By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Throughout his brief pontificate of just more than two years, Pope Francis has spoken of the Church as a field hospital who treats the wounded of the world. People suffer, struggle and battle to maintain their human dignity on a daily basis, and the Church in fidelity to Jesus Christ must be present to apply the healing balm of God’s mercy to many whom sin, abject poverty, tragedy and injustice afflict. God’s mercy and glory on the face of Jesus Christ is the antidote to such brokenness, and Pope Francis is so committed to this standard of evangelization that he has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin later this year.
As an initial reflection, because much will be written and spoken of in the months ahead, I am citing an introduction to the Pope’s pastoral letter on the Jubilee Year written by Christina Deardurff of Inside the Vatican magazine. It is both informative and inspiring.
“Wishing to pour on the spiritual wounds of every human being the balm of God’s mercy in abundance, Pope Francis has issued a Bull of Indiction announcing to the world an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, to open on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and to close on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 20, 2016. The Jubilee is a time of joy. It is a time of remission of sins and universal pardon, having its origins in the biblical book of Leviticus. A Jubilee Year is mentioned there, occurring every 50 years, on which occasion slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. As Pope Francis says, Christ himself quoted Isaiah along these same spiritualized, lines: ‘the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to those in captivity; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
“This year of the Lord’s favor has been celebrated in Church history every 50, or in recent centuries, every 25 years; the last was in 2000. This Jubilee Year of Mercy is thus an ‘extraordinary’ Jubilee occurring outside of the traditional timeframe.
“The most distinctive feature of the ceremonial opening of the Jubilee Year is the opening of the Holy Door in each of the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major. Before St. John Paul II amended it for the great Jubilee in 2000, the door was actually walled up with brick and mortar and ‘knocked down’ by the pope with a silver hammer.
“In 2000, Pope John Paul simply opened the great door with his hands. The pope himself opens the door in St. Peter Basilica, traditionally singing the versicle, ‘Open unto me the gates of justice.’ A cardinal similarly opens each of the holy doors at the other basilicas — designated pilgrimage sites. The rich symbolism reflects the exclusion of Adam and Eve, and of the whole human family, from the Garden of Eden due to sin, and the re admittance into grace of the penitent of heart.
“A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences,” says the Pope. Attached to the Jubilee is a plenary indulgence, the remission of the temporal punishment still due to one’s forgiven sins, available to those who enter a designated pilgrimage site through the Holy Door, along with the usual conditions. Once limited to the four great Basilicas in Rome, a pilgrimage site is now designated in every diocese, usually the cathedral. “Let us live the Jubilee intensely,” says Francis, “begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful indulgence.”
Throughout the Catholic world this weekend the Church celebrates the feast of Trinity Sunday, the central Christian mystery of faith in God who is love. In God’s self-communication throughout the Sacred Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, it is evident that mercy is God’s nature and the essence of his relationship with humankind created in his image and likeness. Many Psalmists throughout the Old Testament consistently proclaim by the prophets, and the mercy of God. Psalm 107 joyfully begins, “give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy endures forever.” This chant is repeated throughout the psalm as if it is breaking through the dimensions of space and time inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love, in the words of Pope Francis.
A humble, contrite heart and mind are most open to the mercy of God as we hear in Psalm 51, the Miserere, traditionally ascribed to King David after his adulterous and murderous conduct. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in your compassion blot out all my guilt.” The prophet Isaiah (49,15) “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or have no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these mothers may forget; but as for me, I’ll never forget you!
At the dawn of the New Testament the Gospel writer, Luke, includes in his Infancy Narratives the prayer of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on High shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet along the way of peace.” Tender compassion, translated as ‘viscera’ in the Latin, or from the very guts of God, we receive mercy.
The Gospel writer John states it in this well recognized way. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” (Jn. 3,15). Pope Francis writes, “this love has now been made visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life. His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously. The relationships he forms with the people who approach him manifest something unique and unrepeatable. The signs he works, especially in the face of sinners, the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the suffering, are all meant to teach mercy. Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion.” Of course, this mercy culminated on the cross when every last drop of blood and water flowed out of him.
Much will be spoken of and written in the months ahead on mercy, and may the Holy Spirit guide us every day into the heart of the Trinity that we may know that God is love, and God’s mercy endures forever.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz