At the beginning of Lent, I reflected on our Gospel call to grow in mercy during this season. Connected to and emerging from this theme of mercy, I believe Jesus is further asking us to form our hearts in union with his Sacred Heart by striving to enact other virtues, such as magnanimity.
A recent tweet by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, in which he wrote about “that greatness of soul that extends itself out of sheer joy at being able to give where there was nothing before,” prompted me to reflect more deeply on magnanimity. Magnanimity is the virtue of being great of mind and heart, “enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity.”
Jesus is the model of magnanimity, loving us unconditionally and bearing our sins through his sacrificial offering—an act of mercy—despite our unworthiness and our ingratitude for his love. We can therefore best demonstrate magnanimity when we reflect the Heart of Christ.
St. Ignatius of Loyola invites us to grow to become more like Christ through the Spiritual Exercises by entering “into them with great courage and generosity towards the Creator and Lord, offering God all one’s will and liberty, that the Divine Majesty may make use of this person and of all one has according to God’s most Holy Will” (SpEx 5). But our courage and generosity cannot grow without reflecting Christ’s mercy.
Given that the heart is a muscle, our spiritual hearts require us to exercise mercy in order to grow in size and strength. Additionally, as physical trainers attest, our muscles cannot grow if they are not challenged. In a parallel manner, our hearts cannot grow to become more like Christ if we are not challenged in our spiritual practices.
As Shane Claiborne famously stated, “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.” I believe this figure summarizes how Christ calls us to magnanimity. Exercising mercy allows our hearts to grow, while encouraging us to challenge our status quo, thereby counteracting stagnation.
As we continue our Lenten commitment to practise mercy, let us examine our hearts: to whom are we directing our mercy? Are there groups of people whom we do not regard with mercy?
Our society and sadly, at times, our Church might influence our beliefs regarding certain individuals, and these latent prejudices can often result in perceptions that tend to demonize certain people. How do we react, for example, when we see the following words?
- The Poor
- The Homeless
- The Imprisoned
- The “Coastal Elites”
- The “Left”
- The “Right”
- Black People
Let us look at all of these people with the eyes of Christ. If we discern even a trace of negativity towards any of these people, let us strive to love and accompany them, as Pope Francis calls us to do (EG 169).
One of the ways we can accompany those we hesitate to love is by encountering them openly and sympathetically. We can do so by learning about them from their own advocates.
For instance, if you wish to learn more about the struggles of migrants coming from the southern border, I would recommend reading Dignity & Justice, as well as following the works of Kino Border Initiative along the Nogales border, and Sister Norma Pimentel in the Rio Grande Valley. When we learn more about migrants through the Mind and Heart of Christ, Jesus can dispel the demons that unnecessarily cloud who these people really are.
For those Catholics who continue to resist the Church’s recently renewed stance against the death penalty, I recommend Melinda Ribnek’s recent article, which reminds us that our inability to experience mercy towards those sentenced to death stunts our spiritual growth and prevents our hearts from becoming one with the Sacred Heart. Sister Helen Prejean, moreover, is one of the best Catholic advocates for those on death row. All of her work, in particular her books Dead Man Walking and River of Fire, will stretch our spiritual muscles to feel mercy for those sentenced to death.
During 2020, the long-overdue awareness and outcry against the oppression of Black persons resulted in divided responses from both society and the US Church even though Christ calls us to accompany the Black community and to express in deeds more than words that Black Lives Matter. For those seeking guidance and insight in this area, I recommend the work of Olga Segura, particularly her recent book Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church, as well as the writings and talks of Fr. Bryan Massingale, who wrote Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. When we look the other way when Black people experience oppression, we imitate the inaction of the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:31-32). Instead, Christ calls us to exercise mercy like the Good Samaritan.
When we comfort the disturbed, particularly those we may be hesitant to express care for, we deepen our capacity to show mercy, which allows us to grow in magnanimity. We also grow in magnanimity when we can move beyond our comfort zone; to allow God to “disturb the comfortable.”
Some of us may find consolation in certain devotional practices. These actions are good in themselves, allowing us to foster holy desires and deepen our love for God. However, if piety leads us to be only inward looking, if it does not prompt us to grow in concern for our neighbor and the marginalized, then our pious practices, while good in themselves, impede our progress to become more like Christ.
God may challenge our devotional practices so that we can go beyond ourselves and encounter those in need, such as the people mentioned above. God cuts off every branch in us that does not bear fruit, and the areas where we do bear fruit, God prunes so that we might grow (cf. John 15:1-2). When we surrender to this pruning, which can even come in the form of moving beyond our piety, we allow the Spirit to form in us the Heart of Christ.
More than a decade ago, I attended Mass and Holy Hour daily. I felt spiritually connected to Christ and progressing in holiness. However, my spirituality remained inward looking, until I worked with those in need as a Jesuit Novice. These ministries allowed me to see Christ in the people my superiors sent me to serve. Amid this ministry, the people I served in turn ministered to me, teaching me gratitude and joy while they lacked material possessions, health and security. Seeing Jesus in the flesh of other people allowed me to see him more clearly in the Eucharist. This in turn strengthened me to give passionately and generously to God’s people, knowing in truth it was ultimately Christ who I will be encountering.
An additional source of stagnation stems from our echo chambers, whether they are the friends we keep or the circles we follow on social media. There is a reason that team-building exercises and retreats typically open with icebreaker activities that require participants to meet and engage with people they do not know: these games precipitate an encounter with an unfamiliar person and, through that encounter, engender a new connection within the team. In Catholic terms, such encounters allow us to see the other and thereby affirm his or her God-given dignity.
In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis encourages us to enter into the tension arising from opposing opinions and ideologies. Polarization is not the answer, nor is merely regarding differences as “conflict.” Rather, even when consensus seems elusive, learning to view such differences as contrapositions enables us to engage them in “a fruitful, creative tension” (79). By extension, going outside our circles to perform different works of mercy and to encounter those who hold different views than us allows us to practise what Pope Francis has described as the “art of accompaniment.”
Using the work of Romano Guardini, the Pope promotes the importance of approaching polarities not as static coexistent entities but as living realities, with dynamic possibilities when exercised with sound discernment. When we do so, neither side is demonized—a process that Pope Francis notes is the activity of the evil spirit. Rather, the good spirit calls both sides to move toward fraternity and solidarity. Mercy permits us to engage in this dialogue, viewing the other as Christ does and choosing to listen in an open and loving manner. The creative tension to which the pope calls us can create a new heart in us, removing our hearts of stone (cf. Ezekiel 36:26) and thereby allowing us to grow in magnanimity.
During Lent, may we accept the invitation from Christ to grow in mercy such that it expands our heart to resemble the Sacred Heart more closely. May our hearts grow by exercising mercy and by comforting the disturbed, including those we may hesitate to love due to our own prejudices. Let us also welcome disturbances in our complacency so that our spiritual muscles do not atrophy but grow in strength. Additionally, may we heed the call from the Holy Father to resist complacency in our polarities and to engage contrapositions in a loving and fruitful manner. These exercises, done in and through the grace of God, will allow us to grow in magnanimity and to put on the Mind and Heart of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5).
Image: Basilica of the Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, Paris, France. Adobe Stock.