On 13 March 2015, our Holy Father, during a penitential ceremony being celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica, asked: “I have often thought of how the Church may render more clearly her mission to be a witness of mercy; and we have to make this journey. It is a journey which begins with spiritual conversion. Therefore, I have decided to announce an Extraordinary Jubilee, which has at its centre, the mercy of God. It will be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live in the light of the word of the Lord: ‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’ (Lk 6:36), thus animating the Church ‘in her mission to bring the Gospel of mercy to each person.’” (Homily, penitential service, 13 March 2015).
With these words Pope Francis has brought to another level what is now clearly the central message of his pontificate, the need for the Church to manifest more clearly, more concretely, and more tangibly the mercy of God. “Mercy” is the word that he has used more than any other ones in his homilies and discourses. And the reason is very obvious, because, according to the Holy Father, without mercy all of the Church’s doctrines become mere ideology and all the Church’s practices become devoid of significance. (Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae vultus [MV], 11 Apr 2015)
In light of the constant call of our universal pastor that the Church finds ways to manifest mercy to everyone, it would be opportune that all of us, bishops, priests, religious and laity, embrace this call as a norm and guideline as we announce the Gospel and formulate pastoral activities in our various communities. The Holy Year offers a unique opportunity in that regard.
Therefore, I wish to reflect upon the meaning of the Holy Year of Mercy as proposed by Pope Francis. A reading of the principle documents thus far issued in reference to this Extraordinary Jubilee provide the three goals which should guide and give form to this special time of grace: 1) “to experience strongly within ourselves the joy of having been found by Jesus, the Good Shepherd who has come in search of us because we were lost,” 2) “to be transformed by his mercy. So that we may become witnesses to mercy,” and 3) to discover and enter into the “logic” of God. (Homily, Vespers, Divine Mercy Sunday, 11 Apr 2015).
To experience our salvation once again
To experience our salvation once again signifies to awaken within us and our people “the warmth of God’s love when he bears us upon his shoulders and brings us back to the Father’s house” (Reflection, 11 April). It is exactly to rediscover the joy of the Gospel, the reality that we were not saved because of our goodness or righteousness but by the very grace of God, who out of his love and mercy brought us out of sin and darkness to the life of grace and light.
In the Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis reflects upon this aspect of the Holy Year in depth, reminding us first and above all, that the very nature of God is mercy. God is rich in mercy, who has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature which is mercy. When faced with the gravity of sin, writes the Holy Father, “God responds with the fullness of mercy” (MV, 2). The Holy Door when it is opened will become the Door of Mercy and those who pass through it should “experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope” (MV, 3).
Even the timetable of the Holy Year has an experiential meaning. It will begin on 8 Dec 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, and it will end of 20 Nov 2016, the Feast of Christ the King.
As the Holy Year begins on the anniversary of the closing of the Council, the Holy Father affirms that “the Church feels a great need to keep this event alive” (MV, 4), by recalling the very purpose of the Council: to talk about God to people of our time in a more accessible way, to break down the walls that made the Church a fortress and therefore to proclaim the Gospel in a new way and to assist the Church to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world.” The pope quotes his predecessor, St John XXIII, who at the opening of the Council, defined the path upon which the Council needed to embark: “The Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity,” … “to show herself as a loving mother to all” and “to place herself at the service of mankind.”
The Feast of Christ the King is also significant as the day chosen to close the Holy Year. In that celebration when the entire Church reflects upon the universal lordship of our Saviour, we will pray that he will “pour out his mercy upon us all like the morning dew, so that everyone may work together to build a brighter future” (MV, 5). As the pope said elsewhere when we consider the final judgment, we are reminded that God does not judge, he only loves; we judge ourselves if we reject his love and mercy (Stations of the Cross, 2014).
Therefore, the Holy Year is dedicated to discover anew that “the mercy of God is not an abstract ideal, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father and mother,” a mercy that “gushes forth from the depths of the very nature of God, naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy” (MV, 7). It will be a time to fix our gaze on Jesus who is the “face of the mercy of God” (=misericordiae vultus) and to experience again the great moments of the life of Jesus when he revealed the absolute love and mercy of God, the parables, the miracles, his death and resurrection.
Our embrace of those actions and words of Christ will demonstrate to us that they were all inspired by compassion, love and mercy. We must understand again that in Jesus “love, after all, can never be an abstraction” (MV, 9). In God the very means by which we have been saved comes to light, and “that becomes the criterion for ascertaining who his true children are” (MV, 9). We are his children because he has filled us with his love and mercy. We neither inherited nor earned our sonship/daughtership with God.
To become witnesses of mercy
And, if God has shown us mercy, should we not be witnesses of mercy? That is the second goal of the Holy Year, to become in a more evident way a people of mercy, a church of mercy. As the Holy Father wrote: “we are called to show mercy, because mercy has first been shown to us” and “just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other” (MV, 9).
As such, Pope Francis affirms that “mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life” (MV, 10). Listen to his exact words in this regard: “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.” The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy” (MV, 10).
Moreover, he writes, “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 instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope” (MV, 10).
He continues by citing St John Paul II: “The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer – and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser” (MV, 11). Therefore, “the Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person” (MV, 12).
At this point in the Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis suggests many concrete ways that we could undertake to demonstrate the mercy of God, especially in relation to our celebration of the Extraordinary Holy Year.
The first is a meditation of the Sacred Scriptures, that is, “we must dispose ourselves to listen to the Word of God,” that is,”rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word” … “In this way, it will be possible to contemplate God’s mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle” (MV, 13). The Holy Father points out that the Gospel readings of the Sundays of the Holy Year are, by happy coincidence, taken from the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of the poor, the Gospel of joy, the Gospel of mercy.
The practice of pilgrimage is also important, “because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life.” The pilgrimage can be to reach the Holy Doors of Rome or in any other place in the world, and “this will be a sign of mercy” … “an impetus to conversion,” for “by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” (MV, 14). Again we find the twofold goal of the Holy Year, embracing God’s mercy for us and becoming more effective ministers of mercy.
With regard to the second goal, Pope Francis says quite clearly that “Jesus shows us the steps of the pilgrimage to attain our goal: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you,” etc. … “To refrain from judgment and condemnation means, in a positive sense, to know how to accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment” (MV, 14).
Another concrete activity during the Holy Year and subsequently in our whole life as Christians is “opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society” (MV, 15). Here we return to another essential theme of this pontificate, namely, the need to minister to the peripheries, not only the geographical peripheries, but also the social and psychological fringes “which modern society itself creates,” to “those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich” and “open our eyes and see the misery of the world” (MV, 15). We need, says the Holy Father, to overcome the “humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new” (MV, 15).
Pope Francis also turns our attention to reflect and to put into practice in a more determined way, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (MV, 15). In doing so, we will become more and more convinced that in each of the little ones, Christ himself is present (MV, 15).
Lent should be lived with more intensity during the Holy Year, and, according to the Holy Father, can be “a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (MV, 17). In particular, the pages of the prophet Isaiah can be a source of deep meditation during Lent, a time of prayer, fasting and works of charity” (MV, 17). He invites us to listen carefully to Isaiah 58:6-11.
Another initiative that can be enhanced during the Holy Year is “24 hours for the Lord” to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent (March 4-5). The pope asks that this activity be implemented in every diocese. In this way, the sacrament of reconciliation will be the centre once more by which the people will be able to be touched by the “grandeur of God’s mercy,” and therefore, confessors must be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy (MV, 17).
In the Bull of Indiction, the pope announced that he will be sending missionaries of mercy to every diocese. He explains that “they will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See” (MV, 18). In that regard, he asks the bishops “to invite and welcome these missionaries so that they can be, above all, persuasive preachers of mercy” (MV, 18). Moreover, dioceses can organise “missions to the people, in such a way that these missionaries may be heralds of joy and forgiveness” (MV, 18).
The Holy Father also reminds us that the spirit of mercy must go “beyond the confines of the Church” (MV, 23) to all communities of faith and to all people of good will. He reminds us that “among the privileged names that Islam attributes to the Creator are ‘Merciful and Kind,’” an invocation that is often on the lips of faithful Muslims who feel themselves accompanied and sustained by mercy in their daily lives” (MV, 23).
Pope Francis then adds: “I trust that this Jubilee Year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination” (MV, 23). Consequently, initiatives should be undertaken to extend our hands in peace and respect to those who practise other faiths.
Finally, with reference to practical observances that can be undertaken during this year of grace, the Holy Father states that “a jubilee also entails indulgences” (MV, 22) and offers an important significance to this practice. The pope teaches that when we are forgiven, “the conflicting consequences of our sins remain” and “sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act” (MV, 22). Yet, the mercy of God who “never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising,” is stronger than the lingering effects of sin. It happens through “the 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” (MV, 22).
Then the Holy Father explains that “to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father’s mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer. 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. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful ‘indulgence’” (MV, 22).
It is very clear that the scope of the Jubilee is far-reaching and all-inclusive. As Pope Francis affirms: “May the message of mercy reach everyone, and may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy” (MV, 19). Consequently, it is necessary that we make the message of mercy become more widespread and more importantly, effective in the entire life of the Church.
To enter into the “logic” of God
As we undertake the task to become a church that is concretely a real sign and agent of God’s mercy, we ourselves must be convinced about the very meaning of mercy which we find in Sacred Scriptures.
In other words, we must comprehend the revolutionary significance of the “logic” of God, which is totally different from human logic. In par 20 and 22 of the Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis reflects on the relationship of justice and mercy, and explains that the Gospels teach that mercy is placed at the centre of the teachings of Christ, not justice as understood in legal terms or that which arises from human logic. In fact, we already see the mind of God in the Old Testament, where the prophet Hosea affirms “I desire love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6).
Pope Francis explains that it is very evident in the New Testament that Jesus goes beyond the law and that the company that he keeps are sinners and that in itself reveals the depth of his mercy. Paul, too, becomes the herald of the primacy of faith over the observance of the law.
Therefore, according to human logic, writes Pope Francis, “it seems reasonable for God to think of rejecting an unfaithful people” (MV, 21). We even see signs of God’s playing with that possible mode of action, but, as the Holy Father points out, when God is about to impose justice as understood by us, he declares, “I am God, not man” … “How can I give you up?” … “my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea). The Holy Father explains these comforting words with an equally comforting reflection: “God’s anger lasts but a moment, his mercy forever” (MV, 21). In other words, as Pope Francis affirms: “If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God” (MV, 21).
It seems very opportune to recall at this point the significant homily that Pope Francis gave on 15 Feb 2015, the day after he created new cardinals in the Church. I already had the chance to share this reflection in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching on the days these two dioceses held Masses to commemorate the anniversary of the election of Pope Francis two years ago. The same is true for the Church in Timor-Leste when we celebrated there the anniversary of the election on 7 Apr 2015.
In that homily, based on the story of the healing of the leper, Pope Francis stated that this miracle demonstrated three important aspects of the very “why” of Christ’s mission, namely, to show compassion, to reach and find those who are marginalised and to reinstate them. These words indicate the “logic” of God as revealed in the ministry of Christ.
The Holy Father began by reminding the new cardinals, and by extension the whole Church, that the very reason for which Christ stretched out his hands to heal people, to forgive and to soothe the pain of being an outcaste was his compassion. The Gospels make clear that our Lord performed countless miracles “because he was moved with compassion.” In other words, his human heart, opened to infinite divine love, was able to feel the suffering of others, the very meaning of compassion, to suffer with.
That compassion, teaches Pope Francis, moved Jesus, almost like a magnet, to go to search for the marginalised. The ones who are marginalised are those who live on the periphery, those who have been put on the side, “physically, socially, psychologically, and spiritually” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015). They are people who are “shunned, excluded, and forced to live apart from others” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015). These are precisely the people that Jesus looked for, never afraid to touch them, like the lepers; never afraid to eat with them, like sinners; never afraid or hesitant to protect them, like the woman caught in adultery.
Even though Jesus knew that his outreach in compassion to those who were ostracised could cause scandal, “he was never afraid of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalised even by any work of healing, scandalised by any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual way of thinking and their ritual purity” (Homily, 15 Apr 2015).
Instead, affirms the pope, “he simply wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (Jn 10)” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015). By reinstating the untouchables, the misunderstood, the discriminated, Jesus “revolutionises and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality.” His purpose in reinstating is at once profoundly human and divine, he simply wanted “to restore them to the community without being hemmed in by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected … what matters for Jesus is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).
Then in critiquing the reality of the Church today, Pope Francis stated that “there are two ways of thinking and having faith: we can fear to lose the saved or we can want to save the lost” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015). However, he went on to say: “The Church’s way … has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement” … “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity, but rather to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life” (Homily, 15 Feb 2015).
Pope Francis has given us a roadmap to spiritual conversion: to rediscover that we who were once marginalised by sin have been reinstated through the compassion of Christ. So should we not be compassionate by seeking the marginalised and reinstating them back into the household of the Lord? This is the very logic of God which forms the basis of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
It is extremely clear that Pope Francis is leading the Church to new ways, new ways of thinking and new ways of acting. Moreover, there is no indication that he intends to compromise minimally in the road upon which he wishes the Church to embark. It seems imperative that we, too, embrace this vision of the Church.
We can rightfully ask: why? What is the reason for this radical and even revolutionary undertaking? Why is our Holy Father repeating this message and insisting upon it without hesitation?
I would like to end by proposing the answer to these questions from the pope himself. “Simply because the Church in this time of great historical change is called to offer more evident signs of God’s presence and closeness. This is not the time to be distracted; on the contrary, we need to be vigilant and to reawaken in ourselves the capacity to see what is essential. This is the time for the Church to rediscover the meaning of the mission entrusted to her by the Lord on the day of Easter: to be a sign and an instrument of the Father’s mercy” (Reflection, 11 Apr 2015).
“This is the time for mercy … to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone, everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation” (Reflections, 11 Apr 2015).