On the Feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, the Sovereign Pontiff opened the Holy Door of St Peter’s Basilica. The unsealing of the Holy Door is a potent symbol of the opening of a Year of Jubilee, when God’s mercy flows in torrents in the form of Holy Indulgences and graces merited from pilgrimages to the Holy City and any of the great number of churches around the world which have been granted a Holy Door of their own. This Jubilee Year has actually been designated as a "Year of Mercy". At an official press conference in Rome, Archbishop Rino Fisichella outlined the purpose of 800 "Missionaries of Mercy", who have been granted extraordinary faculties to forgive sins which are normally reserved to the Holy See. As Archbishop Fisichella listed these ‘reserved sins’, it was sobering to note that most of the most heinous crimes in the book are specifically clerical offenses: they consist of priests absolving accomplices in sins against the Sixth Commandment, bishops consecrating new bishops without papal mandate, and priests breaking the seal of the Sacrament of Penance, as well as profanation of the Blessed Sacrament and physical violence against the Roman Pontiff. Meanwhile, the Holy Father gave an interview in which he promised that he will himself engage in a concrete “work of mercy” initiative on one Friday each month for the next year. One deed already accomplished has been his personal decree allowing priests of the Society of Pius X to grant absolution in Confession.
We might ask why a "Year of Mercy" should be necessary. After all, any Catholic with a half decent knowledge of history knows that, despite the disinformation nurtured by centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda, the Church has been a witness to and a dispenser of God’s mercy for two millennia. Recent experience of themed years in the Church’s calendar might also have left us feeling less than enthusiastic. A Year of Faith was proclaimed with great promise in October 2012, and then flopped like a failed soufflé a few months later when the oven door was opened during the baking process and Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication.
If this is how we been feeling, then we should pray to the Holy Ghost that such negative sentiments be banished far from our hearts and replaced with some evangelical zeal. We have entered a brutal period of history, when the world is groaning for healing. There is a sense of hopelessness abroad, and there are signs of a growing acknowledgment of the fact that our society has lost its way. In these increasingly desperate circumstances, the Church’s Gospel of charity and mercy is a good brand. It has potential to capture the imagination of people who are bewildered and anxious. Besides this, the Gospels convey a sense that, as long as we keep in mind that sin is the greatest of evils, mercy really cannot be emphasized too much. Those who provoked Our Lord’s wrath were the unmerciful, and especially those of the unmerciful who held office in the religious hierarchy.
Of course, every Holy Year is really a year of mercy. The word ‘Jubilee’ is believed to have its root in the Hebrew jobel, denoting the ram’s horn whose sounding summoned the ancient Israelites to a holy year in which debts would be remitted, slaves liberated and prisoners released.
The fact that a major aspect of a Christian Jubilee Year is the promotion of the Plenary Indulgence which can be gained every day of the year reminds us that we are able to act as instruments of God’s mercy to the Holy Souls in Purgatory, who are liberated from the suffering of Purgatory by means of our prayers and sacrifices. For the current Jubilee the Holy Father has decreed that the Plenary Indulgence is attached to prison chapels, and has exhorted prisoners to raise their hearts and minds to God every time they cross the threshold of their cells because the mercy of God “is also able to transform bars into an experience of freedom”. The housebound, sick and elderly may obtain the Indulgence through uniting themselves with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on television or radio.
To understand what is meant by mercy, we need to have some grasp of the nature of sin. The primary aspect of sin is that it is an offense against God’s majesty, and in justice it deserves punishment. A secondary aspect of sin is the damaging effect that it has on the soul. Many modern people have difficulty in reconciling the first aspect with their belief in a loving God, while the second aspect seems more accessible as an idea. We can take heart in the realization that, while the Pharisees were fixated on the first aspect and were all too eager to participate in the application of punishment, Our Lord showed Himself to be more concerned with the second. In the accounts of his dealings with sinners in the Gospels, He treats sin as an obstacle to be removed so that the image of God in a person’s soul may be burnished into a gleaming supernatural likeness. Thus liberated and enlivened, a person will soon come to see for himself the evil of sin, without anyone having constantly to make it the major topic of conversation.
In this Holy Year of Mercy, we should be merciful with ourselves by making good use of the Sacrament of Penance, so that filled to overflowing with the Sanctifying Grace that was first infused into us in Baptism, we are re-energised in our mission to build the Kingdom of Heaven on this earth. Share the Gospel of Divine Love with our family and acquaintances, by talking with them about the blessings on offer in this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Maybe ask a lapsed Catholic friend to accompany us on a pilgrimage to a church with a Holy Door in our local diocese, and on arrival gently encourage our companion to join us in the line for Confession. May God’s mercy abound in our lives in 2016 and beyond.
Fr Julian Large