The prodigal son's father celebrated as a way to show that everything could be restored to his son at once. Mercy makes us pass "from estrangement to celebration" and can only be understood through hope.
"Mercy is the genuine expression of life that counters death, the bitter fruit of sin," the Pope said. Mercy is not naïve or blind to evil, but it sees "how short life is and all the good still to be done."
"That is why it is so important to forgive completely, so that others can look to the future without wasting time on self-recrimination and self-pity over their past mistakes," the pontiff continued. "Mercy is always tinged with hope."
The Pope described the tension in the person of Simon Peter, the apostle and first Pope. He was "an ordinary man with all his faults and inconsistencies" as well as the bearer of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
"That is how we have to see ourselves: poised between our utter shame and our sublime dignity. Dirty, impure, mean and selfish, yet at the same time, with feet washed, called and chosen to distribute the Lord's multiplied loaves, blessed by our people, loved and cared for," he told the priests. "Only mercy makes this situation bearable. Without it, either we believe in our own righteousness like the Pharisees, or we shrink back like those who feel unworthy. In either case, our hearts grow hardened."
For Pope Francis, the only way to be excessive in responding to God's excessive mercy is "to be completely open to receiving it and to sharing it with others." He cited the many examples of this excessive mercy in the Gospels.
The Pope's second reflection, given Thursday at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, compared sin to "the vessel of mercy" that is like a leaky bucket from which grace quickly drains. He invoked the Prophet Jeremiah's imagery of a people who have forsaken God, the fountain of living water, and dug for themselves "cracked cisterns that can hold no water."
"God keeps forgiving, even though he sees how hard it is for his grace to take root in the parched and rocky soil of our hearts. He never stops sowing his mercy and his forgiveness," he added.
The Pope said that the heart redeemed in Christ is "no longer battered and leaky."
"It feels the balm of grace poured out upon its wounds and its sinfulness; it feels mercy assuaging its guilt, watering its aridity with love and rekindling its hope," he said. When this heart forgives other sinners and treats them with compassion, this mercy "takes root in good soil, where water does not drain off but sinks in and gives life."
The best practitioners of mercy are those who know themselves to be forgiven. He used the example of addiction counselors who have themselves overcome addiction and can best understand, help and challenge others.
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"So too, the best confessors are usually themselves good penitents. Almost all the great saints were great sinners or, like Saint Therese, knew that it was by sheer grace that they were not," he said.
The wounds of Jesus Christ on the Risen Lord "remind us that the traces of our sins, forgiven by God, never completely heal or disappear; they remain as scars."
"God's mercy is in those scars. In the scars of the risen Christ, the marks of the wounds in his hands and feet but also in his pierced heart, we find the true meaning of sin and grace."
While Jesus' heart was pure love and wounded willingly, the heart of fallen humanity is "pure wound" that was healed "because it allowed itself to be loved."
The Pope encouraged the priests to look to the saints who "let their hearts be re-created by mercy."
"Paul received mercy in the harsh and inflexible vessel of his judgement, shaped by the Law. His harsh judgement made him a persecutor," he commented. Mercy so changed him that he sought those who were far off, from the pagan world, and, at the same time showed great understanding and mercy to those who were as he had been. "