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April 17, 2015

Inside the pope's document on mercy for holy year -
What is mercy? -
Mercy and the credibility of pastoral action -
Confessors in the year of mercy

In this edition:
1. Pope's document on mercy.
2. What is mercy?
3. Credibility of pastoral action.
4. Quotes to ponder in document:
a) Judgment, condemnation.
b) Crime and corruption.
c) For believers and others.
5. Holy year and council's legacy.
6. Pope lists many who need mercy.
7. On confessors and indulgences.

1. Pope Officially Proclaims Year of Mercy

Mercy is mentioned so often by Pope Francis that it not only has become a theme of his pontificate but increasingly a focal point for discussion and reflection in many other contexts. While homilists explore the theme of mercy, it also offers a range of rich topic ideas for retreat groups, adult-education and youth groups, and classes of many kinds, not to mention its interest for theologians.

With the release April 11 of his document officially proclaiming the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8 this year and concludes Nov. 20, 2016, the pope handed the church a resource that might well be used in any or all of those contexts. Known as a "bull of indiction," it explores the theme of mercy from numerous angles and offers fresh approaches to topics of considerable interest to Catholics.

The pope issued his new document, titled "The Face of Mercy" ("Misericordiae Vultus"), while standing in front of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica before entering for a celebration of first vespers of Divine Mercy Sunday.

In his homily during the vespers service, Pope Francis talked about why he proclaimed a holy year devoted to the theme of mercy. The reason is simple, he said. He proclaimed the jubilee year "because the church, in this time of great historical change, is called to offer more evident signs of God's presence and closeness."

He said that the "holy year must keep alive the desire to know how to welcome the numerous signs of the tenderness which God offers to the whole world and, above all, to those who suffer, who are alone and abandoned, without hope of being pardoned or feeling the Father's love."

He made the point, moreover, that "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, everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation."

2. Inside the Document: What Is Mercy?

Mercy is "the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us," Pope Francis states in "The Face of Mercy." He immediately makes two additional points:
  • Mercy is "the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life," and

  • Mercy is "the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness."
"Sad to say," mercy is practiced less and less in today's culture, the pope comments. "In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use." But he insists that "without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert."

What is mercy? It is "the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope," the pope affirms.

It can be seen in Scripture that mercy "indicates God's action toward us," the pope states. But God "does not limit himself merely to affirming his love." Instead, the pope explains, God's love is made "visible and tangible."

This means that love "can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes and behaviors that are shown in daily living."

God's mercy is thus "not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality through which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child." Pope Francis calls it "hardly an exaggeration" to refer to this as "a visceral love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy."

The relationships God forms with "people who approach him manifest something entirely unique and unrepeatable," according to the pope. He says that "the signs [God] 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."

Pope Francis observes that God's mercy is demonstrated concretely "in his many actions throughout the history of salvation where his goodness prevails over punishment and destruction." In fact, says the pope, "mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive."

3. Pastoral Action, Credibility and Mercy

In "parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy," Pope Francis states in "The Face of Mercy." He repeatedly highlights mercy as a quality essential to the church's credibility.

"The church feels the urgent need to proclaim God's mercy," according to Pope Francis. For, "her life is authentic and credible only when she becomes a convincing herald of mercy." Again, he writes, "the church's very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love."

Calling mercy the "foundation of the church's life," he makes clear that "all of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers" and that "nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy."

Though the church's desire to show mercy is endless, the pope expressed concern that "perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy." Did a "temptation" to focus only on justice cause the church's people to "forget that this is only the first" step, though a necessary one? The pope says that "the church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal."

Underscoring his conviction that "the time has come for the church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more," Pope Francis adds that "it is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters."

The beatitude to which the church's people "should particularly aspire" during the upcoming holy year is, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Mt. 5:7)," the pope writes. He comments that with these words Jesus made mercy "an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith."

Pope Francis considers it "absolutely essential for the church and for the credibility of her message that she herself live and testify to mercy." He says, "Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy so as to touch the hearts of all people."

4. Quotes to Ponder in "The Face of Mercy"

Judgment and Condemnation: "To refrain from judgment and condemnation means, in a positive sense, to know how to accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment and our presumption to know everything about him. But this is still not sufficient to express mercy. Jesus asks us also to forgive and to give. To be instruments of mercy because it was we who first received mercy from God." ("The Face of Mercy," No. 14)

Crime, Corruption and Mercy: "I direct [an] invitation to conversion even more fervently to those whose behavior distances them from the grace of God. I particularly have in mind men and women belonging to criminal organizations of any kind. For their own good I beg them to change their lives. . . . Do not fall into the terrible trap of thinking that life depends on money and that, in comparison with money, anything else is devoid of value or dignity. This is nothing but an illusion! . . . Violence inflicted for the sake of amassing riches soaked in blood makes one neither powerful nor immortal. . . . The same invitation is extended to those who either perpetrate or participate in corruption. . . . Corruption prevents us from looking to the future with hope, because its tyrannical greed shatters the plans of the weak and tramples upon the poorest of the poor. . . . Corruption is a sinful hardening of the heart that replaces God with the illusion that money is a form of power. It is a work of darkness, fed by suspicion and intrigue." ("The Face of Mercy," No. 19)

Balm of Mercy for Believers and Others: "How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst!" ("The Face of Mercy," No. 5)

5. Holy Year and the Council's Legacy

Calling attention to the starting date of the Holy Year of Mercy, which is also the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's closing, Pope Francis speaks briefly about the strengths of the council in "The Face of Mercy." He says, "The church feels a great need to keep this event alive."

With the Second Vatican Council, "the church entered a new phase of her history," he states. "The council fathers strongly perceived . . . a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way." He adds:

"The walls which too long had made the church a kind of fortress were torn down, and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way. It was a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning. It was a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction. The church sensed a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father's love in the world."

The pope recalled remarks by Blessed Paul VI at the ecumenical council's closing in 1965. "Charity has been the principal religious feature of this council," and "the old story of the Good Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council," Pope Paul said.

He noted that errors indeed were condemned by the council "because charity demanded this no less than did truth." However, he said, what flowed from the council were not "depressing diagnoses" but "encouraging remedies," and "instead of direful predictions, messages of trust issued from the council to the present-day world."

Moreover, Pope Paul observed, in the council "the modern world's values were not only respected but honored, its efforts approved, its aspirations purified and blessed." He commented that "all this rich teaching" of the council was "channeled in one direction, the service of mankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need."

6. Pope Lists Many Who Need Mercy

Jesus affirms in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23-35) that "mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are," Pope Francis points out in "The Face of Mercy."

He calls attention to various parables devoted to mercy, which reveal "the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy." In the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son, "God is always presented as full of joy, especially when he pardons," the pope observes. Thus, "in them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything."

These parables reveal that "we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us," says the pope. "Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves."

An interesting list of those who might benefit from the mercy extended by Christians is presented in Pope Francis' document. In the holy year "we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society -- fringes modern society itself creates," he says.

It is his "burning desire," the pope says, that during the jubilee year Christians will "reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy." He cautions that conscience too often grows "dull in the face of poverty."

The pope exhorts readers of his document to rediscover both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. With those works in mind, he then lists many who need some form of mercy today.

In the end we will be judged, the pope says, by whether:
  • "We have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked or spent time with the sick and those in prison."

  • "We have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness."

  • "We have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty."

  • "We have been close to the lonely and afflicted."

  • "We have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence."

  • "We have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us."

  • "We have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer."

7. On Confessors and Indulgences

"I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father's mercy," Pope Francis says in his new document proclaiming the jubilee year of mercy that begins Dec. 8. In a second and related point he offers a unique discussion not only of the indulgences offered during holy years but of the very "indulgence" of God.

1. Confessors: "We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents" - penitents in search of God's mercy, the pope exhorts priests and bishops. He says, "We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this."

The pope points out, however, that "none of us wields power over this sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God's mercy through it." Here the pope adds, "Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance."

Confessors, the pope stresses, "are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere and in every situation, no matter what."

During the coming holy year, Pope Francis intends to appoint priests to fulfill special roles related to the sacrament of penance. "There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer," he explains.

Above all, he notes, these priests will be "living signs of the Father's readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon. They will be missionaries of mercy."

2. Indulgences and God's Indulgence: Pointing out that "a jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences," Pope Francis writes that "this practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy." He then presents the following discussion of indulgences, as well as what he terms God's "indulgence."

"God's forgiveness knows no bounds. . . . . Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the church. Thus God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising. . . .

"Though we feel the transforming power of grace, we also feel the effects of sin typical of our fallen state. Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain. In the sacrament of reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger than even this.

"It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the bride of Christ, his church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.

"The church lives within the communion of the saints. In the Eucharist, this communion, which is a gift from God, becomes a spiritual union binding us to the saints and blessed ones whose number is beyond counting (cf. Rv 7:4). Their holiness comes to the aid of our weakness in a way that enables the church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others.

"Hence, to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father's mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer. To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ's redemption, so that God's love and forgiveness may extend everywhere.

"Let us live this jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful 'indulgence.'"