This is an extract from a fine commencement address made recently by John Garvey, former Dean of Boston College Law School and the President of the Catholic University of America.
"Mercy is a tricky virtue. It is related to justice. But justice is easier to understand, because everyone gets his due. Christians know that isn’t the complete story; and it’s a good thing, because we are sinners, and sinners (forgive the old-fashioned and judgmental language) deserve hell.
If we are bound for heaven (and we hope we are), it’s because of God’s mercy.
In The Merchant of Venice Portia puts it this way:
|Though justice be thy plea, consider this,|
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Mercy is a gift. First and foremost, it’s a gift from God.
It’s not something we can pay back. (That would be justice.)
As one of Graham Greene’s characters says: “You can’t 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,” you’re thinking, “you’re gone off the rails. This is commencement. You’re supposed to be telling us to wear sunscreen and change the world.
What’s mercy got to do with it?”
Here’s 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 grandparent’s virtue.
Some time between now and 2041 you should learn it, and I want you to start today.
Unlike justice it doesn’t 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 can’t 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 you’ll 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.