As this Year of Mercy approaches its end this month, I reflect back on on the feast of the Immaculate Conception last year, when Pope Francis opened the Holy Year of Mercy, unsealing the Holy Door in Rome as he spoke these words: “To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. Passing through this door of mercy leads us directly into the arms of our heavenly Father, to find his sweet and gentle touch, his tenderness and compassion, and the forgiveness our hearts so desperately need.”
And unlike any other Holy Year ever celebrated in the history of the Church — since the 13th century, when this practice began — Pope Francis gave every diocese in the world the singular grace of having a Holy Door at the Mother Church, the cathedral, so that as many people as possible could have the opportunity to pass through a door of mercy, a door of love, a door of hope and restoration.
There have been thousands of visitors here in Pittsburgh over these past twelve months. It has been a powerful experience to see pilgrims make the journey, some coming from great distances, such as 400 young people from the Archdiocese of Omaha and a group from the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Holy Door afforded each of us the opportunity to stop for a moment before we pass through that door to remove the burdens of our sins, our disappointments, our anger and bitterness, our jealousy and pride, our lack of compassion for others, and our anxiety and fears.
The prayers on the outside of the Holy Door force us to stop and reflect on the magnitude of God’s unconditional mercy, but also challenge us to leave outside the things that so often prevent us from loving God with our whole heart and soul, as well as loving our neighbor. This has been the greatest blessing and gift of this Holy Year. In the style of our Holy Father, I find that three words come to mind in looking back at this special, grace-filled year.
The first is grace, the primacy of God’s grace over all else. St. Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10, emphasis added). It is God who seeks us! It is he who comes to encounter us! This has been a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy. It was St. Augustine who said: “How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy. All too often we are paralyzed by our fear and anxiety, our embarrassment and doubts that we can really change — these things can prevent us from opening our hearts to this amazing, transforming grace that God offers to all who have faith. This year of mercy calls out to us, inviting us to experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things.
The second word is forgiveness. The proclamation for the Year of Mercy is entitled Vultus Misericordiae (“The Face of Mercy”). This is the face of Jesus as he looked upon the people of Israel: My heart is moved with pity for they are like sheep without a shepherd. The healing mission of Jesus sometimes brought physical healing, signs of the power of God at work in human nature; but the real healing that mattered to the Lord was the forgiveness of sins, the restoration of broken hearts, making the person whole again. One of the fruits of this Year of Mercy is to see so many people return to the sacrament of confession this year, many after a long period of time. This is where we encounter most powerfully the healing and transforming power of God’s mercy. As the pope said, “[God] never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking.” May we learn to bring our sins to the Lord in this saving sacrament so we can be healed and restored.
The third word is humility. This is the opposite of pride and self-dependency, and a selfishness that puts me at the center of attention — the sins that all too easily lead us into complacency about our state of life and prevent us from even realizing our need for forgiveness and mercy. These also blind us to the concern Christians must have for others, especially the poor. St. Augustine said the three most important virtues of the Christian faith are humility, humility and humility. To experience the mercy and grace that God has for us requires openness, trust, a complete and total abandonment of our will to God’s. It is humility that opens our hearts as well to the needs of others.
Pope Francis has encouraged us to be people of mercy — to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — and this will be a lasting effect of this year of grace. Christians must be the face of mercy for others, especially those who are marginalized and pushed aside in our culture. We must go out to the fringes of our society and bring the tender compassion of God to those who so desperately need it. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36, RSV).
Each day we approach the altar as sinners, and yet what really is most important is that we have the courage to trust in Jesus’ mercy, to trust in his patience, to seek refuge always in the wounds of his love. As Pope Francis reminds us: “We hear many offers from the world around us; but let us take up God’s offer instead: his is a caress of love. For God, we are not numbers, we are important, indeed we are the most important thing to him; even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart.”
As the Holy Door closes to end this Year of Mercy, the doors of our hearts are meant to open more readily and easily to God’s love, the kind of love that God has for us — sacrificial love, merciful love, unconditional love, divine love, lasting love, burning love, real love. This is how God makes a new creation not only for humanity but for every human heart.
Father Kris Stubna is pastor and rector at St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh.