God’s mercy is everywhere. It’s the ground on which we stand. It’s the air we breathe. Like honey, it covers everything.
| Eleni Demissie prays during a July 8 Mass for peace and justice at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota. CNS photo via Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit
This past year, however, countless people came to understand and experience God’s mercy in new ways. Since Dec. 8, 2015 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), the Church has shined a spotlight on God’s merciful love through catechesis, prayer, preaching, the sacraments and sacramentals. Called for by Pope Francis, in his papal bull Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”), this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, has brought countless blessings to men and women across the globe.
As the Year of Mercy draws to a close Nov. 20, Our Sunday Visitor looks back on some of its public and private highlights in schools, parishes and homes. These “snapshots of mercy” offer just a glimpse into the realized promises of the past year, and the good that’s still to come from it.
To commemorate the Year of Mercy, St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Va., renamed
their parish outreach center the Williamsburg House of Mercy. Courtesy photos
Parish shines a spotlight on mercy
With more than 3,000 families, a large staff and a host of apostolates and programs, St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, like most large parishes, had struggled to keep everyone in the parish on the same page. Different programs, different needs and different channels of communication all meant parishioners and staff alike routinely moved in different directions.
That changed, however, this past year.
When Pope Francis announced the Year of Mercy, St. Bede’s pastor, Msgr. Timothy Keeney, and his staff decided to implement Year of Mercy programming at every level of parish life.
| Msgr. Timothy Keeney of St. Bede Catholic Church washes a man’s foot as a sign of mercy.
“We wanted to hit every demographic with the message of mercy,” said Nicole Lancour, St. Bede’s adult faith formation coordinator. “In our routine programming — faith formation and youth ministry — we focused on topics and themes related to mercy. Then, we added special events to reach other people within the parish.”
Those special events included a “brown bag lunch” speaker series, which focused on the various corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and a “date night” series for married and engaged couples, which explored the place of mercy in marriage. Msgr. Keeney also gave a spirituality talk every month at the parish that focused on practical ways to live out mercy.
As parishioners were learning about the Church’s teachings about mercy, St. Bede’s also offered them opportunities to put what they learned into practice. They renamed their parish outreach center in honor of the Year of Mercy, and encouraged families to volunteer together there. Now known as the Williamsburg House of Mercy, the center helps meet the material needs — including financial, housing and food — of the local poor. With the exception of two full-time and one part-time staff member, the Williamsburg House of Mercy is staffed by parish volunteers.
Thanks to the coordinated focus on mercy, Lancour said the number of volunteers at the center increased significantly, so much so that they managed to double the number of families served by their mobile food bank.
“At this point, there’s no one in the parish who hasn’t heard about the Year of Mercy,” she said. “No matter what their demographic, gifts or talents, they’ve learned more about mercy this year and found ways they can receive it and give it.”
In Minnesota, a moment of mourning and mercy
In early July, the mood in St. Paul, Minnesota, seemed anything but merciful. On July 6, an African-American man, Philando Castile, was killed by a police officer during a seemingly routine traffic stop. His fiancée, who was in the car at the time, filmed the shooting’s aftermath.
Her video went viral. Soon, protests began. At first, protestors remained peaceful. But on July 9, the situation turned violent, with protestors hurling concrete blocks, Molotov cocktails and other objects at police. The attacks injured 21 law enforcement officers, and 102 protestors went to jail.
| A carriage carries the casket of Philando Castile on July 14 as it passes the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn. CNS photo via Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit
In the midst of the violence, Castile’s mother pleaded for peace.
“When demonstrations become violent, it disrespects my son and his memory,” Valerie Castile said in a statement at the time.
She also made another plea, this one to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She asked if her son’s funeral could take place in the archdiocesan Cathedral of St. Paul.
Although her son was a Baptist, Castile wanted people of faith to come together to mourn him and the circumstances surrounding his death. Her son’s death had become an occasion for violence; she wanted his funeral to become an occasion for peace. And she believed having his funeral service at the cathedral, the city’s most prominent symbol of faith, was the best way to accomplish that.
Normally, non-Catholic funeral services don’t take place in Catholic churches, but the rector, Father John Ubel, and the bishop, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda, made an exception for Castile.
“The Catholic Church believes that burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy and of particular importance in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, as declared by Pope Francis,” the archdiocese explained in a statement.
On July 14, thousands of mourners, including the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. senators, crowded into the cathedral for the standing-room-only service.
Castile’s pastor, Rev. Steve Daniels Jr., delivered the eulogy, Father Ubel presided over the service, and a number of other pastors from across the city joined them in prayer.
No photographs or videos were allowed during the ceremony, and to honor the family’s wish for privacy, no interviews on the event are being granted.
In a statement released to the media before the funeral, however, Archbishop Hebda reflected on the event, saying: “During his general audience on Sept. 9, 2015, Pope Francis said ‘the assembly of Jesus takes the form of a family and of a hospitable family, not an exclusive, closed sect.’ At this difficult moment, we feel privileged to have the opportunity to offer hospitality to the Castile family and to our hurting community. We are praying that our cathedral might serve as a place where all might encounter a God who offers consolation and hope.”
Members of the Catholic community in Bismarck, N.D. carry a banner for the diocese's Thirst conference held during the Year of Mercy. Courtesy photos
Bismarck diocese celebrates ‘festivals’ of mercy
At the outset of the Year of Mercy, the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, knew it wanted to find more opportunities for people to experience the mercy of God.
“The more mercy we receive, the more mercy we can give,” explained Tara Brooke, the diocesan director of family ministry.
With that in mind, Bismark’s Bishop David D. Kagan encouraged parishes to increase opportunities for both Eucharistic adoration and confession. The diocese also instituted confession during its marriage preparation weekends and produced a video about pornography and the need for God’s mercy. They then had the video played at every parish in the diocese.
| From left, Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Bishop David D. Kagan of Bismarck, N.D., and Bishop John T. Folda of Fargo, N.D.
That same video also highlighted the special 24 Hours of Mercy event that the diocese had planned for Lent 2016.
In calling for a Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also called for parishes and dioceses to have special “festivals” of mercy. This was Bismark’s response to that call. Not everyone, however, thought it a wise response.
“Some people thought no one would come to confession in the middle of the night,” Brooke said.
Despite those misgivings, 30 priests and the bishop signed up for shifts on March 18 and 19. Elsewhere in the more remote areas of the diocese, at the request of the bishop, pastors extended Saturday confession hours.
When the day finally arrived, no one was disappointed.
From the moment the event began until the moment it ended, penitents stood in line to have their confession heard. The cathedral was never empty, not even in the middle of the night. Hundreds of people filed through — some who had been to confession as recently as the week before and some who had been away for decades.
“One person told the bishop they hadn’t been since second grade,” said Brooke.
The event was such an overwhelming success that the diocese planned to do it again before the Year of Mercy ended, this time in conjunction with its Thirst conference, which took place in October.
“There is a feeling of mercy being alive in our diocese right now,” said Brooke. “The way we interact with each other, the way we deal with people who think differently from us. You can feel the difference.”
Preparing for a lifetime of mercy
God calls some people to the priesthood, others to marriage or consecrated life. But whatever our vocation, it is always a concrete experience of God’s mercy, a gift that helps us learn to love as God loves: totally, faithfully and fruitfully.
Miriam Marston discovered that in a particular way this past year, through her work with the Department of Pastoral Ministries in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.
For nearly a decade, the 35-year-old Marston felt a call to consecrated virginity growing in her heart. She didn’t, however, feel free to answer that call, partly for practical reasons and partly for theological reasons. “I couldn’t understand why God would call people to a ‘lesser’ vocation,” she said.
“I want the Gospel truth to be accessible and for my life to be accessible, and I was worried that as a consecrated virgin I would be put on a weird pedestal.”
Slowly, however, those issues resolved themselves, and when Marston found herself serving on a committee, coordinating diocesan events for the Year of Mercy, the message she was tasked with promoting touched her in a new way.
“I realized that the ground I was standing on was God’s mercy,” she said. “When that clicked, it became so much easier to trust his will for my life and know he is leading me on the way of his mercy.”
After years of delaying, Marston has begun formation to prepare for a life of consecrated virginity in the Archdiocese of Portland.
John Ferguson, a seminarian for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, made a similar decision this year thanks, in large part, to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The 20-year-old Butler, Pennsylvania, native began thinking about the priesthood in eighth grade. At times, he felt a strong call to the vocation. At other times, though, he wasn’t sure. High school came and went, and Ferguson continued to waffle. This past year, however, during his freshman year at a local community college, he sought out the advice of a priest. They began meeting regularly, and Ferguson’s conviction that God was calling him to the priesthood grew.
Then, during Lent 2016, Ferguson’s grandmother gave him a little booklet that featured the sayings of St. Faustina. Ferguson began reading the sayings and praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet regularly. As he did, he said, “I would just see Jesus’ mercy pouring out from the cross to us, and I knew I wanted to be the mercy Jesus displayed on the cross to others. That’s what a priest is.”
Ferguson is currently studying at St. Paul Seminary in Crafton, Pennsylvania.
In her early 20s, Cari Voor thought she’d found her vocation as a wife and mother. She married right out of college and started a family. Soon, however, it became clear that something had been wrong with the relationship since the beginning. In 2011, divorce proceedings began. That was followed by an annulment and years of single motherhood.
By September 2015, Voor had given up nearly all hope of meeting a man who could be a husband to her and a father to her two boys. Then, through Catholic Match, she met Richard Voor, a former member of the Legionaries of Christ who had left the priesthood and was transitioning back into life as a layman. When the Year of Mercy started, they were just beginning their relationship. By February, they were engaged. By June, they were married. And by August, they were expecting.
Looking back on the year, Voor said the entire journey has been an experience of living in God’s mercy.
“I experienced mercy through the divorce and annulment process; it was like being with Christ during the crucifixion,” she said. “Then, there was mercy and healing in those years of waiting, years where God became my spouse and taught me how to be a wife. And now, all the promises he spoke to me during that time have been fulfilled. Now, I’m living the Resurrection.”
Extending God’s mercy in the confessional
When Pope Francis announced the Year of Mercy, he also announced his plan to grant special faculties to a select group of priests. For one year, in addition to preaching about mercy, these “missionaries of mercy” could lift the ecclesial punishment for sins normally reserved to the Holy See, such as desecration of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the United States, the Vatican granted these faculties to 125 priests. Four of those priests serve at the same parish: St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio. The Dominican-run parish sits in the heart of Columbus’ downtown business district. For years, they’ve offered confession every day, drawing people from across the region to the church, which is why so many of its priests were designated as missionaries of mercy. Since word got out, however, that five “mercy priests” heard confessions there, the normally long confession lines have grown even longer.
“People have driven great distances to have their confessions heard here,” said St. Patrick’s former pastor, Dominican Father Michael Mary Dosch. “Some were the big fish, people who have been away for years. A few were people who really needed priests with special faculties. But most could have gone anywhere. They just needed an extra push or wanted to participate in the Year of Mercy in this way.”
| Father Michael Marcy Dosch poses near St. Peter’s Basilica. CNS photo
In addition to hearing confessions, Father Dosch spent much of the past year preaching about God’s mercy, both at St. Patrick’s and at other area parishes.
Mercy, Father Dosch explained, has always been a “particular passion point” of his, so having “free license” to preach almost unceasingly about it, has been a particular blessing for him.
And while his and other missionaries of mercy’s time in the confessional has undoubtedly helped all those who called upon them this year, Father Dosch said the time has helped him too.
“In the confessional, the priest earns the title ‘Father’,” he explained. “So being a designated missionary of mercy wasn’t that different from what I already was, but it confirmed it more deeply and allowed me to feel part of a great movement of grace in the Church.”
High school sophomores practice mercy in ‘theology lab’
Last fall, parents and administrators at Father Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found themselves wrestling with the lack of service opportunities for the school’s students. A whole year — sophomore year — was supposed to be dedicated to the principle of service, but scheduling difficulties meant that dedication was heavy on theory, light on practice.
At the same time, as the school assessed that problem, Pope Francis issued a call for “institutions of mercy.” He wanted to see more Catholics going out into the world and either rebuilding or building new structures that could provide aid to those most in need.
| Students pray outside of Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, Mich. Courtesy photo
As discussions progressed, the school realized it could both answer Pope Francis’ call and fill the hole in its curriculum by establishing its own “school of mercy.” During their sophomore year, students would spend a semester immersed in the Church’s teachings on social justice and human dignity. They would also leave the school one day a week to put into practice what they learned.
“We wanted it to be almost like a theology lab,” said Bradley Stalder, a math teacher at Gabriel Richard who coordinates the program. “Anyone can do service, and anyone can read about Catholic social teaching. But our hope was that by experiencing service firsthand, all the abstract theology students studied in the classroom could become concrete and make their faith come alive.”
Figuring out a way to fit the “theology lab” into the school day wasn’t easy; it took cooperation from faculty across the curriculum. It also took a good deal of networking, as the school lined up opportunities for service in the local area. But starting this past September, the school’s Sophomore Service Program officially launched. During the first two weeks of the semester, Stalder and a theology teacher at Gabriel Richard High School gave students a preview of the various agencies where they could serve. They prepped them for situations and challenges they might encounter — showing videos and engaging in role play — and conducted a question-and-answer session with the students. Since one of the service opportunities would involve praying outside of an abortion clinic, they also brought in a sidewalk counselor to talk about her experiences in the field.
After that, students chose their assignment preferences, duties were divided up, and the field experience began.
Now, every Tuesday morning, a bus picks up one quarter of the sophomore class and drives them to their various assignments. It drops students off at either Planned Parenthood, where they’ll pray quietly on the sidewalks, one of two elderly care centers or one of three Catholic elementary schools. On Thursday, it does the same for another quarter of students. Next semester, the other half of the sophomore class will get their turn.
Accompanying the students are adult supervisors who keep things running smoothly. After about two hours on site, the students return to school.
Although the program has been up and running for less than three months, it’s been a rousing success, with universally positive feedback from students and faculty alike.
One student, Stalder recalled, couldn’t wait to tell him about her day at the elderly care facility, where she met a woman from Poland who had been in a concentration camp as a child.
“Our students, who are 13-16, aren’t exposed to many people of that generation,” Stalder said.
“So for her, this is invaluable. And the beauty is that it’s not a one-time deal. She gets to go back every week and have lunch with this woman.”
Experiences like that have won over even the most nervous of parents.
“We live in a society where we gravitate toward safe spaces,” Stalder said. “But this program lets kids get their hands a little dirty. It’s understandable that some parents had some reservations. So, after one parent came up to me and expressed some concerns, I invited them to come along with us.
“That parent went with us a couple weeks ago and called the principle immediately afterwards,” Stalder said. “She told him how amazing the experience was. She now wants to go back with us again as a regular volunteer.”