on justice without mercy is the seduction of legalism," he said.

Mercy is not opposed to justice but expresses God's way of reaching out to sinners, offering a new chance for conversion and renewal even after the demands of justice or law have been met, Senior said.

"Even in the face of the essential requirement of repentance on the part of us as sinners, God's lavish mercy retains the initiative. Repentance is not a bargaining chip nor some sort of admissions requirement."