The young Barney Casey thought he might have a vocation but poverty meant he had to go to work to support his family. He took jobs as a lumberjack, a hospital orderly, a prison guard and a tram operator. One day he came across a crowd surrounding a knifed, dead woman with her assailant standing over her. Spending the night praying for them both, he wondered how he could fight evil.
Eventually he joined the Capuchin Franciscans. They gave him the religious name Solanus, after a 17th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary in Peru, with whom Barney shared a love not just of things Franciscan but also of the violin.
They gave him a priestly formation and had him ordained, but because he was regarded as poorly educated and intellectually limited he was not allowed to preach or hear confessions. Instead he was appointed door-keeper in a series of Capuchin friaries in New York – in Yonkers, Penn Station and Harlem – and later at their Monastery in Detroit.
As porter or receptionist he was the first one encountered by visitors, beggars or people in spiritual need. Through his simple faith he mediated God’s mercy and healing grace to people in need and many attributed miracles to his intercession or enlightenment to his wise advice.
A story is told, for example, of one of his visitors, a confrere who needed emergency dental work. Fr Solanus blessed him and, to the astonishment of both dentist and patient, his tooth was found to be perfectly healthy. Fr Solanus suggested this was a cause for celebration and pulled out some ice-cream kept somehow miraculously frozen for the occasion, not in a cooler but in a warm drawer! God’s miracles and our participation in them can be on a dramatic even cosmic scale, but they can also be in the smallest little mercies which he showers on us much more regularly.
This morning, the archdiocese of Sydney solemnly commences our celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Father desires that throughout this year we contemplate the Person of Jesus Christ who is “the face of the Father’s mercy”.
We plan many local celebrations of God’s mercy through broader opening hours of churches and banners inviting people in; greater availability and encouragement to Eucharistic Adoration and Confession; mini parish missions; and deanery-based second Rites of Reconciliation celebrated by the archbishop with teams of priests.
There will be opportunities for catechesis and formation on mercy at particular points during the liturgical year; through resources for preaching, parish activities, schools and families; through a dedicated website; and through focus on the ‘sacraments of mercy’ – Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. There will also be a greater emphasis on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, including our archdiocesan project of welcoming Syrian and Iraqi refugees; with pilgrimages through the Door of Mercy; and with First Friday prayers and fasting for various groups in particular need of mercy.
But all this begins with the opening of the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica earlier this week and today at St Mary’s. Opening holy doors is an exotic Catholic tradition: since at least the 15th century they’ve been opened periodically in the basilicas in Rome as a destination for pilgrimage. Pilgrims cross the threshold and receive from the
Church’s treasury of graces a plenary indulgence or remission of any punishment still due to confessed and forgiven sins.
All the Church asks is that as well as making our way through the door we make a good Confession within a reasonable time, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the Holy Father’s intentions. But why the door bit? Because – as St John Paul II taught – walking through a holy door evokes the passage every believer from death to life, from sin to grace, and recalls that Jesus called Himself the Gate of the sheepfold: those who enter by Him are saved and can shelter in His embrace (Jn 10:7-9).
Today clergy, religious and laity of Sydney processed through the Holy Door into our cathedral inaugurating our Jubilee. We have symbolically entered through Christ to receive His grace and mercy. Pope Francis picked this Sunday, Gaudete, or Rejoicing Sunday, so that whatever our trials in life we might delight in our certain knowledge that Christ has come and is coming and will come again.
So it was that St Paul, who knew every kind of natural and human persecution, could counsel us to “be happy, always happy in the Lord” (Phil 4:4-7). For as Zephaniah prophesies and St John the Baptist confirms, Someone is coming who can reconcile us to God, ‘repeal’ our sentence, relieve us of every punishment we are due (Zep 3:14:18; Lk 3:10-18). Through the coming of Christ mercy is the justice of God’s kingdom. Aware of our weaknesses, temptations and vices God stoops down in His generosity to remove our misery by cancelling our sin and all its effects.
Of course, no one asks for mercy who doesn’t believe they need it. If you think you are perfect and self-sufficient you will not reach out for help. And if you don’t experience any neediness yourself you are unlikely to sympathise much with those who do. Our Jubilee Year of Mercy begins with the sheer contrast between the perfect and all-powerful God, who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16); and our own inability to pull ourselves up by our shoelaces and conquer the all-too-obvious darkness of our weaknesses and guilt. Every human being who is humble of heart and honest in self-examination, will know they need help. Enter, Pope Francis calls to us, enter “the door of God’s great mercy”. Let Him liberate you from the sins, vices, addictions; from the unforgivingness, vengefulness, gossipyness; from the vanity, dishonesty, lies. Open the doors not just of your cathedral but of the church that is your body, your soul: open your hearts to God’s mercy, humbly seeking and receiving forgiveness and healing.
But it doesn’t finish there with our receiving and appreciating mercy. Pope Francis has made the motto of this Year of Mercy: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). Having experienced divine pity we must mediate it to others. We must not only celebrate it, reflect upon it, but also live it – in spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Spiritual Works of Mercy are acts of compassion by which we help our neighbours with their emotional and spiritual needs, such as advising, instructing, admonishing, comforting, forgiving, forbearing or interceding for them. Corporal Works of Mercy are kind acts by which we help our neighbours with their material and physical needs, such as feeding, clothing, sheltering, welcoming, visiting and burying them.
Like Jesus, like Fr Solanus, we are doorkeepers, custodians of God’s door, and we welcome people through that door through volunteering and charitable giving, CCD catechetics in state schools, visiting the lonely in nursing homes, offering our holiday house or some time or money to our refugee appeal, and so on. To truly appreciate mercy received is to be driven to share mercy with others. May you experience God showering you with His big and little mercies in the year ahead and be inspired to share that with others.
This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher at St Mary’s Cathedral on 13 December.