By Diana Macalintal
Director of Worship for the Diocese of San Jose.
Contact her at DMacalintal@dsj.org.
Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States planted a seed in the hearts and imaginations of many people, both people of faith as well as those of no faith. Just look at how much secular media coverage was given to each day of his visit. Every bold word he said to Congress, every unscheduled stop to embrace and bless, and every daring act of compassion he did in those six short days was broadcast live, recorded, Tweeted and blogged, posted on Facebook, and talked about in offices, homes, and social gatherings. Pope Francis, in every way possible, showed mercy, and it changed people’s hearts.
A Jubilee Year of Mercy
In the Bible, the book of Leviticus describes a special year called a “jubilee” that occurs every 50 years. During this year, God restores all creation to right relationship with one another and with himself, their Creator, in whom they find rest. In the jubilee year, debts were cancelled, possessions returned to their rightful owners, slaves and prisoners freed to return to their families, and workers and crops rested. Just as a person today might take a sabbatical to rejuvenate themselves and grow in new ways, this “sabbath” year was a time for God’s people to trust in God’s care, receive God’s blessings in new ways, and share that newness of life with others.
Since the 14th century, the Church has declared a Jubilee Year every 25 or 50 years, dedicating that year as a special time to encounter God’s blessings, be forgiven of sin, and renew our love for God and one another. Once in a while, the Church will call a special, or extraordinary, Jubilee Year to coincide with a significant event or need in the world. Pope Francis sees a great need in the world today for all people to experience God’s love in real and tangible ways. That is why he has called for an extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin on December 8, 2015.
How to live the Year of Mercy
In Pope Francis’ own actions, attitudes, and words, especially toward those who have been ostracized, hurt, or forgotten, we see what he means when he said, in Jesus’ name, “Go out, and embrace life as it is and not as you think it should be” (homily, September 23, 2015). This unconditional embrace is exactly how God the Father desires to embrace us, just as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son readily embraced his child even before he had said a word. Therefore, Pope Francis wants this Holy Year to be a time for every Christian to follow Jesus’ command more closely: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
We do this by first coming to God with a sincere heart and asking for God’s mercy. We can do this in prayer on our own or with the community. We can also ask for God’s mercy by celebrating the sacraments, especially Eucharist and Penance.
Second, because God desires to embrace us with love and never tires of showing us mercy, we are strengthened by God’s love to go out into the world and show that same mercy to others. We can do this most clearly through actions that help others in their physical and spiritual needs.
Through corporal works of mercy, we extend God’s mercy to people’s concrete needs: when we feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead. Through spiritual works of mercy, we extend God’s compassion by tending to a person’s spirit, heart, and mind: when we counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; admonish sinners; comfort the afflicted; forgive offenses; bear wrongs patiently; and pray for the living and the dead.
The Holy Door of Mercy
In our Catholic tradition, the door or the threshold is a sacred place. When a new Church is built, the doors are blessed, and many of our sacraments and rituals begin at these consecrated doors. In a Jubilee Year, the Church door holds special significance.
The door is a sign of Christ who said, “I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9). Within the doors of the Church, God’s people find rest, safety, and nourishment.
The door is a sign of the People of God who are commanded to “Go, and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). That is why the earliest Christians called themselves the People of the Way, and today we are called the Pilgrim Church for we are on a daily pilgrimage toward our heavenly home, and along the way we invite others to join in this journey.
The door is also a liminal space where we move from one place to another. Thus, it is a sign of our conversion, of letting go of our old way of life and entering a new way of life in Christ. Whenever we walk through the Church doors, we remind ourselves that we have been changed to become more like Christ and daily we are called to change our lives that we may serve others in the name of Christ.
The door is also the place of “passing over,” in remembrance of the night when the enslaved Israelites in Egypt placed the blood of a lamb on their doors and the Angel of Death passed over their homes, leaving them in safety. That was the night they were freed from slavery and saved from death. Thus, the door of the Church is a place of salvation where we encounter God’s mercy in real and tangible ways in our lives. Here, we enter into the Church to find and know God’s mercy; from here, we go out into the world to bring God’s mercy to others.
On December 8, 2015, Pope Francis will open the Holy Door in Rome for the beginning of the Year of Mercy to symbolize the blessings that God wants to give to anyone who asks. He has invited every Catholic diocese in the world to establish a similar Holy Door in its Cathedral and in other churches designated by the local bishop. These doors will be places where the faithful can encounter God’s mercy and be strengthened to be merciful to others as God has been merciful to them.
Bishop McGrath has established three Holy Doors in the Diocese of San Jose. These can be found at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph (San Jose) and at the churches of Our Lady of Guadalupe (San Jose) and Our Lady of Peace (Santa Clara). These doors will be formally opened on or shortly after December 13, 2015.
Receiving God’s mercy
In a Jubilee Year, popes throughout the centuries have established special ways that Catholics can ask for and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness of their sins or the sins of a loved one who has died. These special graces are called “indulgences.” That word has sometimes had a negative meaning because of how the practice of granting indulgences was often abused or misused by individuals who believed one could buy or work for God’s forgiveness.
Yet God’s mercy cannot be bought or earned. God’s forgiveness is freely given and complete, with no strings attached. God indulges us, by no merit of our own, but by his love, just as a grandmother indulges her grandchildren simply because she loves them, even when they do something wrong.
In his letter titled “The Face of Mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus), Pope Francis describes God’s indulgence and the effects of receiving God’s free gift of love during this Year of Mercy:
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin. (#22)
The total liberty we experience through God’s indulgent love for us frees us to show that same kind of unconditional love to others. As the Pope continues in his letter, “to gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ’s redemption, so that God’s love and forgiveness may extend everywhere.”
Merciful like the Father
Jesus called his disciples to be merciful, just as his Father in heaven was merciful. In Jesus’ life, in the witness of the saints, and in the example of Pope Francis, we see real and concrete ways we can live in the world as God’s merciful people. When we ask for the unconditional embrace of God, our hearts are changed to be softer, kinder, and more peaceful. They become hearts of flesh and not of stone. When we offer to others that unconditional embrace of Christ, their lives are changed. And when people see us doing this with love, mercy, and compassion, even toward those they believe do not deserve it, they begin to see the world in a new way—in the way God see it: as very good and beautiful. It is then that the Holy Spirit can turn even the stoniest of hearts ever more toward the Father. Through one act of mercy at a time, in one heart at time, God is restoring the world to right relationship and newness of life.
For more information on the Jubilee Year of Mercy, go to: bit.ly/yearofmercy.