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How to prepare for the Year of Mercy

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A priest prays with a death-row inmate in in a US jail. Photo: Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic
A priest prays with a death-row inmate in in a US jail. Photo: Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic

What is a Jubilee Year?

The last Jubilee Year celebrated by the Church was in the Year 2000. It was called by then-Pope and now-St John Paul II, to celebrate the Great Jubilee of two millennia since the birth of Jesus.

In fact, jubilee years were ancient Jewish customs and were celebrated every 50 years. In a jubilee year, all debts were forgiven, captives or slaves were set free, properties were returned to those who had been forced by poverty to sell them and agricultural land such as pasture was left fallow.

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The Church was certainly celebrating jubilee years by the 14th Century and, within a relatively short period, had begun celebrating them every 25 years (once in every generation) so that no-one missed out.

While ordinary jubilees are now celebrated every quarter-century, in the Catholic Church popes can call extraordinary jubilees for reasons they regard as especially important. Pope Francis’s special devotion to God’s Mercy has prompted him to call this extraordinary jubilee Year of Mercy which we will enter from 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The date is also significant. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a major annual day in the life of the Church, is also close to the Holy Father’s heart; from the very beginning of his pontificate Francis has made it clear that he has a special devotion to Our Lady. Francis is clearly entrusting his hopes for the Year of Mercy to her intercession.

But why is Mercy so important?

A quick look at the writings of Pope Francis, his papal speeches and audiences show references to the importance of God’s mercy peppered everywhere. In an age when popular culture so often assumes that Christianity is repressive and judgmental, this is particularly important.

For Francis – just like his predecessors – knowing God is all about joy. Remember, Francis’s personal motto, which he chose when he became pope, is Miserando atque eligendo.

It means lowly but chosen or, literally in Latin, ‘by having mercy, by choosing him’. It’s the motto Jorge Bergoglio had chosen before when he became a bishop in Argentina and refers to a homily by the great Saxon historian and monk, the Venerable Bede, on St Matthew’s Gospel relating to his vocation: “Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an Apostle, saying to him: ‘Follow me’.”

Pope Francis sees a radical need for mercy throughout the whole world and, as he said in his message for Lent 2015, he wants parishes to become “islands of mercy in a sea of indifference”. This is a papal shout-out if ever there was one, so it’s up to us all as members of the Church to think about what we can do to answer his call to us. Mercy, Francis is saying, has to be radiated and made visible to the world through us, the Christian people.

In Francis’s official promulgation of the Year of Mercy he is also asking us to bring “… consolation to the poor … liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in our modern society”, as well as spiritual light to those who have drifted away from God in their lives and human dignity to those who have had it taken away from them.

It’s also clear that Pope Francis is hoping for – and expects – a year in which all of us will show mercy in our daily life and work, therefore bringing it to others. Francis sees the Year of Mercy in beautiful ways, too, asking Christ to pour out his mercy not only on the whole world but the entire cosmos: “How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!”

Meanwhile, for Francis, mercy and justice go hand in hand and are not some kind of novel way of doing away with the need for justice. In fact, he reminds everyone that “mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe”. In fact, true justice – God’s justice – is mercy.

How will the Year of Mercy roll out?

In Rome on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception but also the 50th anniversary of the close of the landmark event in the life of the modern Church, the Second Vatican Council, Francis will open a Holy Door in St Peter’s that remains sealed except during jubilee years.

This is the jubilee door which, in this Year of Mercy will be known as the Door of Mercy. In the weeks that follow bishops around the world will open their own doors of mercy at specially designated places. Here in Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP will open the Sydney archdiocese’s Door of Mercy at St Mary’s Cathedral at the 10.30am Mass on Sunday, 13 December. There will be special events throughout the extraordinary jubilee year, all aimed at bringing the Church’s message of mercy alive.

Missionaries of Mercy

Pope Francis will send out Missionaries of Mercy to the four corners of the world. The missionaries are priests with the authority to forgive even the most serious sins, including those for which absolution is usually reserved to bishops or to the pope himself. Francis wants no barriers to people everywhere experiencing the forgiveness of Jesus. These Missionaries of Mercy are meant to be living icons of the Church’s compassion for everyone, bringing God’s love to those in need of it.

Gospel of Mercy

Throughout this liturgical year we will hear our priests and deacons proclaiming passages from the Gospel of Luke, sometimes known as the Evangelist of Mercy, during Sunday Masses. Among the famous examples of God’s mercy in Luke are the feeding of the five thousand, the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep – not to mention the constant healings of lepers, the paralysed, the sick, blind, deaf and lame.

Interfaith dialogue

The past 12 months in Sydney have seen some remarkable moments of people from different faiths coming together at precisely the moment when faith issues and the violence that can be associated with them have split others apart around the world. The recent Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral following the Paris killings is just one example. During the Year of Mercy Pope Francis wants a deepening of interfaith dialogue, especially between the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam. Through a growing understanding that “mercy is one of God’s most important attributes”, people can better understand each other and begin to do away with the things that have divided them, including attitudes and patterns of behaviour that lead to violence. “I trust that this jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions,” Francis wrote.

24 Hours for the Lord

One major event which will take place during Lent in 2016 will be the 24 Hours for the Lord initiative in every diocese around the world. Set to occur on the Friday and Saturday preceding the fourth week of Lent, anyone will be able to encounter the merciful Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliaiton at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands,” the Holy Father wrote. This even can turn out to be wonderful not only for yourself, but your family or your friends who have long since stopped participating in the life of the Church or feel that they have been hurt by it in some way.

Ways to celebrate the Jubilee Year of Mercy

There are many ways to bring this Year of Mercy alive for ourselves and, we hope, for those around us:
Contemplation: We can contemplate mercy. The motto for the Jubilee year is ‘Merciful like the Father’. When we make the effort to meditate on God’s mercy by using Scripture we begin to see more deeply how boundless is the mercy of God. We see how much we are in need of mercy ourselves and how we can give it to others. Giving himself to us completely, God asks nothing in return.
Forgiveness: When we forgive others, especially when we are the victims, we are able to give forgiveness in the same way it has already been given to us by God.
Forgiveness of others, especially those who hurt us the most – difficult though it surely is – will help us truly live out the Year of Mercy.
Immersing ourselves in God’s Word: God’s word in scripture is spoken for us. Entering more deeply into the great examples and parables of mercy in Scripture, praying them, can help us better understand and then live mercy for others.
Pilgrimages: Jubilee years are traditionally associated with pilgrimages, whether little or big. We will bring you more information throughout this year on pilgrimages you can make to a holy door either in Rome or here in Sydney where you can take advantage of the special indulgence and graces associated with the year of mercy.

Works of Mercy

The works of mercy take on a renewed importance in a jubilee year focused on mercy. The corporal works of mercy are:

  • Feeding the hungry,
  • Giving drink to the thirsty,
  • Clothing the naked
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Healing the sick
  • Visiting the imprisoned
  • Burying the dead.

The spiritual works of mercy are:

  • Counselling the uncertain,
  • Instructing the ignorant
  • Admonishing sinners
  • Comforting the afflicted
  • Forgiving offences
  • Bearing patiently those who do us ill
  • Praying for the living and the dead.

It is clear that Pope Francis feels inspired by the Holy Spirit to call the whole Church to a new experience of mercy as a sign to our times and our world.

When we look at events like the Paris killings, the violence in the Middle East, the vast displacement of populations and the attempted genocides that lead to them, it can seem that the world is slipping more and more into darkness.

However, Francis clearly has a vision that is full of trust and hope in the Lord and his mercy, especially under the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Francis has issued his call to the world. With the Year of Mercy set to begin, now is the perfect opportunity to say your ‘yes’ to his invitation.

The Vatican website for the Year of Mercy has resources that can help you enter more deeply into the spirit of the Jubilee Year.

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