The Challenge of Mercy
This week saw the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis. It was wonderful to watch him push open the massive bronze Holy Doors in St. Peter’s Basilica on December 8 to mark this event. The opening of the Holy Doors is rich in symbolism. This doorway is usually bricked up between Jubilee celebrations, but the bricks were taken down for the opening ceremony. Also, because the doors were so heavy and large, it took Pope Francis four big shoves to get the doors to budge. Similarly, showing mercy can take down the barriers we so often put up between ourselves and others. Like the doors being so heavy to move, showing mercy in our lives may be difficult and cumbersome. I found myself pondering this week just how large the barriers are that we put up between ourselves and others, and how difficult it can be to remove these barriers.
The difficulties we face in reaching out to others and to showing mercy in our lives was poignantly illustrated this week in the life of Ines Antonio. This brave 22 year old is a victim of an acid attack by her ex-boyfriend Jan Pieterse in November last year. Jan attacked Ines with acid after an intense dispute and left her very badly disfigured. Ines was left in a lot of pain and had to get extensive skin grafts to deal with her damaged skin. Jan was convicted this year with assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and he was sentenced this week to a minimum of 10 years in jail for his crimes. This sentence sends out a significant message to men who feel free to abuse women in any way. Abuse should never be tolerated and must be eradicated from our society.
What is incredible about Ines Antonio was how she responded to her attacker this week in the sentencing hearing. During the hearing, she took to the stand in court and told her attacker that he took her identity away and that she will have scars for the rest of her life. But she said that in spite of all this, she forgives him. She told him that he will go to jail, and he must learn to stop abusing women. But ultimately she said that she is sorry for him.
How hard it must have been for her to say these things to her attacker. Her body and mind have been scarred forever, and yet she finds the strength to hope for Jan’s conversion. She is a victim of violence and yet she has engaged with the very real struggle to forgive another.
When we read Ines’ story, we are enraged at the injustice of what happened to her. But her response to Jan’s assault forces us to pause and consider the challenge that mercy presents to us in our daily lives. Mercy is not a soft option for the simple-minded. What Ines’ story illustrates is that in instituting this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has given us quite a significant challenge to meet if we are to take it seriously.