Year of Mercy Message from Archbishop Jackels
With the document Misericordiae Vultus (translation: The Face of Mercy), our Holy Father Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (from 8 December 2015 to 20 November 2016).
The purpose of the Year of Mercy is to remind us of what mercy is, that God is merciful, that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy, and that the followers of Jesus continue his mission of mercy in the ministries of the Church, as well as in their personal lives of faith.
The Holy Father also wants to encourage us to take advantage of opportunities to receive God’s mercy, and to show mercy to others.
Mercy is …
The story Les Miserables by Victor Hugo tells how Jean Valjean, a prison parolee, stole valuable silverware from a bishop who had given him a meal and a room for the night. The police caught Valjean, and recognizing the bishop’s initials on the silverware, brought him before the bishop and accused him of stealing.
The kindly bishop replied that this was not a case of theft, explaining that he had given the stuff to Valjean. He even scolded Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks as well!
This is a striking tale of mercy: forgiving a wrong, as well as lifting someone out of poverty (perhaps all the more striking because mercy was shown by a bishop – ha!). Mercy changed the life of Valjean, inspiring him to show mercy to others, even to his enemies.
Mercy is the forgiveness we receive from God, which we as followers of Jesus give to others.
Mercy is also God’s kindness to us, and ours to others, caring about and caring for others: sharing, serving, even sacrificing oneself for the benefit of another.
Mercy is blind, both that which we receive from God, and what we show to others: blind to the identity of the other, and to whether the other is deserving, or is aware of what is being done, or is grateful. All of that is irrelevant to whether God shows us mercy, and likewise to whether we show mercy to others.
Mercy is free. There is no sense in which someone is owed mercy, as if out of justice. In fact, mercy trumps justice, giving more than is deserved, or requiring less in reparation.
Mercy is the heart of the practice of our religion. It is the fulfillment of the law, prophets, and the teaching of Jesus. And it is the clearest indicator of whether or not we are true followers of Jesus.
God is mercy
One day, in the village of Ars, France, a woman approached the parish priest, Fr. John Vianney, for help. She was upset because her husband had killed himself by jumping off a bridge. She feared that there was no mercy for him.
The saintly pastor comforted her by saying: “He is saved. Between the bridge and the water he had time to make an Act of Contrition.”
It takes that little, just some hint of being sorry in order for pardon to happen, because God’s mercy is so great.
Mercy is another name for God. The very word communicates who God is and what God does.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6). This is how God wanted to be known to Moses and the Israelites.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:3) says that Jesus is the very imprint of God. Or, as Pope Francis wrote in the opening line of the Year of Mercy document, Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy.
Saint Paul writes that every good thing is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and the greatest gift is love, which enables us to be patient and kind with others, forgiving when we are hurt by them (1 Corinthians 13:4-6) – in a word, mercy.
Jesus founded his Catholic Church to continue his mission of mercy in its ministries. He told his followers to be merciful, just as God is merciful: pardoning everyone, for any offense, over and over again; and sharing with others in need (John 20: 22-23; Luke 6:36).
For this reason, in the Year of Mercy document, Pope Francis says that wherever the Church as an institution and its individual members are present, “the mercy of the Father must be evident.” The Pope repeats numerous times that the witness of the Church is credible only to the extent that it shows mercy.
Where we can receive God’s mercy
There is a church in Rome staffed by priests from Ireland who hear confessions every Friday. There is always a long line outside the confessional of one particular priest who, after learning the person’s sins and sorrow, responds in his lilting Irish accent:
“God love you for that sincere and humble confession. We place all of our sins at the feet of our merciful Lord. For your penance say three Hail Mary’s. Now make your Act of Contrition: O my God …”
Everyone hears this same response every time they confess, no matter how many or how ugly their sins. It doesn’t matter, for the message of God’s mercy is always the same, regardless.
The Church dispenses the mercy of God, especially in the Sacraments. For example, the first effect of the Sacrament of Baptism is the pardon of original sin, as well as all venial and mortal sins.
After Baptism, if we have the misfortune of being guilty of mortal sin, we receive mercy by confessing our sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
When we are sick or near death, and we are unable to make a confession of our sins, the Sacrament of Anointing pardons our venial sins and even our mortal sins.
With regard to venial sins, there are other ways we can receive pardon. For example, we can mention them when we make our confession to a priest. And they are pardoned when we worthily receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist in Holy Communion, which also strengthens us to avoid mortal sin.
There are non-sacramental ways for our venial sins to be forgiven, such as by saying prayers, by doing penance, like fasting or abstaining, and by doing spiritual or corporal works of mercy (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434).
And venial sin is pardoned when we are able to muster up what is called perfect contrition (sorrow) for sin, that is when we are sorry for our sins most of all because God is all good and deserving of all our love.
Our perfect contrition can even pardon mortal sins, if we have the intention to confess those sins to a priest as soon as we are able (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1452).
Related to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Church also dispenses the mercy of God by granting an Indulgence when we say specific prayers or perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
The indulgent mercy of God
A lot of people are not familiar with Indulgences and how to receive one. Perhaps this analogy for the different parts of the Sacrament of Reconciliation will help explain:
Let’s say that out of anger I throw a rock and break your window. The anger and destruction of property are sins for which I am guilty.
After thinking about my behavior (examination of conscience), I acknowledge my sins, and that I am at fault, and that I am sorry.
I tell you that I’m the one who broke the window, say that I am sorry, and ask your forgiveness. This is what happens when I confess my sins to a priest in Reconciliation.
Being good-hearted, you forgive me, and we are reconciled. In Reconciliation God forgives when we show even the slightest bit of sorrow for sin, and desire for forgiveness, and intention to change our ways.
But even though you forgave me, justice still demands that I make amends by repairing your window. This is like the penance the priest gives us in Reconciliation.
The priest in confession represents those who are offended by our sins: God, and the members of the body of Christ, the Church, as well as those directly hurt by our sin.
And so, as representative of God and others, the priest imposes a penance: “For your penance pray three Hail Marys” (as if to say, replace the broken window).
Doing our penance contributes to repairing the harm done. It turns us away from selfishness and towards justice and mercy. When doing penance the focus isn’t on me, but on God and others who are offended by our sins.
And if we have hurt a real, live person by our sins, making amends by doing penance helps them to forgive us.
Doing penance also makes us more responsive to God’s work to make us holy, gradually removing more and more of the “ish” part of self (selfish), replacing it with the mind and heart, the humility and charity, the mercy and service of Jesus.
We can do this faster and further by voluntarily doing other works of penance, like fasting or abstaining, or works of mercy, like feeding the hungry, or those things for which the Church grants an Indulgence.
So, what is an Indulgence? In keeping with the analogy of me breaking your window, it is when you announce to me that I don’t have to replace your window, that you will let me off altogether, or let me off with doing something less, like just sweeping up the glass.
Why would anyone show such mercy? One reason may be because the offender has given evidence of being sorry for the offense and of being rehabilitated, seen perhaps in a deepening practice of prayer, penance, and almsgiving.
The Pope has the authority (see Matthew 16:19) to dispense God’s mercy by granting an Indulgence, saying: if we pray certain prayers or do activities specified by the Church, we can be freed from all or some of what justice demands we do for the sins that we have confessed and which have been forgiven.
It is a ministry of mercy when the Church grants an Indulgence (and there is a whole book of prayers and practices for which the Church grants an Indulgence). God’s mercy can be said to be indulgent, generous to the point of being extravagant, over-the-top (see the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32).
The Year of Mercy Indulgence
Pope Francis has announced an Indulgence for the Year of Mercy:
Make a pilgrimage to a church that has a designated Door of Mercy, passing through that door and praying in the church that God, for the sake of Jesus’ sorrowful passion, will have mercy on us and on the whole world.
We can make a pilgrimage to Rome, to pass through a Door of Mercy in one of the four major basilicas there. But Pope Francis has allowed each diocese in the world to open a Door of Mercy in a local church.
In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, the Door of Mercy will be at the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque, which will be opened on the Third Sunday of Advent (13 December 2015).
In order to receive the Indulgence, we must do the following things:
- Be sorry for all sins, hating sin, and committed to trying to sin no more
- Make a pilgrimage to a church where there is a Door of Mercy
- Several days before or after doing that, or on the day itself …
- Confess our sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
- Receive Holy Communion
- Pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary for the intentions of the Pope
Pope Francis has declared that if we do this, we can be freed from all of what justice demands for sins we have confessed, and for which we have been forgiven.
A suggestion for what to do on the Jubilee pilgrimage is, after passing through the Door of Mercy, to fulfill the requirements listed in the last three bullet points above.
How we show mercy to others
I am human enough that I take offense from real or perceived offenses. And I am sinner enough that I sometimes fantasize about getting even.
In order to keep such thoughts from inspiring destructive behavior, I have learned to repeat to myself something of a mantra, reciting it as many times as needed to restore peace to my soul:
“Let it go, Mike. Learn from it. Forgive. Give what you want for yourself. Be content with God’s love. Be grateful for what is, rather than lament over what is not.”
A key part of this mantra is reminding myself to give to others the mercy I want for myself. This is a principle for living in the kingdom of God: first give to others whatever we want for ourselves (Luke 6:38).
Probably the most important way to show mercy to others is by forgiving everyone, for any offense, without any limit.
Jesus repeated this teaching over and over again, for example: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven … The measure you give, will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:37-38).
This is perhaps the most difficult thing Jesus asks of his followers. But then we are only asked to give what we have first received from God: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33)
Showing mercy to others is like peeling an onion, with another layer under each layer, until we get to the heart:
Perhaps at first all we can manage is deciding not to get even. Later, we might also let go of our ill will towards the offender. And later still, we might give the offender the benefit of the doubt, and maybe even embrace that person as a friend.
And just like when we peel an onion, forgiveness is often accompanied by tears.
Forgiving everyone, for any offense, without any limit is one of the spiritual works of mercy. There are other spiritual and corporal works we can perform to show mercy to others:
The spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner; instructing the ignorant; counseling the doubtful; comforting the sorrowful; bearing wrongs patiently; forgiving all injuries; and praying for the living and the dead.
The corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; offering hospitality to the homeless; caring for the sick; visiting the imprisoned; and burying the dead.
We show God’s mercy in charitable giving in support of the Church’s mission and of people who need help to enjoy those things needed to live in human dignity.
We do this as individual followers of Jesus, as well as through Church institutions, such as the community of permanent deacons and organizations like Catholic Charities. These exist to give order to the works of charity, for example, by enlisting volunteers, asking for donations, and organizing the work at hand.
The Year of Mercy (and this instruction) is aimed at reminding us of what mercy is, that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy, and that the followers of Jesus continue his mission of mercy.
Someone once said that the longest journey anyone can take in this life is the 18 inches from the head to the heart. We can know about mercy without knowing (experiencing, trusting, or giving ourselves to) the God of mercy, or without being merciful to others.
That is why the Year of Mercy (and this instruction) encourages us to take advantage of concrete opportunities to receive God’s mercy, and to show mercy to others. What follows are suggestions on how to do just that:
- Go on pilgrimage, either as an individual or part of a group, to walk through the Door of Mercy at the Cathedral of St. Raphael and receive the Year of Mercy Indulgence (check the diocesan website, the Cathedral website, and The Witness for information).
- Perform the works of mercy, by oneself, with others in a parish, or as part of an archdiocesan-wide witness of mercy in service of people in need (check the diocesan website and The Witness for information).
- Make a confession of sin to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and make this a regular (monthly?) practice of our spiritual life.
- Memorize and practice this teaching of Jesus: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Luke 6:36-38).
- Develop the beatitude attitude: Be slow to anger (use the shopping rule: wait three days before speaking or acting on the emotion of anger); presume the best of a person; put a positive spin on what you see; give the benefit of the doubt; talk to a person, rather than about him or her.
- Practice stewardship: We do not own anything; all is on loan from God, whether it be who we are, what we can do, or what we have. All is entrusted to us to manage according to God’s plan, namely: to provide for our needs and for our dependents, and to share with Church and charity. It would be merciful to share more than we can afford, and to expect nothing in return, not even a thank-you.
- Plan to be intentionally merciful: Before going to bed or when we get up, make a plan to do, say, three works of mercy during the day to come, something where someone else benefits concretely, for example: a personal contact; a prayer; a gift that isn’t asked for or that doesn’t create the expectation of a return.
Pope Francis, in the Year of Mercy document, compares life to the journey we will make to walk through a Door of Mercy. Both take dedication and sacrifice, and both are meant to inspire conversion of life. “The Year of Mercy is a time to return to the basics,” says Pope Francis, “to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters.” In other words, to receive God’s mercy and show it to others.