As I write this on August 31st I am winging my way back home to El Paso from Bogotá, Columbia. As a Member of the US Bishops' Committee for Latin America, which supports many charitable and development projects in Latin American Countries and the Caribbean, I had the privilege to be one of several bishops from our country to represent our nation at the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy for the American Hemisphere. This was a gathering of bishops, religious and lay people from every country in North, Central and South America as well as many countries of the Caribbean.
What an amazing gathering! What a great sign of the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church, across borders, cultures, languages and distances! We had a man present (who happened to have been born in Peru but whose family had immigrated to Canada, who is now the bishop in the Yukon Territory. We had other representatives from the southern reaches of Argentina and Chile. Among representatives from Caribbean were two Cardinals from Haiti. From Rome came Cardinal Marc Ouellet who is the head of the Congregation for Bishops, whose important task it is to choose bishops for the dioceses of the world. He is also the one the Pope has asked to be his representative for Latin America. The Cardinal chaired the gathering.
We were in session from morning to night hearing from excellent speakers on the Church's teaching about mercy. On the first day Pope Francis gave us a half our video address. We were told it was the longest he has ever done via video message. It was pure Pope Francis! After the Pope's address we heard from the President of Columbia who has just concluded a peace accord with the guerrilla movement in his country with the encouragement of the Church. It is hoped it will bring an end to a conflict in that country that has continued for 50 years and brought death to over 200,000 people. He is aware that only a practice of mercy combined with justice will bring true healing and an end that war.
Each day we celebrated Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. One day we celebrated mercy with a Penance Service at which we all had the opportunity to go to Confession, the great Sacrament of God's mercy. There were times for questions and comments from the participants, group discussions, and testimonials.
One day we were divided up and each group traveled to separate places throughout Bogotá where organizations sponsored by the Church are involved in offering a myriad of works of mercy, from care for the elderly, to working with children and the sick. We visited ministries that rehabilitate drug addicts and others that train the underprivileged in various trades. My group went to a Food Bank founded by the Archdiocese which receives donations of agricultural and packaged products as well as a wide variety of household goods and redistributes them to organizations that work directly with the poor. The parish priest who oversees the operation impressed us all with his vision and dedication. We were also very moved to see the many college students and other volunteers who give of their time generously in this ministry. There were even young people of college age who are dedicating one or two years of their lives.
It would be impossible to sum up these days in a small column such as this but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me:
1) Mercy is not a passing theme for the Church. Mercy is a part and parcel of who the Church is. Jesus himself is the "face of the Father's mercy."
2) Mercy cannot be simply an abstract idea. Just like love, if it is not lived out it is nothing.
3) Unless we recognize ourselves as sinners who first received mercy from God, we cannot be truly effective givers, channels of mercy to others.
4) The Bible, especially the New Testament, from start to finish, is the story of God's mercy.
5) The Mass is filled in every part with expressions of God's mercy. Listen for this pervasive theme sometime.
6) Pope Francis told us: "Wherever Christians can be found people should encounter an oasis of mercy."
7) Pope Francis has also said: "The only force capable of conquering the heart of human beings is the tender love of God."
8) The many saints and martyrs of the Americas were great models of mercy. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a powerful sign of God's great mercy coming to the Americas at a time of great distress within the Church and among the indigenous people. She opened a new and beautifully inculturated way of Faith which continues to draw people, particularly those in this hemisphere, to this day.
These are just a few of the thoughts I bring home with me. One of the greatest joys of my time at this celebration of God's mercy was the opportunity to meet so many committed people of faith. The Church in the Americas certainly faces serious challenges, which were often acknowledged, such as secularism, and weaknesses in the Church herself. But in these great witnesses I can see that God's mercy will indeed conquer all.
Most Reverend Mark J. Seitz, D.D.
Bishop of El Paso
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz