"Reflecting God's Mercy" is the focus of Women's Day celebrations in the dioceses of India. Why? Pope Francis declared the current liturgical year as the Year of Mercy. He calls it a time of grace, peace, conversion and joy.
Jesus demonstrated mercy as he went about feeding, healing, forgiving; showing kindness, love and compassion. His concern brought wholeness to people whose lives he touched. He was the embodiment of God's mercy.
It is commonly established that women more than men demonstrate mercy in their day-to-day lives. Woman's subservient position and gendered role as nurturer and caregiver has compelled her to accept her lot in life. To move on, she constantly has to be a font of mercy towards those who hinder her path with violence and indignity. She taps her inner strength to carry her through the hurt and pain. She needs to get on with life and the work of nurturing and caring for her family and faith community which is the church.
Therefore, as most of the celebrations of Women's Day are attended mainly by women, one wonders why women are called to reflect God's Mercy. Is it not preaching to the converted? As Pope Francis points out "women don't just bear life, but transmit to us the ability to understand the world with different eyes, to understand the things with hearts that are more creative, more merciful, more patient and more kind."
Instead should women have been commissioned to give the homily or "share their experiences of expressing mercy" at all Masses on Woman's Day? The example of Sister Rani Maria's sister forgiving her sister's assassin, bringing about his repentance and change of heart is one example. This would enable all those who are alien to this virtue to learn to show God's face of mercy towards others, especially to women who are victims of different forms of violence, marginalization, oppression; deprivation of their rights to inheritance, to medical care and to life.
The theme for Women's Day could have been "Celebrating God's face of Mercy in Women," because women consistently present the merciful face of God. This would have empowered women to tap into their inner strength that has been ignored but yet sustains them through numerous experiences of violence, hurt, deprivation and continues to hold forth amid life's abundant challenges constantly thrown at her.
On the other hand, we need to caution against stereotyping of virtues, as there are several men who demonstrate God's mercy while there are several women who do not. The realization that our socialization within the gender binary has stereotyped women and men into water tight roles and qualities is important if we need to move towards a position where both women and men realize that God is wholeness, not a combination of feminine and masculine qualities that are divided between two genders. This realization will help all into wholeness. It will help us show mercy towards and accept many others who fall into the space between the two genders, who like women are marginalized, denied their true identity and inflicted with a lot of violence.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, who is now (March 2-9) having their biennial plenary in Bangalore, could have also seized this opportunity to celebrate Women's Day by having more women address them on their experience of expressing mercy. It would honor their commitment to women in India set out in their gender policy. It would spur the 180 bishops to inculcate the merciful divine in their dealings with their people.
The bishops could have also watched the film "Spotlight." As human rights activist Father Cedric Prakash points out the film is a call to conversion. In this Year of Mercy, it should be viewed by all bishops, clergy, religious and laity. Yes, there should have been a day set aside for deep reflection and prayer by our bishops for the neglect and cover up of this issue in India with a firm resolve to mercifully address the pain of victims and their advocates many of whom are women. There are numerous vulnerable persons who still suffer great pain from this trauma. All other rituals to celebrate the Year of Mercy will pale if our leaders themselves do not become beacons of mercy when dealing with their own people in pain.
The Year of Mercy is an opportunity offered to all, not just for women. It offers us an opportunity to explore mercy as a lived experience of equitable and just relationships, to seek to rediscover gentleness and acceptance of the uniqueness and beauty of the other, to change our definition of power and strength to that of collaborative energy rather than competitive ambition.
We are all called to emulate the wholeness of God by integrating within ourselves the qualities of God that are necessary for us to make God's reign of justice, love and peace a reality.
Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women's issues based in Mumbai.