Counting hymnal mentions, the word ‘mercy’ was intoned 37 times during the 9 a.m. service on a recent Sunday at St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic church in the Jesuit tradition, snugly situated in the Flatiron District neighborhood of Manhattan.

The Rev. Kenneth Boller made the concept of mercy progressively applicable throughout the service. After an hour of traditional Catholic liturgy, he led the congregation in a more contemporary affirmation.

“Do you affirm that white privilege is unfair and harmful to those who have it and to those who do not? Do you affirm that white privilege and the culture of white supremacy must be dismantled where it is present? Do you support racial equity justice and liberation for every person? Do you affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person?”

The congregation of 100 people answered “yes” to each of these questions with enthusiasm. In so doing, the members of St. Francis Xavier have been committing themselves to these social justice principles every week since the affirmation was first introduced on Aug. 30, 2020.

Since then, some conservative commentators have attacked gone on the attack. A few agitated Twitter users have accused Boller of turning his service into “a left-wing political rally.” Videos of the service have gone viral. The conservative entertainment company Blaze Media, which reaches 165 million people every month, published an article calling the statements “revolting.” Trudging past online criticism, Boller’s affirmations prevailed.

Doing no harm is a form of activism, Boller said. Led by the Holy Spirit, Catholics ought to be able to avoid harming all people via radical mercy.

The Church of St. Francis Xavier is unafraid to live in the tension between tradition and progress. Comfortable with anachronism, this house of worship is a place where Boller, the church’s pastor standing at a pulpit built in 1850, will readily grapple with issues like cyberbullying and misinformation on social media. This conflict echoes the tensions within American Catholicism today. The religious are taking sides between loyalty to a centuries-old establishment and dissent. But this Jesuit congregation rejects the binary altogether – in the name of mercy.

In his Sunday sermon, Boller took on everyone from the Biblical David to the contemporary leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

The scriptural reference in the homily, or the commentary lesson that follows worship, was 1 Samuel 26. In this part of the Bible, David spared his sleeping enemy, Saul, who was the first king of Israel with a militaristic streak. David, who will (spoiler alert) eventually replace Saul as Israel’s leader, justified his merciful choice to not stab his adversary when he said, “Do not destroy Saul, for who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed people and be guiltless.” David believed God valued some lives more than others; God prioritized the blessed nation of Israel above those of any other descent or station Boller explained.

Boller went on to commend David’s choice to do no harm but criticized David’s reasoning for doing so. Peaceful action without equitable intention is not good enough, the Queens-native pastor argued. The key to not harming others is knowing God loves all people equally, he added, this democratization of access to salvation hinges on living out the Gospel. Do not be like David, Boller said to his audience.

Deliberately not causing harm is a high Catholic standard that extends politically, interpersonally, virtually, physically, racially, emotionally and sexually. At that last point, Boller waved his hands around to referentially gesture the credible claims of abuse plaguing Catholic leadership. Thereafter, Boller brought up the famous creed of bioethics and a variation of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm,” which Boller said should be applied by the scientific and religious alike. Catholics are not appointed to punish the people who wrong them. Quite the opposite is true, Boller concluded. Much like the medical field, Boller said, the Catholic tradition possesses a life-giving tool of mercy, which should lead worshippers to accomplish good in the world. The Catholic ideals entail turning the other cheek, (Matthew 5:39).

“Differences of power and resources just give some people more responsibility of helping the common good,” Boller said.