The following homily from Australian Provincial Fr Brian McCoy was delivered at the Mass for the 40th Anniversary of Jesuit Social Services at St Ignatius’ Church in Richmond, on Friday 3 February 2017.
It was at the Jesuit Social Service’s annual dinner, nearly two years ago, that I was first introduced to this key insight of Bryan Stephenson’s: ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’.
It was the guest speaker that night, Judge Lex Lasry, who mentioned Bryan’s name and, you may remember, it was at that very same time that Julian McMahon and others were defending Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan on death row in Bali. While their efforts were unsuccessful we can as Australians, today, mark the 50th anniversary of the last public execution in our country, that of Ronald Ryan.
Bryan Stephenson, an African American, is no ordinary American lawyer and not simply because of his involvement in the support and accompaniment of prisoners on death row. His journey of some thirty-six years, beginning as a law student at the age of twenty-three, offers compelling insights into a US legal system which he says ‘continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent’. ‘The true measure of our character [he argues] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned’.
At the heart of our Eucharist today lies gratitude for this character that Jesuit Social Services has sought to articulate, express and become over forty years. From humble beginnings with eight young adults in Four Flats in 1977 to those many thousands who have been involved since then as staff, board members, participants, volunteers, friends and companions, we have good reason to pause and give thanks for many things, particularly the gifts of mercy offered, shared and received.
This occasion might also encourage us to pause and reflect on our Australian society at this time, and perhaps other societies as well, where expressions of mercy, as a true measure of our human dignity and character, can continue to be seen as soft and weak, to be denied and avoided.
At the end of his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stephenson offers this reflection: ‘Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion’.
In the company of the poor and in the corridors of power and the law, Stephenson came to believe that mercy is most transformative when it is freely given, directed to those who believe they are undeserving and offered to those who haven’t sought it.
It is not difficult for me, when reading these words, to hear resonance with a fellow Jesuit, now Pope Francis, who dedicated last year, 2016, as an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.
He said, in preparation for that year: ‘We look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich!’
Pope Francis continues to remind us, as he did when Jesuits gathered in Rome last October for our 36th General Congregation, that ‘mercy is not an abstraction but a lifestyle consisting in concrete gestures rather than mere words’.
This effort, to develop ‘a lifestyle consisting in concrete gestures rather than mere words’ is to be prophetic, to speak and live with courage and conviction, values that we believe are of God and deeply human, values that guide and call into being the fullness of life, relationships and justice in this, God’s kingdom.
The gospel passage chosen for this day, Luke 4:18, is the one where Jesus comes out in public for the first time to announce his mission: ‘The Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour [or mercy].’ He faces immediate rejection of his message, particularly by those who have grown up with him and think they know him. He faces their violence but continues resolute on his way.
When we share Christ’s mission and his message for our world, we bring consolation and hope to the poor, liberty to those bound by all sorts of modern slavery, the restoring of sight to those who can see no more value in who they are and what they might become, the offering of dignity to all those in whom it has died or been broken. We wish to bring good news to those who have not heard and experienced it. We try to live and express in our programs and messages those very concrete gestures of God’s mercy.
To live that gospel message each of us also needs to believe that we, too, ‘are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’. The more we personally believe and live this as Good News for ourselves the more we live and share that gift of mercy for others.
So, as we gather, look back and give thanks for the past life of Jesuit Social Services, let us hope and pray it will continue to live this Good News over the next 40 years.