Jubilee Year of MercyBy: Bishop Edward M. Rice Jefferson City MO
Jubilee Year of Mercy, Missouri Catholic Conference keynote, Jefferson City, MO, Oct. 8, 2016
“Open unto me the gates of justice.” With that little verse from the Psalms, Pope Francis opened the dedicated Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica—in Rome. Traditionally the Holy Door is opened every 25 years.
The fact that the door is closed can be symbolic of the human heart—one perhaps closed off from God’s mercy. And, the fact that the door will be opened can be symbolic of the human heart, a heart open to God’s mercy.
In the Bull announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis begins with this line: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” That sentence immediately tells us that mercy, when practiced, unites us to the Father, through Jesus. If we study the words of Jesus, the actions of Jesus, the entire person of Jesus, we can learn a great deal about the mercy of the Father.
The first challenge of this Year of Mercy is growing in our relationship with Jesus. The more time we spend in silent prayer or with the Sacred Scriptures, or in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or the more we experience forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, each of us will individually experience what I call the “theory” of mercy. In these real and tangible acts we realize that we are recipients of mercy. I recall celebrating Mass for the men in Missouri prisons at Bonne Terre, Potosi, Farmington, and Pacific. Many of them were so interested in the Year of Mercy; they also wanted to learn about the indulgences and how to obtain them. ‘Lo and behold, Pope Francis made that possible through mercy, which is the Father. But when we are honest, aren’t all of us poster children for the need of mercy and forgiveness?
In Section II of the Holy Father’s declaration on mercy, he says, “The ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us is through mercy.” So mercy, whether initiated by God, in Christ, or initiated by one of us, is a Divine Activity! With every corporal or spiritual work we commit, we become a part of God’s mercy. Through our participation, we share in the work of Divine Mercy!
There is a visual image that is used by the Holy Father. He says, “Mercy is the bridge that connects God and man—opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever, despite our sinfulness … and that bridge that is uniting us—is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus, on the Cross, Jesus, who is one with us, who dwelt among us, who became our flesh at the Incarnation—that’s who we encounter.
“The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Christ,” says our Holy Father in his first apostolic exhortation, which is also titled, “The Joy of the Gospel.” Without encounter, we may be mere Cultural Catholics who play CYC sports, attend parish fish fries, and maybe even study in Catholic Schools, but it’s quite possible to do and be all these things and have never had a personal encounter with the living God, Jesus.
Have you had a personal encounter with Christ?
Mercy as witnessed in Mary
This Year of Mercy began on Dec. 8, 2015, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Why? Because the Mother of the Redeemer, is the one who by her ‘Fiat,’ her ‘Yes,’ gave us the Son. Mary is part of the plan. Pope Francis says, “In the fullness of time—God turned His gaze to Mary, so that—at His birth—we can gaze upon Jesus’ face—the face of mercy.” No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the Incarnation like Mary. At the foot of the Cross, Mary, together with John, the disciple of love, witnessed the words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus. This supreme expression of mercy toward those who crucified him gives us a glimpse of the point to which the mercy of God can reach. Again, our Holy Father says, “Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone without exception.” Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas—the incarnation of mercy, the beginning and the unfolding of mercy in a real and tangible way—mercy made flesh in Jesus? Jesus becomes a bridge between God and us. This happens very beautifully at the Eucharist, bread becomes flesh, another bridge made real. And, that mercy will culminate in the full blossoming on the Cross—when Jesus reconciles us to the Father, through his blood. The Cross is the bridge between us and God. Jesus on the Cross is the bridge. That is why on Good Friday, we kiss the Cross of Christ.
Mercy, as evidenced in Jesus, is never a one-way encounter: It is in doing that we may also receive.
And so we are challenged to keep our eyes on Jesus—at his birth, at his crucifixion, and at the Eucharist—the Cross becomes the bridge to God’s mercy. And again, what is mercy? Being loved forever despite our sinfulness. Recently Pope Francis said, “Mercy is not getting what you deserve.” Mercy, forgiveness, kindness—these are not signs of weakness—to the world they are—but no, for those who have the eyes of faith, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness are the signs of God’s power. On the 26th Sunday of Ordinary time, the Opening Prayer says, “O God, who manifest your Almighty power above all in your mercy and forgiveness …” That’s what it’s about—mercy and forgiveness.
From this great act of mercy in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, Pope Francis reminds us that, “Everything in Him speaks of mercy. Nothing in Him is devoid of compassion.” And from that Person of Mercy, the Incarnation of Mercy, the Crucifixion of Mercy, and the Eucharist of Mercy flows the second challenge. The Holy Father instructs us that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who are His true children. In short, each of us is called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.
When Jesus said to the man that he healed, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you,” that became our mandate: We are to go home, to our friends, and declare the mercy of God. As Christians, to pardon those who have offended us “becomes the clearest expression of merciful love. We cannot excuse ourselves—to let go of the anger, wrath, violence, and revenge.”
In one of his weekday homilies, Pope Francis recently said, “Mercy is kindness directed toward those who don’t deserve it. It’s that simple—it’s that challenging—and, it is the mark of the Christian.” Mercy is a duty, a non-negotiable.
Pope Francis reflects on the fact that love, when it becomes visible and tangible, becomes mercy. Until that happens, love is just theory—you can talk about it, you can write about it, but so far it’s just theory. Love has to be made visible and tangible, and when that happens, it’s mercy. Love made visible on the Cross, love made visible in the Eucharist, love in action—it’s mercy. St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “a lot of people talk about the poor, not as many work with the poor.” The same can be said of mercy, or forgiveness, or love.
In announcing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis says, “Love, after all, can never be an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: interior, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily life.” He expands on this thought: “Mercy, therefore, is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers. …” So, what began in the Incarnation—what came to full expression on the Cross and is nourished in the Eucharist—is manifest in the actions of the “Children of God.” In fact, the Church’s very credibility is seen in how She shows merciful and compassionate love. So if the Church is seen as irrelevant to some today, whose fault is that? Maybe it is the fault of Her members who have turned cold and indifferent to mercy.
“Without mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile,” says our Holy Father. Apply that to your parish. Is your parish a stale museum or is it a life-giving center of love and mercy? We are challenged not to judge, and we are challenged to be instruments of mercy. Pope Francis makes a plea to the people of God saying, “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of those denied their dignity—and recognize their cry for help.” How do we do that? Well, through a renewal of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Through these efforts, Pope Francis calls for a revolution of tenderness: “To re-awaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty.” I think that’s why in Rio, during World Youth Day three years ago, the pope told the young people not to avoid the poor, but rather, “look them in the eye and touch them.” While in St. Louis and since 1991, I had the privilege of going to the soup kitchen at SS. Peter and Paul Parish. That’s what happens at the soup kitchen: We “look them in the eye and touch them.”
Mercy as a call to action
In the “Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said that the poor have something to teach us—they teach us about the suffering Christ. And so, this Year of Mercy is also a call to “open our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society.” Of course, we have a long tradition of care for the poor—a legacy, a beautiful legacy—that goes back to the early Church: St. Paul was the first to organize a collection for the poor of Jerusalem; St. Lawrence the Martyr, who gathered all the poor as the wealth of the Church; St. Martin of Tours, who shared his cloak with a poor beggar, only to find out later that it was Christ; St. Francis of Assisi kissed the leper, and in doing so, thought he was kissing Christ. The example of St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Louis, the King of France, St. Elizabeth of Hungary—down to our own day and age of the destitute of Calcutta—throughout the history of the Church, we have this beautiful tradition and legacy that says, “In the poor, Christ himself is present.”
With the recent canonization of Mother Teresa, many have written about their encounters with her in regard to the poor. I was reading an article by Bishop Curlin, the former Bishop of Charlotte. Bishop Curlin was Auxiliary Bishop of Washington when Mother Teresa brought her sisters to D.C. She visited him in his rectory to discuss the work of the sisters in his parish. On a regular basis, their conversation was interrupted by the doorbell. Finally, Mother Teresa asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m giving sandwiches to the poor. They come for food.” “Her response took me by surprise,” wrote Bishop Curlin. “‘Don’t just give them food,’ Mother Teresa told him. ‘Give your heart. Risk your heart.’” Years later, while he was visiting one of her leper homes in India, Mother Teresa told Bishop Curlin to bathe a man one day. So he started, rather hesitantly. Mother said to him, “Father, if you look with your eyes, you’ll see only a dying leper. But if you look with your heart, you’ll see Jesus lying here.”
These stories I’ve read written by Bishop Curlin and others have affected me. Once when I was at the soup kitchen in St. Louis, one of the patrons wanted to speak to me. In the midst of the discussion, a big piece of lasagna flew out of his mouth and landed right on my suit coat. I flicked it off and in a moment of grace I found myself thinking, “Jesus just spit on me.” I have the habit of passing out food cards to those on the side of the road who are homeless or hungry. But now, reflecting on being present in mercy, I will also say, “Pray for me, and I will pray for you.” This is my way of accepting the challenge from the Holy Father who said, “Look them in the eye and touch them.”
The Pope’s declaration on mercy says that, “His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled. To be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us.” Those are beautiful sentiments, expressing not just us receiving the mercy of God, but also being instruments of the mercy of God. Remember the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. For 2,000 years, the Church has entered into these actions of mercy.
We also have the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which, maybe we need a revival of them as well: to give counsel to the doubtful, in order to help them grow in holiness; to instruct the ignorant, so that they know how they are to live as children of God; to admonish the sinner, and call them to holiness and conversion; to give comfort to those who are afflicted, in order to give them consolation; to forgive those who have offended us—there—that has direct bearing on this Year of Mercy; to bear wrongs patiently, and to not want to attack someone because they have attacked us; and to pray for those, especially the living and the deceased, pray for those who we know in this world, and in the world to come. These Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are the ways in which we can make mercy real. Let us be aware of them and find joy in doing them, for in performing these acts of love and mercy, we, too, receive graces and gifts. Mercy, as evidenced in Jesus, is never a one-way encounter: It is in doing that we may also receive.
The Holy Father says that God shows His power through mercy and forgiveness. Through justice is the call to conversion found: mercy is not opposed to justice, but rather mercy is God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, calling them to conversion and belief. So, Pope Francis says, “The greater challenge is mercy—NOT justice.” It would be easier for God to hold back His anger and to be merciful. So, God goes beyond mere justice, allowing conversion, with mercy and forgiveness. God envelops justice, and surpasses justice with His mercy. His justice IS His mercy, given to us flowing from the Cross. The Cross is God’s judgment on us, and the greatest act of mercy, and by his Body and Blood Jesus remains the real and tangible bridge to the Father.
So what does all this mean to us as we come to the end of this Year of Mercy in November?
Well, let us look at our own actions; look into our own hearts and say, “who do I need to forgive?—“to whom should I extend mercy?” And also, let us experience that mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—hopefully, this year will result in a renewed experience of the mercy of God in confession. This Year of Mercy should also draw us to the holy Cross of Christ, and keep us there in the years to come. Remember the beautiful verse that is said when we pray and reflect on the Stations of the Cross? “We adore you, O Christ and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” Make that a verse that you fall back on often.
This Year of Mercy should be Eucharistic because the Eucharist is the expression of the Love of Christ. This Year of Mercy should bring us to Mary—she, who stood at the foot of the Cross. The Holy Father has said, “I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God.” The Holy Father is calling for a revolution of tenderness. As this Year of Mercy comes to an end, let the revolution begin in each one of us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Misericordiae Vultus,” Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis
“Evangelii Gaudium,” [“The Joy of the Gospel”], Pope Francis.