How to Explain Mercy (and Good Friday) to Children

Working with children (and raising a batch with my husband), I've picked up a few critical pieces of information about how children learn. For example, children require simple explanations in terms they can understand instinctively. Children also have little patience for information or activities that seem irrelevant to their concerns; they learn new concepts best when they can relate to the topic personally.

Pope Francis knows this well, which is why he hopes families, in this Year of Mercy, will provide children with an experience of mercy.

In his book-length interview, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis helps us all understand mercy by defining it in theological terms and then also giving us concrete, practical examples of what mercy feels like in daily life. Parents, grandparents, and teachers who want to share the Year of Mercy with children in their lives will find a wealth of wisdom in Pope Francis.

The Theology of Mercy

On page 87 of The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis quotes two documents by St. Ambrose:

  • From De paradiso: "God preferred that there should be more men to save and whose sense he could forgive, rather then have only Adam remaining free from fault."
  • From De institutione virginis: "The offense [of original sin] did us more good than harm, because it gave divine mercy the opportunity to redeem us."

These forceful lines challenge and astonish us, just as the lines from Easter's Vigil's "Proclamation of Easter":

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
— The Exsultet

God's love never takes the easy way out. As St. Ambrose says, God actually prefers to lavish on us love that hurts, that requires sacrifice. Anyone can love lovable folk, but our almighty God transforms the universe by pouring out gratuitous, indulgent, humble love to disobedient creatures in weakness and distress. We can sing about how "happy" Original Sin is, because only by becoming miserable could we experience the limitless love of God for us.

God loves us in this merciful way. What's more, God calls us to love others mercifully, too. In The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis makes up a word to describe this way of loving: mercifying. God wants us to mercify the world.

Sadly, mercifying is an impossible task; ON OUR OWN, we can neither produce nor sustain sacrificial love. Nowhere in nature do we see examples of self-forgetful, inexhaustible love. Each of us can easily come up with a dozen examples of how we have campaigned for preferential treatment, public recognition, or positions of honor. Heck, I always hunt through the produce bins, ensuring I will choose only the very best of what is offered; some other sucker can take home the grapefruits with scratches on the rinds, right?

Opting for deformity, preferring lowliness when more perfect options are available? That's God's wheelhouse. That's mercy. Mercy is not human, but divine:

What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.
— Luke 18:27

Thanks be to God, we can access every bit of the mercy we desire to give just by asking for it: "Ask and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7). 

Defining Mercy for Children

©Design Pics/Getty Images

©Design Pics/Getty Images

I have tried many ways of describing mercy to children. The definition that works best expresses mercy in terms of power.

Mercy means having power, and choosing to use that power to help others, not hurt them.

Children who know super hero stories can relate to this easily. While villains use their powers to destroy others and make the world "Mine! All Mine!", super heroes use their powers to fix disasters and help people in danger.

Children (and even teenagers) often think they don't have any real power. Their lives are heavily scripted by outside forces: parents, teachers, societal expectations, etc. But as a dear friend of mine always tells the children in the school she heads, "the remarkable thing is that you always have a choice."

Truly, children do have a choice. They have all kinds of power to choose their behavior, attitudes, and words. When speaking to groups of children, I ask, "Do you have power over your parents? For example, do you have a choice when your mom tells you to set the table?" They always shout, "NO!" But then we reflect on several options:

  • I can refuse to set the table.
  • I can set the table, but only after Mom asks four or five times.
  • I can make my younger brother set it for me.
  • I can start setting the table, but leave it half done.
  • I can set the table and complain about it.
  • I can set the table and be cheerful.
  • I can work hard, setting the table as best I can.
  • I can set the table, then ask what else I can do to help.

All of these choices have consequences. All of these choices affect the family in concrete ways.

Discussing mercy in terms of power helps children realize they do have power, even when they feel they are being forced to do something. And children can use their power destructively, by causing pain or distress, or mercifully, by building others up.

I love using Oscar Wilde's story of The Selfish Giant to let the message of mercy sink in. The giant owns a fabulous garden. It is rightly his own place. He has the power to share it or not. As the title suggests (spoiler alert!), he chooses not to share:

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’ So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
— The Selfish Giant

Most parents want their children to learn how to share. In this Year of Mercy, we can tie that universal standard of good will to God's plan of mercy for the world. The Selfish Giant shows that even something as simple as sharing a toy reflects God's love. Children, like adults, have power, and mercy demands that we always use our power to build up the Kingdom. 

Children as Mercifyers

Defining mercy is one thing, but how can we encourage children to "mercify" the world?

In The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis lists three suggestions:

  1. Read Gospel stories and parables that show mercy in action
  2. Talk freely with children about those stories and about how to be merciful
  3. Give children an experience of mercy

Here are some ideas for acting on the Pope's suggestions:

Read Gospel stories and parables that show mercy in action

Pope Francis discusses mercy all the time. From the April 2015 papal bull announcing the Year of Mercy (Misericordiae Vultus) to The Name of God Is Mercy, and in dozens of homilies and audiences, Pope Francis glows when he speaks of God's mercy. Mining as many of these resources as possible, I have come up with a list of Jesus' stories and parables most often cited by Pope Francis. These narratives will ignite our children's religious imaginations and show them what mercy looks like to Jesus:

  • The Call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)
  • The Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14)
  • The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
  • The Cleansing of a Leper (Mark 1:40-45)
  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)
  • The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7)
  • The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
  • The Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
  • Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10)
  • The Good Thief (Luke 23:39-43)
  • The Samaritan Woman (John 4:4-42)
  • The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:3-11)
  • The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21)
  • Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-19)

Talk freely with children about those stories and about how to be merciful

Let's not be narrow in our definitions, here! Which children should we be talking to? Any of them. All of them.

  • Have a baby? Share Psalm 136 with him or her. Since every other line is "for his mercy endures forever," its rhythm will soothe both you and the baby, even a baby in the womb. Sadly, many parents have lost children, in miscarriages or in other heartbreaking ways. The Psalm can accompany grieving hearts, too: "The Lord remembered us in our affliction, for his mercy endures forever."
  • Have children in school? Ask every day how they found and shared loving kindness in their world. An Examen is a great way to start the conversation. Our own video version for children, "A Trip to the Movies with God," is an enjoyable way to pay attention to God's loving action in our lives. Be specific! Ask if there are children who tend to eat alone or sit away from the action at recess. Perhaps a child is unpopular, poorly dressed, awkward, or in need of deodorant. God's mercy might be calling your child to offer friendship, even there. Perhaps your child IS that loner--all the more reason to dip deep into the well of God's steadfast mercy.
  • Have a teen? Be sure to take meals together. Whether it's dinner every day, breakfast a couple of times a week, or a special weekend lunch date, make the effort to share meals, face-to-face, with no devices or distractions. If conversations with your teen are difficult, all the better! We learn much more about God's mercy when we show consistent tenderness for unlovable, ungrateful, or willful people in our lives.
  • Have a young adult in your life? Be in touch. Maybe your adult child has moved back into the family home, so being in touch is a breeze. Or is it? Perhaps your young adult no longer practices the faith, but you dread having a conversation about that. The Year of Mercy invites us to consider all the indirect ways God attracts us to himself: nature, music, art, literature, laughter, tears. Some of us can't quite handle God in explicit, large doses yet. Mercy never gives up. Mercy looks for back doors, cracked windows, or even broken roofs to bring spiritually crippled friends to Christ--remember the story of the paralytic man (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:18-26).

Give children an experience of mercy

Amid all of the excellent theology Pope Francis examines to provide a definition of mercy, he continually returns to the need to experience mercy in a personal way. Part of experiencing mercy is allowing ourselves to fail, to suffer, to grieve over sin.

The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fail along the way. The important thing is always to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds. The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over.
— The Name of God Is Mercy, page 60

Do we take this to heart? Do we genuinely desire to be with our children, even when they irritate or disappoint us? Even when they are weak--perhaps habitually so?

Our desire for perfect children, perfectly behaved at church, enormously successful in school, popular with peers, settled in a career and house--this quest for perfection can lead us away from mercy. Desiring good things for our children is natural and beautiful, of course; requiring their success as a condition of our affection (even subconsciously) is where mercy unravels.

We want good things for our children. But whatever good things we want, God wants infinitely more. As Pope Francis says in Misericordiae Vultus, "let us allow God to surprise us." We may think we know just exactly which good things will help our children the most, just exactly which blessings will bring them face to face with Jesus. On the other hand, God has a tendency to know more than us, and to be infinitely more creative than us. We cannot be afraid of the sin and pain that might draw our children far closer to God's merciful heart than we ever imagined.

That is why we call the day of our Lord's cruel death Good Friday. In and of itself, a torturous, unjust execution is not "good." God's limitless wisdom surprises us by calling it Good Friday because on that day God showed us just how extreme his merciful love for us is. Children will hear the Passion story on Good Friday or look at a crucifix and ask why Jesus is dead on there; we can tell them that Jesus dies to show us he knows what it's like to be sad, teased, beaten, and exhausted. God knows--personally--how to share our sadness, even to death.

Good Friday should comfort children, then. They can know that nothing, NOTHING, can separate them from the love of God. It feels easy to love God when things are going well, but Good Friday reminds us to stay close to the Heart of Jesus in terrible times too. No sin, no sorrow, no seemingly hopeless situation is outside the mercy of God. Children can imagine how sad Jesus' disciples felt when their teacher died instead of leading a victorious army through Jerusalem, scattering the Romans. Those three days till Easter must have been agony. Our children will one day know that kind of agony, if they haven't already. The Good News is that our Lord has already conquered agony and death and accompanies us through our own suffering. We can put all our trust in the Lord.

Jesus, I trust in you.

In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. The Church feels the urgent need to proclaim God’s mercy. Her life is authentic and credible only when she becomes a convincing herald of mercy.
— Misericordiae Vultus

We parents, like mother Church herself, have to get this mercy thing right. We will fail, of course, but that's a sure way to dig even deeper into God's mercy.