E. Borgman – A Field hospital after Battle

« A Field hospital after Battle. Mercy as a fundamental characteristic of God’s presence »

by Erik Borgman

Index – Verzeichnis – Indice – Índice – 指數


A few months into his pontificate, Pope Francis started to use a remarkable image for the Church. In an interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Jesuit journal La civilta cattolica, he suggested that the Church had to be considered ‘a field hospital after battle.’ With this metaphor he stressed that mercy has to have absolute priority in the Church. The primary task of the Church is to witness to God’s merciful nearness and to tend to the wounds of the people: that is the message. Only after that it made sense, Francis explained, to try to convince people of the need to change their behavior and to tell them what that would entail, according to the Roman Catholic Church. Building on the image of the field hospital, he explained: ‘It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.’[1]

1. Mercy and justice

Pope Francis’s focus on God’s mercy is now, more than four year later, well known both inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Earlyin his pontificate, these words became famous: 

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.[2]

Pope Francis proclaimed an extraordinary jubilee in honor of the Divine Mercy from 8 December 2015 to 20 November 2016. At the dawn of the jubilee, again in an interview, he stressed how the world is in need of ‘discovering that God is Father, that there is mercy, that cruelty isn’t the way, that condemnation isn’t the way.’ In this interview the pope admitted that ‘the Church herself sometimes follows a hard line’ and falls into the temptation of ‘stressing only the moral rules,’ thus excluding many people from the Good News of the Gospel.[3]

Public focus on this line of reasoning increased strongly with the much debated apostolic constitution Amoris Laetitia ‘on love in the family’, seeking to ‘encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy’. In a much debated chapter, an small opening is made for Catholics living in a relationship not in accordance with Church teaching, after a period of ‘pastoral discernment’, being re-admitted to receive communion at the Eucharist. In the document, this is based on mercy as the core value the Church has to embody. ‘I sincerely believe’, Pope Francis writes, 

that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’.[4]

The framing of people who were divorced and remarried in terms of ‘mercy’ versus ‘the law’ is partly due to an influential book by Cardinal W. Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.[5]

However, much less attention has been paid to the picture of the world that the metaphor of the Church as a field hospital implies. ‘[H]ow many people are wounded and destroyed’, Pope Francis exclaims, and therefore should be given care ‘I believe this is the moment of mercy.’[6] And in Amoris Laetitiae he underlines that  

the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm. 

There follows once again the comparison of the Church with a field hospital.[7] Here the huge impact of Francis´ stress on mercy is at least suggested. Ultimately it opens up an innovative interpretation of what it means that, according to the famous statement in Lumen Gentium, ‘the Church is in Christ like a sacrament’, that is ‘a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race’. Already in July 2013, visiting the island Lampedusa and commemorating the refugees drowned in the see fleeing from North Africa and the Middle East towards Europe, Francis suggested how a ‘globalization of indifference’ has taken from us the ability to weep and suffer with others. He brings to mind the opening statement of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes that states: 

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the human beings of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.[8]

Here, Pope Francis suggests that the Church could be a sign and instrument of God’s presence and the unity of the human race by being a space were compassion is cultivated amidst the threatening globalization of indifference. In the metaphor of the field hospital after battle, the suggestion is that the Church should be a sacrament of God’s mercy in a world that is, in the words of the pope, ‘engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal’.[9]

Some have asked the question whether the focus on mercy does not blur the necessity of justice in the world. However, according to Francis’ view, in a world at war and threatened by a globalization of indifference mercy is the very foundation of justice. The abundance of mercy, expressed in Jesus’ command in the Sermon of the Mount to love our enemies, does not imply ‘succumbing to evil’, but means ‘responding to evil with good’ as the apostle Paul encourages the Christians in Rome to do (cf. Rom. 12:17-21), thus breaking the chain of injustice.[10] It is worthwhile to explore Pope Francis’s view of mercy in depth, because it both draws on traditional motifs in Catholic theology, and is revolutionarily pertinent in our contemporary situation.

[1] A. Spadaro, ‘A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis’ (30 September 2013), published in English translation in the Jesuit review America.

[2] Pope Francis, apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium on the proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013)no 49.

[3] The interview was published in the magazine  Credere, 2 December 2015. For the English translation, cf. ‘Text of Pope’s Interview With Italian Jubilee Publication “Credere”’.

[4] Pope Francis, Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (19 March 2017), no. 308. The pope here explicitly quotes Evangelii Gaudium, no. 44. 

[5] New York / Mahwah: Paulist Press 2014; original German edition:  Barmherzigkeit: Grundbegriff des Evangeliums – Schlüssel christlichen Lebens, Freiburg/Basel Wien: Herder 2013.

[6] See ‘Text of Pope’s Interview With Italian Jubilee Publication “Credere”’.

[7] Amoris Laetitia, no. 291. 

[8] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in de Modern Wold Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965), no. 1.

[9] Pope Francis, message for the celebration of the fiftieth World Day of Peace Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace (1 January 2017), no. 2.

[10] Ibid., no. 3. Pope Francis quotes extensively from a remarkable Angelus-message given by pope Benedict XVI at 18 February 2007.

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