Pope Francis is a merciful man, and his public interactions, speeches and sermons are infused with reflections on the virtue. The word "mercy" appeared in "Evangelii Gaudium," his 2013 address to Catholics around the world, 32 times.

In the coming year, Pope Francis won't be backing off this theme, as the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Jubilee of Mercy, which began Tuesday, Dec. 8. Throughout the nearly year-long celebration, the pope will lead Catholics in a celebration of God's offer of unconditional love and call them to be more merciful in their own lives.

Mercy is appealing to believers and nonbelievers alike because it involves being offered forgiveness that one doesn't necessarily deserve. Being on the receiving end of this virtue often inspires people to change their lives for the better, such as when Louis Zamperini, subject of the 2014 film "Unbroken," found God at a Billy Graham revival and overcame alcoholism.

However, experts who've studied mercy noted that it's a difficult virtue to nurture. People value a punishment that fits the crime, and it's hard to find the balance between offering forgiveness and discouraging future wrongdoing, said John Parrish, co-author of "The Decline of Mercy in Public Life."

"Mercy is about exception-making. It's about discretion and a careful judgment of someone's circumstances," he said. People who prioritize justice and equality "are pretty uncomfortable with that."

What mercy means

For Catholics, mercy is one of the defining characteristics of God's relationship with human beings. The term captures God's forgiving, tender and caring love, said Bishop Christopher Coyne, who leads the diocese of Burlington, Vermont, and will direct the region's jubilee.

"God seeks to help us, love us and call us to himself," he added.

Mercy from God is meant to guide the relationships that Catholics form with others, noted Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, an organization that advocates for public policies and programs that embody Catholic social teachings.

"It's not an elitist notion that involves someone standing above someone else. God comes all the way down to bring everyone up. No one is excluded. No one is left behind," he said.

In the context of Pope Francis' leadership, the call to build relationships enriched by mercy has taken on new significance. He's repeatedly instructed Catholics to reach out to people on the fringes of society, and led by example in his work on behalf of the homeless in Vatican City.

"The pope wants us to go to the margins. He wants us to encounter the excluded," Hale said.

This emphasis on mercy comes from the pope's longtime commitment to bettering the Catholic Church, Bishop Coyne noted.

"The Pope has taken a long look over his lifetime at the way the church is perceived and the way we operate. In many ways, we've been a church that has said, 'Mercy, but …' In other words, we've been merciful, but required people to do something to deserve" our help, he said. "We've always been defined by what we're against rather than what we're for. Pope Francis is saying, 'That's not the way it should be.'"

On Tuesday, during a ceremony launching the 12-month jubilee, Pope Francis encouraged the nearly 50,000 people gathered to put mercy before judgment in their relationships with others, as the Associated Press reported.

"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy," he said.

Mercy under fire

Pope Francis' mercy-first approach has helped him become one of the most popular faith leaders in the world, capturing the imaginations of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In 2015, 90 percent of Catholics, 74 percent of white mainline Protestants, 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 68 percent of the religiously unaffiliated held favorable views of the man, according to Pew Research Center.

However, mercy can also be polarizing, and some Catholic leaders have warned that the pope's approach threatens to undermine the church's core tenets, Hale noted.

"Mercy involves a creative enforcement of the rules that rankles traditionalists, myself included sometimes," he said.

For example, Pope Francis has urged church leaders to be creative in their approach to issues that conflict with Christian teachings on family, such as cohabitation before marriage, divorce and homosexuality. He's supported efforts to make it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to be welcomed back to the ritual of communion, even as bishops argued bitterly over the merits of such a shift.

Hale related misgivings about mercy to the biblical parable of the prodigal son, from Luke 15:11-32. Dedicated Catholics who strive to obey the church's teachings sometimes feel like the dutiful son in the story, who returns home from a hard day of work to find that his irresponsible younger brother has been given a hero's welcome after wasting an inheritance.

"The theme of mercy is more appealing to outsiders than to insiders," Hale said. "Many of us (active) in the church feel like the older son who worked hard and played by the rules," and it's frustrating that the pope focuses so much on others who don't live by church standards.

As Parrish noted, discomfort with mercy is widespread in modern life. People often view it as a slippery slope that compromises the pursuit of justice.

"Mercy is at the center of many political dilemmas, ranging from issues like criminal sentencing or executive pardons to things like immigration amnesty and homeowner-loan forgiveness," said Parrish, who is also the chairman of and professor in the political science department at Loyola Marymount University. And yet even people who take the merciful side in these debates argue in terms of justice or equality in order to avoid discussing the virtue.

To assuage people's discomfort with mercy, Pope Francis must make a distinction between being compassionate about the difficult circumstances people face and giving them a free pass to continue living in sin, he noted.

"You don't want to let a simplistic sense that any show of mercy encourages more wrongdoing" prevent you from taking action against that wrongdoing, Parrish said.

Mercy moving forward

Catholics will celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy in large and small ways. Some will make a pilgrimage to Rome, while others, like Hale, will strive to be more merciful in their day-to-day lives.

"I'm hoping that as Catholics reflect on (the jubilee), we become more loving and more merciful," Bishop Coyne said. "We can be the salt of goodness so that other people respond in goodness as well."

The worship services and events associated with the year likely won't change the minds of people who believe the virtue has limitations, but they can inspire dialogue and meaningful thinking about how to offer unconditional love to others just as God offers it, he said.

The jubilee is an opportunity to ask, "How have I known God's mercy, and how am I responding in mercy to others as a result?" Bishop Coyne noted.

Hale's organization, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, will ask politicians a variant of this question as part of its jubilee-related activism.

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"We want mercy to be the defining characteristic of the 2016 election," Hale said. "We think it can be the functioning paradigm of U.S. politics."

That's a lofty goal, but Hale said he's witnessed the power of mercy many times since Pope Francis began emphasizing its merits. It's challenged him to be a more committed Catholic, as well as a better friend and neighbor to loved ones.

"More than a homily or a lecture, I've found that people are affected by a tangible act of mercy," he said. "I think it transforms us."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas