On April 11, on the vigil of the feast of the Sunday of Divine Mercy, Pope Francis published a papal bull of indiction for the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The document was titled Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy). It lays out some specifics about his plans to commence a Holy Year dedicated to mercy in all the dioceses of the world to commence on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.
If asked what two words appear the most frequently in Francis’ talks, homilies, and writings, I would argue that they are “uscire” (“to go out”) and “misericordia” (“mercy”). In fact, he has sort of coined a term for translating his papal motto, miserando atque eligendo — taken from the Venerable Bede’s commentary on the Call of Matthew — which we do not have in English. Instead of the traditional “by having mercy, yet choosing him” we see in most places, he has said he prefers the translation with a gerund: “mercy-ing, yet choosing”
The pope seems to feel that to name God as “mercy-ing” is deeper and broader than to say the Lord merely showed or offered him mercy. His conception of the divine seems to imply this constant outpouring of “mercy-ing” dynamic activity. He has repeatedly called for the church to mirror this interior disposition, to be a community reaching out to the world as a tangible sign of God’s tireless forgiveness, which is not divorceable from his justice, but which is never bound by legalism or rigorism.
Francis calls justice rather “the faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will,” a reality closely related to mercy, not its antithesis.
In Misericordiae Vultus, the pope asks the church to ponder anew their commitment to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The first are our duties to our brothers and sisters in times of temporal need: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger or alien, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.
The second deal with tending to others’ internal struggles: 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. They have long served as practical guideposts for Christians, who must constantly assess whether or not they are living up to the strict demands of charity which Jesus said will serve as the deciding principle in the Last Judgement (cf. Mt 25).
The document gives spiritual advice for confessors and institutes the role of “missionary of mercy” which will take shape in the coming months. Francis wants the church’s ministers always to have in mind the Father in the prodigal son parable: he who is ever rushing out to meet the repentant, even interrupting the sinner’s prepared speech to welcome the lost one back home, and never tiring of encouraging those who stand outside, “incapable of rejoicing” like the elder brother, to reorient the severity of their judgement. “In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what” (MV, 17).
During this Year of Mercy, the pope will open the Holy Doors at the four major Roman basilicas: St. Peter, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Maria Maggiore and St. John Lateran. They’re normally cemented shut (with ceremonial coins embedded in them to mark the timeframes) and only opened every quarter century during the regular jubilees. But Francis insists they need to be thrown wide to the world as an important sign: “Each will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope”(MV, 3). He wants similar expressions made on the local level in churches and cathedrals around the world as well.
A recent homily of the pontiff makes clear why he started this initiative at this moment: “Because this is the time for mercy. It is the favorable time to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.