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Reflecting on the Jubilee Year of Mercy: A Parish Perspective

Year of Mercy

The Jubilee Year of Mercy has been an opportunity for my parish, and many across the world, to take part in a collaborative venture: to discover the wealth behind the word mercy, to come to understand it more clearly, and to take ownership of a more merciful way of living. Pope Francis announced this Extraordinary Year in his Papal Bull of Indiction Misericordiae Vultus, the “Face of Mercy”. Entitled extraordinary because traditionally a Jubilee Year falls only on 25 year intervals (such as Pope John Paul II’s Great Jubilee of 2000), this step was also an extraordinary act of prophecy by Pope Francis. Before the world knew the faces of the tragedies of 2016 the Pope asked the men and women of our “Common Home” to seek the face of mercy:

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 instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope (MV, #10)

The Year of Mercy reverberated with challenges. The commencement date on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 2015) was a symbolic reminder of the need for open hearts, minds, and bodies, just as Mary herself embodies a yes to God. Falling also on the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council the Year of Mercy reminds the Catholic Church of the ripples of impact that are still moving out from that epoch-making event. The concluding document from Vatican II - the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World - opens like a hook tied by-line to the Jubilee’s theme of mercy:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ (Gaudium et Spes #1).

Such links to mercy will be found whenever the Church is moving in harmony with its identity as the Body of Christ.

The particular challenge of this Jubilee for each Parish community was to search for the presence of mercy close to home with a desire to “encourage and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11). Pope Francis exhorted parishes to be: “directly involved in living out this Holy Year as an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal” (MV #3). A Jubilee, by its very nature, always brings with it a proclamation of freedom (Lev 25:39-46). How should such an opportunity and challenge be approached by the local Church? The first pressing task was to tackle the distorted image of mercy as it is popularly portrayed: the powerful having pity on the weak, and the “giving” of mercy as a favour or out of disgust. The authentic meaning of mercy was in need of rediscovery and reclaiming.

What is Mercy and how do we go about exploring it?

With the word mercy the Church is presented with an opportunity and a challenge that is as rich and mysterious and full of glorious potential that we would expect from a word used to describe our God. We know that the Body of Christ is called to be merciful like Jesus and therefore the Year of Mercy must somehow result in the Church being more Christ-like. Pope Francis insists that this means a focus on compassion, tenderness and generosity. The Church is likened to a loving family - the Family of God - that protects its young, reveres its elders, and engages with the challenges of life in faith and trust. It is these actions that reveal the Church as Jesus’ disciples (John 13:34-35):

Mercy 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; 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 (MV, #10).

Our Parish Church has a bright red door that attracts the attention of passing traffic (no accidents so far!) and of the parents who collect children from two local schools. The words above the door proclaim “Door of Mercy” while the door itself speaks “Welcome.” The colour red represents life, love and sacrifice. Pope Francis instituted the opening of Holy Doors all across the world in this Jubilee Year of Mercy and remarkably opened the first Holy Door in Bangui in the Central African Republic. This was the first holy door ever to be opened outside Rome:

The Holy Year of Mercy came early to this land, a land that for many years has been suffering… All the suffering countries in the world that are going through the cross of war are also represented in this land (Pope Francis).

Our team prepared a liturgy to open our own Door. It was an opportunity to link our own experience with that of the universal Church and to extend an invitation to our people to be open to a communal exploration of the Jubilee Year:

This door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God.

Our Door is Holy - it is the threshold of God’s House, the Home of God’s People in this community. Through this Door is the table around which we gather in celebration and thanksgiving. Like all doors, we need to open it and enter into what is inside.

When we have been fed by the meal of the Lord, we pass through this Door once again. Then we go out to the world, filled with the Mercy of God, and called to show this Mercy to all people we meet, and to all of Creation (Rite of Opening the Door of Mercy).

We carefully composed prayers that represented all members of the parish so that parishioners could hear their own voices speaking alongside others. This was an important beginning: how could we build further on listening to become engaging and dialogue? We found ourselves challenged to creatively illuminate and build more links between families and parish, liturgy and life.

In many ways the Year of Mercy has presented significant opportunities to truly live the liturgy. Mercy is a word that enriches our liturgical life. I can also say that understanding the word mercy enables us to more fully enter our liturgy. By seeking how our Parish already lived mercifully we were able to make deeper the connections between worship, family life, celebrating, suffering, etc. Monthly “Mercy Masses” were quickly conceived and joyfully celebrated. This concept involved highlighting the concrete acts of mercy that individuals or groups of the Parish undertake and which may be daily or special events. Funds were raised, new voices were appreciatively heard, but most importantly the community’s consciousness of their own beauty and value was heightened.

The weekly bulletin articles on the Spiritual and Corporal Acts of Mercy sought to gather the rich resources of the Catholic Church on these aspects and to present them as familiar and essential to our own unique Parish identity:

God’s Creation is meant to be an ecosystem of mercy: any imbalance, caused by greed, selfishness, and intolerance, causes suffering. It is the poor who suffer the most, but we are all part of the one Creation and so we are all affected.

Some of our grade 3 school children experienced the blessing of God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation last week. We pray that their eyes and hearts are opened to God’s healing mercy. And may all our homes, families and community of this Parish be welcoming places of shelter.

“I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4).

“When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world” (Rachel Naomi Remen - from the Sisters of Mercy app “Mercy-ing”)(Bulletin reflection on “Shelter the Homeless”).

These articles called people to be more attentive to their own actions as well as the quiet works around them. I hope that they saw themselves as valuable contributors to the Church, as merciful already - in all of the marvellous ways that people serve, give, and love with the gift of God’s grace.

Our need of Mercy

During the Rite of Opening the Door of Mercy parishioners stood metres from the shade of a large oak tree that holds dozens of fluttering ribbons - a visible sign of our unity with victims of sexual abuse within our Church and under our own roof. It is bittersweetly appropriate that our door of Welcome stands next to our tree of Sorry. The hospitality of this Parish has not been without fault and we know that we are not set apart from the troubles of our community. Nor are we free from condemnation and hatred, even in the midst of our penance and restoration.

“Who knocks at this Door of Mercy?”

“We the Clergy who have shared the lives of the people of this Parish; in celebration and in mourning, with the strength of our gifts and in the weakness of our failures. We ask for God’s mercy upon all deacons, priests and bishops for we know great sorrow for the sins that have been committed. May the searing of our pain prepare the Church for the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

“Lord, show us your mercy”

(From the Rite of Opening the Door of Mercy).

Pope Francis’ attitude is a comforting (and confronting) example for Christians. When asked “who are you?” he replied: “I am a sinner… I am sure of this. I am a sinner whom the Lord looked upon with mercy… And if I confess it is because I need to feel that God's mercy is still upon me.” The motto of Pope Francis is miserando atque eligendo: by seeing with mercy and choosing, from the full quote “Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him, ‘follow me’.” Out of his personal awareness of God’s mercy flows the Pope’s compassionate perspective on life: the deep joy of being a Christian (Evangelii Gaudium), the importance of family (Amoris Laetitia), the wisdom of our elders (many homilies), the sacredness of the world’s ecological systems (Laudato Si’), and faith as having a real impact on the common good (Lumen Fidei).

The Door of Mercy in Rome was closed by the Pope on the Feast of Christ the King (November 20, 2016). Symbolically the Year ended with hope and trust in the Messiah who is Mercy:

Because even if the Holy Door closes, the true door of mercy which is the heart of Christ always remains open wide for us. From the lacerated side of the Risen One until the very end of time flow mercy, consolation and hope (Pope Francis’ homily on the Feast of Christ the King).

Throughout this Jubilee Year and into the future it does us good to see God’s grace at work in the lives of all members of the Church. It is humbling to spend time considering how mercy is at home in the smallest of our people. Lest we lose sight of the most needy it is also essential to continue asking “who is not at the table?”

Conclusion

Now that the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy has concluded it may be tempting to release a deep breath and ease into Advent and the new year. Will we turn our eyes to a new facet of faith, will there be a new perspective that we need to consider? I am convinced, however, that we have merely taken a few steps in the right direction this year. The words of Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, challenge us not to sit but to keep walking: “Mercy: the principal path marked out by Jesus Christ for those who desire to follow him.”

I would be happy if every person in my Parish has moved forward, however slightly, in their understanding of God’s mercy. I would be delighted if they recognised mercy in their own actions and those of their family and community. Most of all I pray that we have seen in this Year a deeper way of living and loving that enables us to be more fully engaged with the ecosystem of God’s abundant life around us.

Merciful Inspirations:

In the Jubilee Year I quickly discovered that I didn’t have to look far for witnesses of living mercy: I had the Sunday readings and people of my parish. The following resources were very helpful in linking me to the Church’s tradition and understanding of mercy and I highly recommend them:

Books:

  • “The Blessing of Mercy: Biblical Perspectives and Ecological Challenges,” by Sister Veronica Lawson rsm 
  • “Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year C,” by José Pagola
  • “The Name of God is Mercy,” by Pope Francis
  • “Mercy: the Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life,” by Cardinal Walter Kasper

Elissa Roper is a wife and mother of four young children. After baptism as an adult she sought further knowledge of her faith and the Catholic Church as a student of theology. Elissa is currently a Doctoral student with a topic of “the Catholic Church as Synodal: Taking Responsibility as the Body of Christ.” She is a representative on the Victorian Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, a student at Yarra Theological Union, and active in her parish of St Brigid’s, Healesville.