Pope Francis in His Papal Bull, Misericordiae Vultus, appeals to the faithful to “open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity” (Misericordiae Vultus 15). The recently premiered film, The Drop Box, is a poignant display of the mercy-in-action the Pope calls for—a must-see (or revisit) for this Jubilee Year!
The Drop Box documentary, both profound and delightful in its portrayal, tells the remarkable story of a courageous pastor, Jong-rak Lee, and "his heroic efforts to embrace and protect the most vulnerable members of society...providing refuge to orphans that would otherwise be abandoned on the streets" of Seoul, South Korea (thedropboxfilm.com). The film reports that the “Metropolitan Children’s Welfare Center estimates that a total of 204 infants were abandoned in the City of Seoul in 2013” (The Drop Box).
Pastor Lee began to adopt children after his second child, Eun-man, was born so severely disabled that the family had to sell their house to pay medical bills. The family of four lived in the hospital ward to attend to the constant intensive care his son required. “Children who were abandoned at the hospital started to come to us,” Pastor Lee recalls (The Drop Box). After 14 years, Eun-man was discharged from the hospital and Pastor Lee and his wife attended to his care at home. At that point, over a period of about six years, many babies were dropped off at their home. Finally, for fear that the infants would be harmed by the elements, Pastor Lee constructed a drop-off box furnished with a sensor to alert the pastor when a baby was left there. In the approximately six years that this box was in place, Pastor Lee rescued 354 babies, some of whom he added to his own family, especially the most severely disabled. At the completion of this film, Pastor Lee and his wife had 15 children.
Each one of these children gave Pastor Lee deeper reverence for and love of every child to come. For example, one of his most severely disabled children, Hanna, instilled in him such fervor that when she passed away unexpectedly, he made a commitment in his heart: “God, I will die for these children” (The Drop Box).
The family documented in The Drop Box film exhibits the kind of merciful hearts that must be cultivated in us if we are to live authentic Christian lives. In light of the recent canonization of Pope Saint John Paul II, it is apropos that much of the theology referenced and some of the actions recommended in Pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus are drawn from Dives in Misericordia, Saint John Paul II’s second encyclical which contains deep, comprehensive theology on mercy. It appears that Pope Francis has directed the Church in the path delineated by his predecessor who wrote, “The Church must consider it one of her principal duties—at every stage of history and especially in our modern age—to proclaim and to introduce into life the mystery of mercy” (Dives in Misericordia 14)
In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis encourages increased attention to both corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Saint John Paul II's Dives in Misericordia provides a theological exposition of the necessary attributes which merciful love between persons requires:
“In reciprocal relationships between persons, merciful love is never a unilateral act or process. Even in the cases in which everything would seem to indicate that only one party is giving and offering, and the other only receiving and taking…in reality the one who gives is always also a beneficiary. …An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us. If this bilateral and reciprocal quality is absent” (as it is in social constructs such as socialism or communism, for example), “our actions are not yet true acts of mercy, nor has there yet been fully completed in us that conversion to which Christ has shown us the way by His words and example, even to the cross, nor are we yet sharing fully in the magnificent source of merciful love.
"…[Seeing] mercy as a unilateral act or process presupposes and maintains a certain distance between the one practicing mercy and the one benefiting from it, between the one who does good and the one who receives it. [This unilateral approach results in] the attempt to free interpersonal and social relationships from mercy and to base them solely on justice” which, lacking love, becomes a futile attempt to simply distribute goods and services equally. “Such opinions about mercy fail to see the fundamental link between mercy and justice. …True mercy is, so to speak, the most profound source of justice.
"…The person who gives becomes more generous when he feels at the same time benefitted by the person accepting his gift; and vice versa, the person who accepts the gift, …he too is doing good in his own way serving the great cause of the dignity of the person. …This contributes to uniting people in a more profound manner.”
(Dives in Misericordia 14)
The family in the film, The Drop Box, perfectly reveals the reciprocal nature of mercy, even when “everything would seem to indicate that only one party is giving and offering, and the other only receiving and taking” (Dives in Misericordia 14). When Pastor Lee’s son, Eun-man, was born and as he grew, “they said even if he lives, he will be in a vegetative state. He would only be able to blink his eyes. He wouldn’t be able to do anything but lie on his bed” (The Drop Box). It is true that Eun-man has been lying down his whole life. But he smiles. It is a sometimes labored, but joyful smile. He even smiles at his father’s request to “smile for the camera!” so he understands and in a sense “communicates” with those around him…communicates a smile, communicates love.
Eun-man’s parents do so much work to take care of their son’s needs—bathing him, lifting him, feeding him through a feeding tube, attending to his medical care. Many people of this world would view the life of someone with such a condition as useless. Yet, it is precisely here that we witness the reciprocal nature of merciful love. Eun-man has a younger (adopted) brother, Ruri, who was 10 years old at the making of the film. When he was asked, “Do you think there is a purpose for your older brother’s life?” he answered:
“Of course there is. I believe God made the baby box through Eun-man so that my dad could save more lives. It all started because of Eun-man and the babies that had come to my dad before he created the box. They basically made the box. So God purposely blessed, not cursed, Eun-man to build the baby box. And I’m really glad he did” (The Drop Box).
In addition, because of Eun-man, this young boy Ruri has a burning desire to inherit his father’s work. Their older sister, Ji-young, studied social welfare and nursing and now works to help children in need. Though he has never left his bed and cannot move any part of his body but his eyes and his lips for a half-smile, Eun-man has been the cause of the accomplishment of so very much in his 26 years. Now, he's even a movie star, albeit for a different purpose than most stars.
Eun-man’s father also reveals the reciprocal nature of merciful love. Because God gave Eun-man to the pastor to love, Pastor Lee has been radically changed. When his son was born, he asked God “Why? Why did He give me ‘that kind of baby’? Why didn’t He give me a healthy baby?” Although he immediately repented of asking such a question, he didn’t realize at the time all the blessings that would come with this child. Pastor Lee now says, “Because I took care of Eun-man, I’m here now. I started this job. Now look at it.”
So many babies have been saved and loved because of Eun-man. As a result of Eun-man's medical needs, his parents also learned how to take care of extreme medical conditions so that they can now care for the most severely disabled children who are most at risk of abandonment. And now, so many children have experienced love because of Eun-man: “Through Eun-man, I felt a calling to make these children happy,” Pastor Lee notes (The Drop Box).
These words of the pastor reveal how merciful love has been reciprocated: “Eun-man is, if you look at it, my teacher. Through Eun-man, I learned of life’s dignity” (The Drop Box).
This proof of the reciprocity of merciful love is a profound inspiration. Such blessings are poured forth from the Heart of Christ who, within our wounded brother, is also the receiver of such acts of mercy: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Mt 25:40). In divine reciprocity, our merciful attention to the wounds of our brothers is, in reality, an occasion for us to receive Christ's merciful love. We are called into relationship to reciprocate merciful love primarily in our daily lives with those who are immediately around us—every single person is in need of and deserving of charitable love. However, even when we donate to the missions or other charitable organizations, if the donations are a gift from the heart not exacted as with a fee or tax, we provide for and participate in the reciprocation of mercy occurring between the needy and those who serve them.
If we are ever called to be a caregiver, either of an elderly parent or otherwise, may we care for them with tender love remembering that our mercy toward them is reciprocated, even when this reciprocation is not entirely perceptible. Through such a person in need, God pours grace and love into the hearts of caregivers and loved ones, even when it does not “feel” as though He is. Such a person in need is not without a mission: by accepting charitable acts of mercy, “he too is doing good…serving the great cause of the dignity of the human person” (Dives in Misericordia 14).
The reciprocity of mercy is particularly relevant for our times. Sadly, there exists a dangerous mindset in current society that one should not burden others with taking care of one's most basic needs. At some point in our lives, each of us will likely be in a position requiring us to accept mercy from others for the care of our physical needs. It can be a humbling experience to be unable to take care of our own most primary functions of life. But the truth is that God allows our weakness or illness or even dementia in part to teach others the lessons of mercy, the prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Without our own neediness, others would not be given the opportunity to try to learn and practice works of mercy. Without our neediness, others are deprived of the opportunity to love, to put their love into action—which must be done for love to be authentic. Should we ever find ourselves in a position such as this, may we accept the mercy and care of others with joy. May we remember that we do not lose our dignity as a valuable creation, a child of God. We do not even lose our mission: when God calls us to this kind of surrender, our own need teaches love more effectively than a thousand sermons.
Drop Box, The. Dir. Brian Ivie. Pine Creek Entertainment, 2015. Film.
Francis. Apostolic Letter Miseridordiae Vultus. Face of Mercy, 11 April 2015. Vatican Website. The Holy See, 2015. Web. Accessed 17 January 2016.
John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Dives In Misericordia. Rich in Mercy, 30 November 1980. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1981.