In our second reflection about the "Year of Mercy," we explore a question that gets to the heart of things: What (or rather who) is mercy?

A dictionary definition states that mercy is "compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm." In this sense, we might say that mercy is a quantity, in that it is given to certain people after certain things have happened; but it is also a quality or disposition of the heart and mind. Put another way, we can show or give mercy in specific actions and we can also be merciful people.

There are some puzzling things about mercy. It can seem like a form of control over a person ("He owes me now!"), or even condescension, if we dispense so-called mercy like some sort of superior being. Real or true mercy, though, is freely given. It is a gift, not a contract or quid pro quo. We might say that a person does not deserve mercy, but if he or she deserved it, it would not be mercy!

Mercy, therefore, is not about us being condescending or feeling superior, but of us restoring a person's dignity and standing -- lifting them up, not putting them down.

Mercy is also a basic human need. As Blessed Teresa of Kolkata puts it, "The scope of mercy is as great as the extent of human need and suffering." It is also a divine attribute or characteristic.

Showing mercy to someone, especially after he or she has done some terrible deed, seems to go against our sense of justice. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, "Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, but justice without mercy is cruelty." Mercy does not compete with or cancel out justice, but builds upon it and actually completes it.

This is especially true for God's love and mercy. Pope Francis, in the ceremony for the opening of the holy door at St. Peter's in Rome, quoted St. Augustine: "How much wrong we do to God and His grace when we speak of sins being punished by His judgment before we speak of them being forgiven by His mercy."

Pope Francis concluded with these words: "We have to put mercy before judgment -- and, in any event, God's judgment will always be in the light of His mercy."

The Year of Mercy is about refreshing and renewing our understanding that mercy is at the very heart of our faith. Why? Because God is mercy!

Some biblical trivia might help: In the Old Testament, there are two words for mercy. One occurs 248 times (half of those, in the psalms); the other occurs 48 times (mainly in the prophets). So, mercy is important! As Psalm 148:8 so beautifully sings, "God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."

Mercy then, is a sign of who God is. It is a sign of His justice and absolute sovereignty and of His faithful and constant love for us.

There is more yet, for we see in Jesus the very "incarnation of mercy," as St. John Paul II remarked. Jesus does not just teach about mercy; He is the message and full possibility of God's mercy. We see this in so many of Jesus' parables, such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 1-32).

Jesus is the embodiment of mercy when He calls public sinners or outcasts such as Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19:7-10); when He pardons the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11); when He feels compassion for the crowd who are lost (Matthew 9:36); or when He heals the sick or raises the dead. In all of these cases, we can see how God's mercy is an absolute gift -- unmerited and undeserved -- and how it restores a person's freedom, dignity and life.

"Mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission," said St. John Paul II. Mercy is also at the very heart of the kingdom of God.

We might even say there is a "grammar" of mercy in Jesus' ministry and mission: Just as grammar provides a basis for language to be understood, so mercy does for the good news of salvation.

Let us give great thanks for this gift of mercy. During this Year of Mercy, let's renew and refresh our understanding of this gift and open our hearts to receive it. Let us also try to share and to imitate this gift -- something we will explore next week, in the final installment in this series.

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham. He holds a doctorate in theology and was a professor at St. John's Seminary in England before coming to the U.S. in 2004. For more details about the logo and about the Year of Mercy, see Read part I of this Year of Mercy series here.)