VATICAN CITY — Church leaders might have great plans and theories, but if they lack mercy, their "pastoral work will be cut off midway," Pope Francis told bishops of the Americas.
In religious education programs, seminaries, parishes, bishops' conferences, clergy meetings "and even our way of doing theology," he said, "it is about learning to show mercy."
In a 28-minute video message broadcast Aug. 27 to church leaders from North and South America meeting in Bogota, Colombia, for a continental congress for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis told them that "mercy is learned from experience — in our own lives first."
"It is learned from sensing that God continues to trust in us and to call us to be his missionaries, that he constantly sends us forth to treat our brothers and sisters in the same way that he has treated us," Pope Francis said.
"Our peoples already have enough suffering in their lives; they do not need us to add to it," the pope told the bishops.
Being merciful is not about being generically nice, Pope Francis added, but is about looking for specific ways to help individuals recognize their sins and accept God's mercy.
In showing mercy to sinners, God shows he trusts that they will change, the pope said. "Far from a merely beautiful word, mercy is the concrete act by which God seeks to relate to his children," he added.
"Our way of treating others, consequently, must never be based on fear but on the hope God has in our ability to change," he said. "The only thing acting out of fear accomplishes is to separate, to divide, to attempt to distinguish with surgical precision one side from the other, to create false security and thus to build walls."
Pope Francis urged the bishops to look inward, saying that trying to evangelize without recognizing one's own sinfulness and God's merciful response leads to hardened hearts, a lack of compassion and imagination and further division in Christian communities and in the world.
The first step, the pope said, is "to concentrate on remembering our sin and not our alleged merits, to grow in a humble and guilt-free awareness of all those times we turned away from God — we, not someone else, not the person next to us, much less that of our people — and to be once more amazed by God's mercy."
When a Christian does not recognize his or her own failings, it is easy to be scandalized by God's mercy toward other sinners, he said. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the reaction of the older brother, who is shocked when his father welcomes the younger son back with open arms.
Like that older brother, Pope Francis said, "we might be scandalized that he did not upbraid him, but instead treated him for what he was: a son."
Being shocked, scandalized and judgmental sets in when a person suffers from "spiritual Alzheimer's," the pope said. The disease is obvious "when we forget how the Lord has treated us, when we begin to judge and divide people up" into "groups of good and bad, saints and sinners."
He emphasized that mercy is not a theory or something that Christians preach in order to garner applause. Rather, it is "the richest reality and the clearest teaching" Christianity has to preach and always involves both a recognition of one's sins and praise of God's love.
"We live in a society that is bleeding, and the price of its wounds normally ends up being paid by the most vulnerable," Pope Francis said. "But it is precisely to this society, to this culture, that the Lord sends us."
God sends believers forth with one program: "to treat one another with mercy."
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis participated in the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil, and headed the committee that drafted its final message on promoting Christian discipleship and mission on the continent. The key, he told those meeting in Bogota, is showing mercy.
"To learn to show mercy is to learn from the Master how to become neighbors, unafraid of the outcast and those 'tainted' and marked by sin," he said, and "to learn to hold out our hand to those who have fallen, without being afraid of what people will say."
A true disciple and missionary sets out filled with hope that people can change; they encourage conversion and look for creative ways to help others progress on the path to holiness, he said.
"Treating people with mercy always awakens creativity," the pope said. "It is concerned with the face of the person, with his or her life, history and daily existence. It is not married to one model or recipe, but enjoys a healthy freedom of spirit, and can thus seek what is the best for the other person, in a way they can understand."