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Omnipotence and Mercy | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | August 21, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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"Since God himself is now near us, we can know him; he shows us his Face and enters our world. There is no longer any need to make do with those other powers, because he is the true power, the Omnipotent." -- Benedict XVI, Aosta Cathedral, July 24, 2009.


While in the Italian mountains, the Holy Father officiated at Vespers in the Cathedral at Aosta, during which he gave a brief, but incisive homily. He began by citing a Vesper prayer, itself based on Paul's Letter to the Romans. The pope noted that the Italian text of the prayer begins simply: "Merciful Father." Then he amusingly chides the Italian bishops responsible for this translation. The Latin text, the pope pointed out, is a little "fuller." It says: "Almighty and Merciful God." He added, that, in Caritas in veritate, he tried to show the importance of God both in one's private sphere and in "the life of society, of the world, of history."

One's relationship to God is a profoundly personal matter. Each person has a relation to other persons. If the relation to God is not a living one, then no other relation to anything else "can find its right form." This remark means that a disordered relation to God will also result in a disordered relation to others. The same principle holds for society and for humanity as a whole. Without God in the right place, with His power, we have nothing by which to guide ourselves. We lack a compass.

Thus, "we must bring the reality of God back into our world." Yet, "how can we know God?" Benedict recalled that he regularly meets bishops from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so their concerns are vivid to him. These bishops differ in many ways, but they have one thing in common. "They all know that God exists, one God, that 'god' is a singular noun, that the gods are not God, that God exists, God." Yet, God seems "absent." He "hides, we do not know his Face."

Most religions thus deal not with God but with "objects. They are aware of nearer "powers." These are spirits, ancestors or, I suppose, even demons. People thus "make do" with the nearer powers. What Christianity is about is the closing of the distance to God. God takes the initiative to make Himself "truly known." He shows "his Face." We can see His Face. No veil covers Him any longer. "There is no longer any need to make do with those other powers, because he is the true power, the Omnipotent."

God shows His Face. He enters our world. Here the pope remarked: "I do not know why the world 'omnipotent' has been omitted from the Italian text, but it is true that we feel a little threatened by the word 'omnipotent'; it seems to limit our freedom, it seems to be too strong." We are afraid, in other words, that God will "limit" what we choose to do, whereas He makes it possible that we actually become what we are. One would hope that the Italian bishops hasten to restore the original wording!

The pope then proceeded to explain why the word "omnipotent" needs to be in the text—omnipotent and merciful. "The omnipotence of God is not an arbitrary power, because God is Good, he is Truth, and therefore he can do anything, but he cannot act against good, he cannot act against truth, love or freedom, because he himself is good, love, and true freedom." God is indeed all powerful, but this power of His is what founds truth, goodness, and freedom. It is what makes these things more than mere pious musings.

God does not have an "evil eye." His is the eye that sees what it loves. Good is being. Benedict repeated the opening of the prayer, this time in its fullness: "Almighty and Merciful God." The merciful should not be there without the almighty. Mercy without power has no effect but weakness. Benedict then recalls a "Roman prayer" that related to the Book of Wisdom. It says: "O God, show your omnipotence through pardon and mercy." Pardon and mercy are themselves manifestations of omnipotence. Thus "the summit of God's power is mercy and pardon. This position does not mean that God's power is not also justice, as Benedict says in Spe Salvi. It is only because God is all powerful and all knowing that He can also be merciful and can pardon. Pardon and mercy do not deny justice but see behind it.

Our normal understanding of someone with power is a rich man, a commander, a politician, a boxer. Benedict even cites here Stalin's famous quip: "How many divisions does the pope have?" The fact that he has no divisions does not mean that he has no power; nor does it mean that someone with many divisions at his disposal is really powerful in the things that count. "In his mercy, God demonstrates true power." Recall that for Aquinas, the world is in fact created in mercy, from nothing, such is the divine power.

God has redeemed the world. What sort of "power" did He use? God has suffered with us through His Son. The pope next added: "This is the summit of his power, that he can suffer with us." The suffering of the Father is vicarious through His Son, but it is none the less real. Those who love suffer when those whom they love suffer. Ordinarily, we cannot imagine how God might "suffer." When we grasp the Incarnation of the Son, we can see how He might suffer, though we still must grasp the reasons why this redemptive path is the one God chose to follow. He embraced the power of mercy, not that of might and awesome fear. Thus, our own suffering is never just our suffering. God has shown a capacity and will to suffer with us. He does this for the reasons that cause suffering, that is, the need to forgive sins that are repented.

Obviously, a major obstacle remains. "Why was it necessary to suffer to save the world?" Initially, we might say that it was not necessary. Conceivably other options were open. We assume that the one who was in fact chosen was chosen because it best achieved what God was about in creating us in the first place, namely that we freely accept the gift of eternal life offered to us. The reason that God chose the path of suffering through His Son on the Cross had to do with our freedom. His power could not destroy our freedom to save us. "There exists an ocean of evil, of injustice, hatred and violence, and the many victims of hatred and injustice have the right to see justice done." This passage recalls what the Benedict said in Spe Salvi about the necessity of the "judgment of the living and the dead."

"God," the pope told us, "cannot ignore the cries of the suffering who are oppressed by injustice. To forgive is not to ignore, but to transform." Forgiveness does not mean that what was terribly done has no meaning or consequence. Just the opposite—it means that those who suffered can alone forgive those who caused their sufferings. Thus, "God must enter into the world in order to set against the ocean of injustice a larger ocean of goodness and of love. And this is the event of the Cross from that moment, against the ocean of evil, there exists a river that is boundless, and so ever mightier than all the injustices of the world, a river of goodness, truth, and love."

The image of the two waves, one of injustice and one of mercy, is designed to show how mercy can overcome injustice. But it all depends on the willingness of the one who caused the injustices to repent and ask forgiveness. This is the divine limit. God cannot create man free and then take it away and leave the same being in existence. If this forgiveness is not in some way asked, even God can do nothing but pursue justice, which is exactly what the pope implies. The divine power does not and cannot make evil good. What it does is to allow those who have done evil to repent and be forgiven, even unto seventy times seventy times.

The pope concluded this brief homily with an exalted hymn in honor of the God who forgives us, in his power. Benedict refers to Teilhard's cosmic liturgy in which the very world itself praises God through man, now redeemed and forgiven. "We ourselves with our whole being must be adoration and sacrifice and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy."

What Benedict said so beautifully here is mindful of what he said of the priesthood in the Spirit of the Liturgy, that the priest is the mediator between God and man, that he, like those who believe and repent, all face the Father, whose Face they can look upon because of the Incarnation of His Son who suffered, died, and was buried, who rose again on the third day, who ascended into heaven and will come again to "judge the living and the dead."

Such is the divine omnipotence, that it has the power to be merciful to us, to save us, if we will.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Caritas in Veritate: "Its Principal Driving Force" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
CWR Round-Table: Caritas in Veritate | Catholic World Report
• Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
• Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Spe Salvi and Vatican II | Brian A. Graebe
• Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Maximilian Heinrich Heim | Introduction to Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology.
The Courage To Be Imperfect | Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. | The Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age
The Theological Genius of Joseph Ratzinger | An Interview with Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Encyclical: God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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