As I reflect on this Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has asked us to ponder, I have been asking friends and the sisters of my community, “Who is the most merciful person you have known?” Not surprisingly, the first person who comes to mind for many is Mother Teresa and her loving care of the street people of Calcutta, for whom she prayed that their last dying moments would be in the arms of someone who loved them. Other examples of mercy incarnate have been shared with me.
One such person who comes to mind is Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest from South Africa. I met him when he gave a lecture to the students of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in fall 2012, entitled “Pain Knows No Boundaries: An Interfaith Journey of Healing and Hope.” Father Michael had survived a letter bomb delivered to his home in Zimbabwe. He lost both hands and one eye and has gone on to found the National Institute of Healing of Memories in South Africa and elsewhere.
On April 27, 1991, in the Anglican Cathedral in Harare there was a Mass of thanksgiving celebrating the first anniversary of his survival. In his address he said, “The people who sent me the letter bomb are more victims than I am. The bomb has deepened my faith, my compassion, my wholeness, and my commitment to the cause of justice and liberation in South and Southern Africa.”* Father Michael is no plastic saint, but a real human being, who has known incredible suffering and has allowed that suffering to be transformed into compassion and mercy toward his enemies.
One of my sisters told me that the example of mercy in the community for her is Sister Wilma Schlangen, OSB, who worked most of her life in the gardens and kitchen without fanfare or being in the limelight, yet she was beloved by so many, who had come to the Monastery for a kind word, for her raspberry jam, or just to have her listen to their cares. Sister Wilma’s mercy was heartfelt and she seemed to know who needed a kind word or an honest word that would push them to be better.
Another sister told me that Mother Regina was mercy personified for her. Sister Regina O’Connell served as prioress during the years of transition around Vatican II. When some sisters were questioning whether their vocation was truly of God or had been the vocation of a beloved parent or other relative, she would listen to their struggles and encourage them to do what was true for them, without a word of guilt or judgment. Her listening gave many the freedom to pursue lives of great value, of witness to faith and prayer, while undertaking another way to be Christian in the world.
A person who personified mercy and unconditional love was Sister Petronilla Lieser. She served as parish visitor and confidante to people at Orofino parish. She always had time to listen to troubles and pray on behalf of whomever came to her and her kindness was rewarded by their growing in their faith and service of the community.
Another example of mercy was Sister “Road Runner,” as she was fondly called, that is, Sister Herman Joseph, famous for her little red wagon, which carried goodies and surprises for the men and women in the nursing homes and the homebound in Grangeville. No one was allowed to be lonely if Sister Herman came to visit and no doubt she heard many a “confession” as she listened to people’s concerns and longings and then she prayed for them like Jesus would.
I heard an account of a mother who adopted ten children who were considered “unadoptable” for various reasons. One of the children had been born to a drug-addicted mother and her new mom gave the child a new name, which called forth a wholly different personality in the child. Two of the adopted brothers to this little one had suffered brain damage in their former home but as adults they have been empowered to live on their own with productive work to support themselves. “Greater love has no one than to lay down their lives for another.” (John 15:13)
Every one of these people have made a difference in the lives of others because they became the embodiment of mercy, that is, the open hearts, caring hands, and listening presence of Christ when most needed. I invite you to consider a person of mercy in your own life and the way s/he has brought hope, encouragement, or another way to be in the world because of their selfless compassion.
*Michael Lapsley, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012) 31-32.