We have a big year coming up. Starting this fall, the Catholic Church will be celebrating a “jubilee” year focused in particular on the mercy of God. Jubilee years find their origin in the book of Leviticus (25:8-13), and usually focus on forgiveness, pardon, and growing closer to God. Jubilee years have been celebrated every 25 or 50 years for the since the 1300’s, the last of which was the great Jubilee of the year 2000. That celebration followed a three year preparation looking at the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This Jubilee, on the other hand, is an “extraordinary” celebration (as it deviates from that 25/50 year schedule) – and will focus on one of Pope Francis’ favorite themes: the mercy of God the Father.
If you’re looking for specifics: the “Jubilee of Mercy” will begin on December 8, 2015 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), and will close on November 20, 2016 (the Solemnity of Christ the King). The opening and closing of the Jubilee year will be marked by the opening and closing of a “Holy Door” at St. Peter’s Basilica – the open door being a sign of our openness to God’s action in our lives.
Mercy has a variety of definitions. Some would contrast justice (getting what we deserve) with mercy (getting what we don’t deserve). Others might comment that it’s being released from a debt – moral or financial. Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio defines mercy as “love’s response to suffering.“
I’d recommend that you read the official announcement (the “Bull of Indiction”) from Pope Francis, which explains both the Pope’s goals and specific details of what’s coming. This Papal bull begins with a strong statement:
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. (Misericordiae Vultus 1)
This same document describes the motto of the holy year as: “Merciful like the Father” (MV 14). Scripture is ripe with images and passages which direct us back our merciful Father, none more clearly than the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) – a story whose central character may more appropriately be the Father, who lets his younger son waltz out the door with his inheritance,. This same Father waits and watches so that he can see his son “while he was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20), and eventually, He celebrates his son home. Later, He goes out in search of the older brother (Luke 15:25-32), who is incredulous at the mercy and generosity shown towards his younger sibling.
Jesus told this parable to help us better understand the mercy of the Father. But above, the Pope didn’t just say that Jesus told us of the Father’s mercy… he said that Jesus IS THE FACE of the Father’s mercy. He’s placing mercy at the very heart of our Christian belief – expressing that Mercy is (MV 2):
…a word which unveils the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity…
…the supreme act by which God comes to meet us…
…the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life…
…the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness…
It’s exciting to consider that the coming year is going to be all about unfolding these deep messages. We see in mercy who God is, why God became one of us, the means by which we are able to be in relationship with Him, and a mandatory part of being a Christian. The Pope says that: “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us” (MV 9). We see this in the very words of the Lord’s prayer “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive…” – as well as in the parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matthew 18).
Mercy is also at the heart of the Church – Church which exists not to stand in condemnation of the world, but rather to show and share the mercy of God without reservation. Perhaps some of my favorite words from the Papal bull are found when the Pope describes the integral role that mercy plays in the life of the Church:
The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of one’s self. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident… wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy. (MV 12)
The coming year will be an adventure. We’ll hear from the Gospel of Luke (that’s where we’ll be in the cycle of Sunday readings) -and Luke is often referred to as the “evangelist of mercy”, as parables like the lost sheep, coin, and son are all found in his writings. There will be invitations to go to confession (and especially to return, if you’ve been away for a long time.) There almost certainly be events, activities, web materials, videos, books, homilies, and the like – all which will invite us to reflect on the abundant mercy of God… and which invite us to follow in the footsteps of the prodigal son, and to return home from whatever distant country we may have found ourselves in.
But it doesn’t stop there: we are also to be agents of mercy – as this is not a gift we are supposed to keep to ourselves. We are to be sent to others to freely share the mercy that we have received… and Pope Francis has some suggestions on how we might do that:
Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead. (MV 15)
It’s going to be a heck of a year. And I look forward to all we will learn and discover together about the love with which God the Father continues to love us (whether we deserve it or not.)
More information on the coming Jubilee can be found on the official website for the year of mercy, as well as this document from the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization. The council points out that “mercy is a theme very dear to Pope Francis, as is expressed in the episcopal motto he had chosen: ‘miserando atque eligendo’… one possible translation of this motto is “with eyes of mercy.” The same document also mentioned that “in the English edition of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) the term ‘mercy’ appears 32 times.”