Now that Mercy Doors have been closed, what would happen to mercy? Would the Church and its members pack up mercy and set to relax of the ‘fatigue’ of the yearlong jubilee celebration? Pope Francis wants the wheels of mercy rolling forever, as expressed in his apostolic exhortation, Misericordia et Misera (MM), published at the end of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Reading through two writings of Francis, the other being Misericordiae Vultus (MV), the bull of indiction of the jubilee year, one is reminded of Jesus at the Synagogue in Nazareth inaugurating a new phase in the economy of salvation (Lk. 4:16-21). The hour of salvation is inaugurated and continued when the Good News is announced to every oppressed and marginalised sections of the society (LK 4:21; Mt. 11: 4-6). The time – Kairos – is accomplished when people from other cultures are attracted to Jesus the saviour who would break his body and shed his blood on cross (Jn. 12: 23-24; 19:30) making mercy and forgiveness experiential to humanity.
At the beginning of the Year of Mercy Francis made a clarion call to come to the awareness of Kairos – the divine time – by reminding that the fathers in the Council of Vatican II had recognised that “the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way” and tear down the “walls which for too long had made the Church a kind of fortress” (MV 4).
Indeed, the aim of the Jubilee Year was to rediscover the “true breath of the Holy Spirit,” and the “need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way” strongly perceived in Vatican II. Francis wanted to keep that spirit alive with a “fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction” (MV 4). The Catholic communion have lived this dream through an intense life of mercy expressed through various corporal and spiritual works of mercy in the last one year.
Mercy for a Lifetime, Not Just for a Year
Now at the end of it, though the Holy Door is closed, Francis invites us to keep the door of mercy of our heart wide open (MV 16). He urges us to continue mercy – the moment of Kairos – with joy, fidelity and enthusiasm, experiencing the richness of God’s mercy (MM 5). We feel that we are at the threshold of mercy when he says that “Now is the time to unleash the creativity of mercy, to bring about new undertakings, the fruit of grace” (MM 18).
Pope Francis proposes to develop culture of mercy in order to continue the mission and the new evangelization work of the Church. This is a culture of encounter “in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters” (MM 20). The Church requires having a “pastoral conversion” which is “shaped daily by the renewing force of mercy” (MM 5). This involves a conversion of the Church’s ministry to more openness and outreach (EG 27).
Primarily, this can be achieved in four ways: i) by fruitful participation in the Eucharistic celebration, ii) celebration of the word of God, iii) reading the Bible which is the great story of the marvels of God’s mercy, and iv) the celebration of mercy through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (MM 5-8). According to Francis Church’s prayers are highly performative rather than merely being exhortative. Our faith fundamentally assures that mercy is literally granted to us when we invoke it with faith.
In the changing global cultural context many Catholics suffer from the guilt of committing sin of abortion. They were feeling a sort of automatic excommunication. They remained Catholic because of baptism and were obliged to attend Mass, but were deprived of all sacraments except Sacrament of Reconciliation. The stringent law of the Catholic Church till now had reserved the faculty of absolving this sin exclusively to the pope, a bishop or a priest specially appointed to do so. Now, pope grants the faculty to every priest apparently offering everyone the opportunity of experiencing the liberating power of forgiveness.
While the pontiff does not underplay the gravity of the sin, which terminates an innocent life, he wants every priest to be dispensers of God’s mercy for a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. It is striking that Francis starts the document with a reflection of the Biblical examples of two women both condemned for their promiscuity. Just as Jesus helped them to look to the future with hope and walk in charity, Francis wants the Church to take a more welcoming and inclusive approach to sinners. The decision is entirely consistent with Francis’ pastoral emphasis as reflected in his earlier exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Communicating Mercy and Justice
Francis also presents strong perspectives for Christian pastoral communication in this apostolic exhortation. Predominantly he is concerned with the way priests prepare and deliver homilies. Here he summarises that homily shall thrill the hearts of believers before the grandeur of mercy leaving pastors to explore Evangelii Gaudium where he treats this aspect extensively. Christian communication, he says, “is not an exercise in rhetoric.” The credibility of one’s priesthood is communicated through personal witness, forgiveness, consoling others, as well as patiently listening others in silence. He urges everyone to enter into meaningful encounter with others especially with families that are in difficulties. In this highly technologized era of social communications, unfortunately this personal and human aspect of communication is very much downplayed by pastoral leadership.
Finally, living mercy does not consist in speaking, thinking and praying over it; instead it involves translating them into action banishing indifference and hypocrisy. The world is developing new forms of material and spiritual poverty and millions of people are being stripped of their dignity. Pope challenges us to create various creative forms of mercy to address these new needs of the world. Misericordia et Misera whacks at the back of our Christian conscience to be always “vigilant and ready to identify new works of mercy and to practise them with generosity and enthusiasm.”
As a reflection of the sensitivity and solidarity of the Church towards the people in the peripheries Francis has declared to celebrate the World Day of the Poor on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. The juxtaposition of this feast previous to the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe magnifies the responsibility Church ought to have towards poor. Humanity would solely be judged by the merits of its works of mercy by Christ, the humble king of the poor (cf. Mt 25:31-46)
At the end of the Jubilee Year the Church in her utmost humility can joyfully be proud to feel that its purpose is truly accomplished. Yet, the great challenge is to perpetuate the spirit. What pope reminds us as he winds up the Jubilee Year is that mercy is fundamental to the nature of the Church and “cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence…” If the Holy Door was a symbol of God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Church, it is imperative for us keep it ever open.
Published in Indian Currents on 28 Nov. – 04 Dec. 2016.