Monday, April 13, 2015

A Year of Mercy

On the Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, from a Throne erected in the atrium of Saint Peter's Basilica directly facing the Holy Door, Pope Francis formally issued the Bull of Indiction (Misericordiae Vultus) of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that will begin on December 8 and will likely set the tone for the rest of this pontificate

When I walked through Rome's four Holy Doors during the last Holy Year, the Great Jubilee of 2000, I wondered whether I would still be around at all to participate in the next Jubilee Year. I certainly never expected to see another one so soon! But then life is full of surprises, and there certainly have been lots of surprises both inside and outside the Church in the last 15 years!

Every Holy Year is about forgiveness, of course. So, in that sense, focusing a Jubilee entirely on divine mercy might seem a surprise. But, as I mentioned in my homily yesterday, referring to an author's talk at a fundraising luncheon I attended last month, there may be no more obvious confirmation of the fact that "the world is in need of mercy" than the frequency with which that sentiment is being expressed in so many and such diverse - even secular - settings.

In his Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis begins by calling Jesus himself "the face of the Father's mercy." He is proclaiming this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Pope says, because we need "to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives." This Jubilee will therefore serve "as a special time for the Church; a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective" [MV, 1, 3]. 

The Pope says he has chosen to inaugurate the Holy Year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, both because that feast evokes God's merciful action from the very beginning of human history and also because it marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. He cites Pope Saint John XXIII's famous statement in his opening address to the Council about the Church's choice today to use "the medicine of mercy" and Blessed Paul VI's final summation of the Council's orientation at its public closing. Significantly, Pope Francis offers his own interpretation of the 20th-century's defining ecclesial event as the Church entering "a new phase of her history," in which the Council Fathers perceived "a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way... a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning ... a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction" {MV 4]. 

If Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Council from the perspective of the Council Fathers' actual generation, the last popes to have participated in the Council, Pope Francis speaks today from the perspective of the next generation, the generation that remembers the Council not as participants but as adolescent and young adult observers. (I too count myself in that generation, although I am 12 years younger than Pope Francis.) It may well be that Francis  will be the last pope who will actually have a personal memory of the Council and of its time and circumstances.

As is normal with such documents, MV provides a quick survey of scripture and salvation history from the perspective of mercy, before returning to the contemporary ecclesial context - prepared, Pope Francis notes, by Pope Saint John Paul II's magisterial teaching on mercy, beginning with his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (1980).

The heart of the Pope's argument is what he has to say about the foundational character of mercy in the life of the Church. Mercy, Pope Francis asserts, "is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love." If, on the one hand, "the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture" and "the word seems to have dropped out of use," then "The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope" [MV 10]

The Pope explicitly challenges the Church to "pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception." He situates mercy at the heart of the new evangelization and identifies it as crucial for the credibility of the Church's message, such that "wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident" [MV 12].

A Holy Year is always about pilgrimage. So Pope Francis (referencing Luke 6:37-38) presents the year as a pilgrimage journey in which we are all invited to become Merciful like the Father, which will serve as the Holy Year's "motto." [MV 14]. In practical terms, he issues a strong call for renewed attentiveness to both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in our lives and actions and to the special opportunities next year's Lenten season will provide. I was particularly struck by his request that this year's “24 Hours for the Lord” (on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent) should be implemented all over the world next year [MV 17].

Undoubtedly, the Holy Year will inspire increased fervor in the Church - especially among those who pay attention to these sorts of things and those who avail themselves of the year's pilgrimage opportunities. The Pope clearly hopes many more will avail themselves of the sacrament of Penance. Hence, his decision to commission special confessors.

It is always a challenge, of course, to incorporate such initiatives in the ordinary, daily life of the Church, which has a way at times of becoming routinized and insulated from the wider world. Much remains to be determined and developed in terms of the specific observances that will highlight the Holy Year not just in Rome and especially at the diocesan and parish levels. Still a definite focus has been articulated for the year and indeed for this pontificate. Soon, I will be initiating a process of re-examining how all my parish's programs and activities for the coming year can more explicitly reflect the spirit of this Holy Year and the challenges articulated in this Bull. 

No comments:

Post a Comment