Finding mercy in the city

  • February 28, 2016

TORONTO - Ever since Sodom and Gomorrah got their just desserts, no city has enjoyed a reputation for kindness, compassion, tranquility or Christian morality. At best the city is indifferent. More often urban anonymity bleeds into the darkness of sin. There are more sin cities than any other kind of city.

From the indignities of half an hour of forced intimacy with strangers on the subway to the exasperation of an hour crawling over 16 lanes of modern highway behind a flotilla of trucks engaged in slow sprints from zero to 15 kilometres per hour, every Toronto urbanite is tempted into just a little self-pity.

The Pope can talk about a Year of Mercy, but citizens of Toronto might be tempted to believe they are owed more mercy than they owe. Our modern urban life — trapped in glass towers, staring at plastic screens for hours on end — can seem entirely divorced from any notion of mercy. The practical effect of this is to make it easier to walk by the homeless man begging outside the LCBO or banish thoughts of the Jane-Finch towers and all that might happen in the stairwells and strip malls of that neighbourhood.

But what if mercy really were an operating principle for Toronto?

“That would be the city of God,” said Toronto’s former poet laureate Fr. Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.

Mercy may not define city life today, but Di Cicco believes there was a more generous and merciful spirit in the city a generation or two ago.

“Maybe it was imbued in the culture years ago, rather moreso than it is now,” he said. “So that a merciful texture of society emerged in people being more gracious with each other.”

It’s important to remember what mercy is.

“Mercy is beyond favour-forfavour or any negotiable transaction,” said Di Cicco. “Mercy in a crucial situation requires that you yield when there is no good reason to yield and when in fact it may not be to your benefit to yield.”

If city life is based on an ethic of commerce, of giving in order to receive, then mercy must remain extraordinary. Before there can be mercy, there must be trust.

“An act of mercy becomes difficult if one isn’t conditioned or trained in trust,” said Di Cicco. “The ideal of mercy is wonderful. It is always the platonic ideal. It’s always a wonderful thing to aim for. But practically speaking the exercise of mercy in the civic realm is going to be a little more difficult.”

The theologian on Toronto’s city council does not dismiss mercy as an impossible ideal. Councillor Joe Mihevc, who before politics taught theology at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, sees mercy pop up around the council chambers.

“Mercy is manifest when Torontonians who strongly opposed the politics and behaviour of Rob Ford, like myself, are able now to see in a compassionate way a human person now struggling with a serious illness,” said Mihevc.

The veteran politician is not willing to dismiss mercy as impractical.

“Mercy is a tool of those with power to bend backwards,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “This is not only good ethical living — it is politics at its very best.”

It can be difficult for many of us to recognize we are the powerful. Homeowners may not think of themselves as powerful, but on average they earn twice as much as Toronto’s renters and can rely on hundreds of thousands of dollars in net worth locked up in real estate. Mercy is expressed by the taxes citizens pay which help support vital social services for the disadvantaged.

In the lexicon of Pope Francis, mercy is about more than individual acts of kindness bestowed on strangers. In his environmental ideal Francis puts forward for all human beings collectively. It must underpin our relationship with the natural world.

“When you talk about mercy, in some way you’re talking about the gift of healing. When you look at it that way, you would say everyone and everything needs mercy,” said theologian Dennis Patrick O’Hara, director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Ecology and Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College.

The city needs mercy, nature needs mercy, the poor and the rich need mercy because mercy is the only path to God.

“Everything needs mercy in order to move toward becoming that which God is calling it to be. Whether it’s a carrot or any other part of creation, it is still incomplete because all of creation is incomplete,” O’Hara said. “But there is not a carrot on the planet that isn’t polluted in some way in terms of the water, the soil, the air or Heaven forbid genetics.”

Mercy clears the way for that carrot and every part of the natural world to become what God intended. Mercy began when God declared “It is very good” and rested on the seventh day.

“You might think that because you live in a 600-square-foot condo in a concrete tower that you don’t interact with nature,” said O’Hara. “But creation is all around us. It’s not like there are cities and then nature. Cities are part of creation. Creation needs God’s mercy, but also needs our mercy.”

O’Hara calls mercy the better form of stewardship — not trying to manage creation for God but trying to manage ourselves to make room for the full flourishing of nature.

“The Earth existed for fourand- a-half billion years very beautifully without humans. It doesn’t need us. What it needs in terms of human stewardship is for humans to stop doing harm to creation. Our stewardship of creation is our merciful relationship with creation,” said O’Hara.

Mercy isn’t any more out of reach in the city than God is. Doug MacKinnon gets to experience mercy in the city every week at Toronto Grace Health Centre. MacKinnon is a volunteer minister of the Eucharist who brings the sacrament to Catholics at the hospital.

“It’s a joy-filled ministry,” said MacKinnon. “To be able to bring Jesus to them, it’s just a wonderful experience… It’s mostly all about Jesus.”

MacKinnon finds as much grace in giving as he would in receiving. Many of the patients he visits are elderly, isolated, lonely — the forgotten of the city.

“I say a little prayer. When I go to bring the sacrament, I go upstairs to the little chapel at (Our Lady of Lourdes) Church and say just a little prayer to help me to bring that joy to them always,” MacKinnon said. “I hope to give them that special feeling that the Lord is there for them.”

The connection between healing and mercy is most obvious when it is absent. At Providence Healthcare, Sr. Mary Anne McCarthy is convinced Catholic health care has to be something different from an isolating, mechanistic, technology- driven health care industry. As director of mission and values for Providence, it’s McCarthy’s job to keep the Scarborough rehabilitation hospital grounded in its 1857 origins as the House of Providence, welcoming the poor, the sick, the aged, the infirm, widows and orphans.

“In other words, it was a place where the corporal works of mercy were experienced,” said McCarthy in an e-mail. “The virtue of mercy is expressed in compassion for others… Not only those who are materially poor, but the frail and the sick who need hope and healing.”

But poverty should never be an abstract notion. It has to be encountered. In every such encounter we find Jesus.

“You just come to encounter mercy itself,” said St. Augustine’s seminarian Michel Quenneville.

Quenneville and his classmate Doran Archikoski volunteer at The Good Shepherd, the refuge for homeless and addicted men on Queen Street East operated by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God. For Quenneville from Kingston, Ont., and Archikoski from Charlottetown, P.E.I., the refuge reveals the city in new ways.

“There’s a lot of people who have a lot of hurt in their lives,” said Archikoski. “The presence of these places is a sign of mercy in the city. Mercy is here through the volunteers.”

Outside the walls of The Good Shepherd, the world looks down on the homeless, the unwashed, the addicted, said Archikoski. Inside the walls of the refuge, the volunteers, staff and clients are aware of the presence of Christ.

“Everybody who encounters Christ is changed,” he said. “An encounter with another person ought to change you in the same way.”

A culture of encounter doesn’t happen by accident. For architect Roberto Chiotti it is a matter of design.

“Urban life, architecture, social services, planning, etc. would change dramatically if we lived out of a place of mercy,” Chiotti wrote in an e-mail. “For example, we would no longer just talk about helping the poor and marginalized but as a city actually commit significant resources towards building and maintaining affordable housing. Mercy requires us to be engaged on an intimate level and not just toss money and walk away.”

Mercy connects us, even across great distances. Jean-Denis Lampron, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace president and chair of the national council, is convinced mercy has to make us at least aware of the suffering of others.

“We belong to one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” Lampron said. “These riches are the fruit of our work, evidently. But we must recognize that without the labour of underpaid and overworked people of the global south much of this wealth would not exist.”

Development and Peace was conceived 49 years ago as “the instrument of mercy given to us by the Church to alleviate this injustice,” said Lampron.

“The mercy of Jesus is not just sentiment: indeed it is a force that gives life, that raises man up!” Pope Francis preached just two months after his election.

He means it. Mercy is real. This is not plaster-saint theology or pious muttering. Life depends on mercy right here, right now, even in the secular city.

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