Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
1 Cor. 3: 16-7
The United States has just completed a most contentious election cycle with an unexpected and even more unpredictable outcome. It is the wealthiest and most militarily powerful country on the planet. And yet, for differing reasons on either pole of the political spectrum, its population is pervaded by a sense of anxiety and fear. The very nature of the American political experiment is of a union made up of a diverse and inherently immigrant population. There is not, as in many societies, a centuries old lineage of a shared ancestry and culture. Instead it is an attempt to create a nation e pluribus unum, “from many one.” That “experiment,” however, requires a sense of reverence and respect for all human persons, regardless of “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 7:9), and that, above all, values each individual as “a temple of God.”
On this Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica we are called to reflect on the reality of the Church. In the gospel from John, Jesus tells his listeners that the Temple is His own body. The Church is not a building; it is Christ’s body, and in 1 Corinthians we hear that the Body of Christ that is the Church is made up of those members who themselves are each individually “the temple of God.”
We get fearful and anxious when we forget that who we really are is a result of whose we are. “The Spirit of God” dwells in each and every person, and that means that every person is holy. We hear much lamenting from religious and Church leaders about the society’s refusal to allow faith and religion its proper place in the public square. Sad to say, however, the role that religion often takes in public and political discourse is not a source of greater respect and reverence for the sacred and the holy in every person, but rather often tends to contribute to further division and recrimination. Too often it is a voice of judgment rather than mercy. The real place for religion is to keep alive in the shared political conversation the truth of the reverence every human person deserves. What some might see as the greatest irony is that if the “novus ordo seclorum,” the new (and secular) order of the ages, is to endure, it will depend on the lived appropriation of the sacred teaching that every person is “the temple of God.”
In his Bull initiating the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asks whether we as the Church have succumbed to “the temptation . . . to focus exclusively on justice” to the degree that “we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy.” When we each focus on what “we” are due rather on the reverence and mercy the other deserves, we shall inevitably come to experience life as “fruitless and sterile, as if [we are] sequestered in a barren desert.” It is by mercy, by increasing our lived awareness of the reverence and respect due to the temple of God that is the other, that we break out of our sense of being “sequestered in the barren desert.”
This morning in the United States there are large segments of the population who are deeply afraid. There are families that have sought refuge from certain death in their home countries who feel as they are not welcome. There are families of immigrants who feel threatened by enforced separation. There are former production workers who feel resentment towards those they falsely believe are responsible for their joblessness. There is a great danger in this moment that our tribalistic tendencies as human beings will prove the “dream” of “e pluribus unum” but a fantasy.
Pope Francis reminds us that the only response to these and all our life tensions is not a political but rather a spiritual one. “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be shown to them.” It is not by demanding that mercy be shown us that we come to know it. It is, rather, by being merciful that we shall know mercy ourselves. In the “new secular order” we could say that we can only come to know our uniquely significant and important place in that order by our exercise of mercy toward the others, especially toward those who require it most, whoever they may be.
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.
Pope Francis, MIsericordiae Vultus, 10