Gerard Francisco Timoner III OP
At the beginning of our life in the Order, we were asked one question: “What do you seek?” We prostrated, and with our faces to the floor of the church, we responded: “God’s mercy and yours”. We are Dominicans because of God’s mercy. If our lives as Dominicans began with that primary desire to obtain mercy, then the study of theology, as Dominicans, ought to proceed from the same impetus. It is no wonder that our Master of the Order, Fr. Bruno Cadoré OP, has rightly pointed out the providential confluence between the Jubilee of the Order and the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
We are called upon to teach and preach Jesus, “the face of the Father’s mercy.”1 The ministry of the Word, the Order’s charism to preach Jesus, is in fact a sublime work of mercy, an act of charity, for “the greatest act of charity is evangelization… There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God.”2 It is no wonder then that our motto veritas is now understood as “Passion for the Truth and Compassion for Humanity.”3
Pope Francis described good theologians as akin to good shepherds who smell like the people, who bear the odor of God’s flock, and who “with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of the people” (cf. Luke 10:34). How could the study of theology help in healing wounded souls and in bringing hope to fractured communities? The first thing we must do is to go where the wounded are. Teaching and studying theology, the Pope tells us, means “living on a frontier, one in which the Gospel meets the needs of the people which should be proclaimed in an understandable and meaningful way.”4 Thomas Aquinas stood at this frontier when he creatively engaged Aristotelian and Arabic thought. Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de Las Casas stood on the frontier between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ and fought, through their theological reflection and ministry, against the temptations of racism and colonialism.
Our Dominican confreres identified some of these frontiers of evangelization a few years ago in Ávila (General Chapter of Ávila, 1986):
- The frontier between life and death, or the challenge of justice and peace in the world, the frontier where economic and political structures place a large number of people between life and death situations.
- The frontier between humanity and inhumanity, or the challenge of the marginalized, the frontier described by the Pope as a “throw-away culture”, where people are seen as “disposable”, a frontier that is partly created by an economy of exclusion.
- The frontier of Christian experience, or the space where Christianity meets the major religious traditions of the world.
- The frontier of religious experience, or the challenge of secularization, where religion is pushed away from the public and transferred to the private sphere.
- The frontier of the Church, or the sphere where the Catholic Church meets the plurality of Christian confessions and movements.
We need not go far so as to stand at the crossroads of any of these frontiers that often intersect one another. We find the borders between humanity and inhumanity, between life and death on our very streets. Pope Francis says that poverty and hunger in our world is a scandal. But a bigger scandal is that we are no longer scandalized; we have become immune and desensitized to pain and suffering around us. We are no longer bothered by this “negative experience of contrast.” If we are God’s children, how is it that so many people live lives that are beneath the dignity of God’s children? God’s generous providence is terribly offended when His children go hungry in a fruitful world, go naked in a world filled with all kinds of materials for clothing, and go homeless and landless in a wide and spacious world.
How can we help bind the wounds of our brothers and sisters on the frontiers? A faith that seeks to understand and transform the negative experience of contrast eventually finds misericordia veritatis, the mercy of truth.
For Pope Francis, the hermeneutic key to understanding, especially to theological understanding, is mercy. In his message to the youth of the Philippines, he said: “The marginalized weep, those who are neglected weep, the scorned weep, but those of us who have relatively comfortable lives, we don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears.”5 Compassion cures our blindness. Our study must ultimately lead us to perceive human crises, needs, longings and sufferings as our own. Good theology is “linked with that misericordia which moves us to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love for the world and the dignity which results from that love” (General Chapter of Providence, 2001, no. 108). Only then could we say with the Church: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1).
Filipinos instinctively know that mercy is a key to understanding. For us, mercy is not just a matter of the heart but of the mind as well. It is interesting, that for us, to “know” or “understand” is to be “compassionate”. The Filipino word Unawa (una ang awa, literally, “first, mercy”) encapsulates this best. Upang maunawaan natin ng lubusan ang isang tao, kailangang mauna ang awa. To understand is not merely “to stand-under”; for us, human understanding is ultimately sympathetic or compassionate understanding. A merciful attitude disposes us to understand persons and our world better. Mercy is no mere sentimentality. It involves both heart and mind. Similarly, understanding is not purely cognitive. Unawa makes the heart and mind one. “Compassion brings humility to our preaching [and teaching] – humility for which we are willing to listen and speak, to receive and give, that we may influence and be influenced, to be evangelized and to evangelize.”6 Mercy brings us to the frontiers and thresholds, and therefore, to the possibility of encounter. In 2015, Pope Francis wrote in the guestbook of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila: “May the Lord bless all those studying and working for a culture of encounter.” Encounter only happens on thresholds, on frontiers, where we meet the other. If secularization involves the separation of the sacred from the profane, a culture of encounter brings us to the very space where such separation happens and bridges the gap between the sacred and the secular. A culture of encounter brings the Church out of the sacristy to the world. A culture of encounter wakes up the Church before it can dare to “wake the world up”; it wakes the Church and refocuses its gaze from its self-referential image to the world. Secularization occurs when there is a radical separation of the ‘City of God’ from the ‘City of Man’. But the Church can avoid being a ghetto that is closed in on itself when it embraces “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” (Gaudium et spes, 1) as its very own.*
* Extracts from this article were included in a commencement address of the author at the Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, on 18 March 2015.
1 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2015, no. 1.
2 Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2013, no. 3.
3 See Mary O’Driscoll, Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity, Hyde Park, NY, 2005.
4 Pope Francis, Letter to the Grand Chancellor of the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina, 2015.
5 Idem, Meeting with young people in Manila, 2015.
6 Carlos Aspiroz Costa OP, Proclaiming the Gospel in the Order of Preachers, 2002.