The Quality of Mercy

Apropos Eric's post below, I though dotCommonwealers would enjoy Commencement remarks by John Garvey, former Dean of Boston College Law School and the (still relatively new) President of Catholic University:

Mercy is a gift. First and foremost, its a gift from God. Its not something we can pay back. (That would be justice.) As one of Graham Greenes characters says: You cant conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God." And when we show mercy, we do it in imitation of Christ. He instructed his disciples to be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.The virtues say something about who we are. The cardinal virtues speak to the goodness of human nature. The theological virtues speak to our heavenly end. The virtue of mercy shows that we have received a gift. It tells the story of our salvation.OK, youre thinking, youre gone off the rails. This is commencement. Youre supposed to be telling us to wear sunscreen and change the world. Whats mercy got to do with it? Heres the point. I like to involve students in university decisions. Young people take their responsibilities seriously. You respect confidentiality better than faculty do. When you serve on disciplinary boards, you are stricter than your elders. You are uncompromising in your judgments of movies, food, public figures, parents. I admire your integrity. It is part of the idealism that makes it a joy to live and work with you.Mercy is foreign to the idealist. It is a grandparents virtue. Some time between now and 2041 you should learn it, and I want you to start today. Unlike justice it doesnt follow rules. If we replaced punishment with mercy, we would have anarchy. Article II of the Constitution entrusts mercy to the President, and gives him unreviewable discretion, because we cant make it a general rule, and there is no formula for applying it.But in the love of two people it is essential. There, there is no room for just desserts. You must make it your rule always to give and forgive. (You will fail, but youll get the proportions right.) In your friendships too, you should replace judgment with mercy. And if you practice this virtue on your inner circle, it will soften the sharp edges of your ideals just enough, and make you a much more effective leader, lieutenant, teacher, doctor, architect, or conductor.

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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