Living the Year of Mercy

On Dec. 8, 2015, the Holy Doors in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome will swing open for the first time in 15 years. From that day until Nov. 20, 2016, the Church invites Catholics and non-Catholics alike to encounter God’s grace during an extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

God’s mercy, of course, is ever-present and ever-abundant. A Year of Mercy doesn’t make God more merciful or more inclined to forgive. God can’t change. But we can ... and must. As Pope Francis explained in Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”), the bull of indiction that announced the Year of Mercy, “At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (No. 3).

The Year of Mercy is meant to be one of those times — a season for Christians to become “stronger and more effective” witnesses to the Faith we proclaim, changed both by contemplating the depths of God’s mercy and by imitating Christ in the world today (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 3).

To help make that possible, the Holy Father used Misericordiae Vultus not only to reflect on God’s mercy but also to outline a course of action. In it, he offered a series of practical suggestions for how Catholics should celebrate the Year of Mercy ahead.

Key Dates

Go to confession

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the sacrament of mercy. In the confessional, God freely offers his forgiveness to all who ask for it with a sincere heart and a genuine purpose of amendment. He requires no payment and no sacrifice; he took care of that himself long ago on Calvary. Instead, all God asks is that we show up. If we do our part, he does his.

confession
Shutterstock

During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has granted extraordinary powers to all priests to forgive sins that, in some places, are still reserved to the bishop, such as abortion. He also has called for a special time of repentance during Lent. The initiative, 24 Hours for the Lord, will place special emphasis on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in dioceses around the world.

But the confessional isn’t just for those who’ve been involved with an abortion. The confessional is for every person who has broken faith with God in some way — who has yelled at their spouse, gossiped about a neighbor, skipped Mass on Sunday or wasted time at work. Which is to say, the confessional is for all of us.

We don’t need to wait until Lent to pay it a visit. Every week, in almost every parish across America, priests sit in those confessionals, waiting for us to come and tell God that we’re sorry. They know that when we do, we will, in the words of Pope Francis, “touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with [our] own hands” and experience “true interior peace” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 17).

Read conversion stories

In the late third century, St. Augustine penned the first known spiritual autobiography, “Confessions.” The book told of the recently ordained Bishop of Hippo’s journey from unbelief to belief, from lust to chastity, and from love of self to love of God. The tale captivated readers then, just as it captivates readers now. It also set the mold for all similar stories of conversion that would follow.

Through the centuries, conversion stories have challenged, comforted and encouraged millions of men and women on their journey to God. They offer enduring and concrete examples of God’s mercy in the lives of individual believers. They remind us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, and they help us better understand our personal journey to holiness.

Above all, conversion stories witness to the fact that we all are called to conversion. Whether we were born and raised Catholic or not, every person must reject the world and give their heart to the Lord. Without choosing Christ once and then repeatedly thereafter — there can be no discipleship. There can be no living faith.

For those reasons and more, conversion stories are central to the forthcoming 24 Hours for the Lord initiative. During that time, and throughout the Year of Mercy, the Church wants the faithful to revisit famous converts of days past as well as familiarize themselves with more recent converts. Their testimonies of grace offer us guidance in how to give our own testimony of grace. They also, offer us, as Pope Francis wrote, “a new chance to look at [ourselves], convert, and believe” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 21).

Perform works of mercy

God call us to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). This year and always, being a “doer” entails performing works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual.

The corporal works of mercy involve caring for the bodies and material needs of others: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead.

soup kitchen
Shutterstock

The spiritual works of mercy involve caring for souls and the spiritual welfare of our fellow man: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offences, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.

Jesus, Pope Francis explained, “introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching, so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 15).

He also tells us that we will be judged on how we cared for the least of our brothers and sisters (Mt 25:34-46).

But performing works of mercy doesn’t only offer us an escape plan from “eternal punishment”; it also helps us understand mercy from the inside. It reawakens our conscience, “too often grown dull,” and helps us learn to see our own spiritual poverty in the faces of the materially and spiritually poor (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 15).

Accordingly, throughout this Year of Mercy, the Holy Father asks us to heed Christ’s words and reach out to those in need. Practically speaking, that means we can donate food to a food pantry and clothes to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We can invite a new family in town to supper and donate our spare change to a nonprofit that provides children in Africa with clean water. We can also have Masses said for departed friends and loved ones, visit the sick and the dying in nursing homes or hospitals, offer up Rosaries for the conversion of family members who have lost the Faith, and just hold our tongues (and tempers) the next time someone cuts us off in traffic.

Go on pilgrimage

Mercy isn’t free. We always pay for it. Not with money, but with effort. Mercy, wrote Pope Francis, requires “dedication and sacrifice”; it requires that we reject sin, selfishness and destructive desires (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 14). In effect, it requires doing things God’s way, not our way. Thanks to our fallen natures, that’s rarely easy. But, since the most ancient of times, the Church has recommended that those seeking mercy go on pilgrimage, both to better understand what mercy requires and as a means of developing the discipline necessary to walk in God’s ways.

pilgrimage
Shutterstock

As the pope explained, when we travel to a sacred place, we remember “Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim traveling along the road, making his way to the desired destination.” We also come to see mercy not as a cheap handout but rather as a priceless gift, which cost Christ his life, and is a “goal to reach” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 14).

For innumerable men and women throughout the ages, this experience of pilgrimage — to Rome and Jerusalem, Fatima and Lourdes, national basilicas and local shrines — has been an occasion of conversion and grace. It has offered them an opportunity to atone for sins, ask for forgiveness and draw closer to the Lord.

For this reason, during the Year of Mercy, the Church invites all believers to make a pilgrimage, whether to a nearby cathedral or to far away sacred ground, so that, while on pilgrimage, we might “find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 14).

Walk through a Holy Door

For at least 500 hundred years, Holy Doors and Jubilees have gone hand in hand.

During this Jubilee of Mercy, however, Holy Doors will take on an unprecedented significance. Not only will the Holy Doors in Rome open for pilgrims, but Pope Francis also has asked that every cathedral and basilica around the world set up a similar door, a Door of Mercy.

The tradition of Holy Doors dates back to the early 15th century, when Pope Martin V declared that one of the doors in the Basilica of St. John Lateran could only be opened during a jubilee year.

door
Shutterstock

By the end of the century, all the major basilicas in Rome had similar Holy Doors, set aside for jubilee years.

The doors themselves symbolize Christ, who called himself “the gate” to eternal life (Jn 10:9). For pilgrims, to walk through the Holy Doors is to walk, in spirit, from sin to grace and from death to life, acknowledging Christ as the only way to the Father.

During this Year of Mercy, all the Holy Doors in Rome and across Europe will be flung open. Everyone who walks through them will have the opportunity to obtain a plenary indulgence for themselves or a departed loved one. For those who can’t travel across an ocean, the same graces will be available in any local cathedral or shrine with a “Door of Mercy,” where, Pope Francis said, “anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 3).  

Obtain indulgences

When most people hear the word “indulgences,” they think of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation and the few bad apples who, in the late Middle Ages, promised people a quick escape from purgatory in exchange for generous charitable donations.

But indulgences are so much more than their checkered medieval history suggests. They are an ongoing manifestation of God’s mercy in the world, freeing us “from every residue left by the consequences of sin,” and enabling us to “act with charity” and “grow in love” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 22).

As the Church understands it, through the centuries, by God’s grace, holy men and women have done good works. They’ve prayed, suffered, sacrificed and served. And the more they’ve done that — the more they’ve responded to God’s grace with faithful, loving obedience — the more grace God has poured out upon them.

Through this loving, fruitful exchange of grace and good works, something like an excess of merit and grace builds up. We call this excess “The Treasury of the Saints.” It is, in a sense, like a bank account of graced merit, which the rest of us can draw upon in order to escape temporal punishment for our sins.

Or, as Pope Francis put it, “[the saints’] 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” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 22).

That aid can be plenary (meaning full remission from temporal punishment for sin), or just partial, and we can obtain it for both departed loved ones and for ourselves. As for how we go about obtaining it, there are many ways: walking through the Holy Doors, going on pilgrimages, even praying the Rosary and reading Sacred Scripture.

In every case, however, the conditions for obtaining an indulgence remain the same: complete detachment from sin, reception of the Eucharist, making a good confession that day or on a proximate day, praying for the intentions of the pope and being in a state of grace by the time the work for the indulgence is complete.

Contemplate God’s mercy in Scripture

Sacred Scripture is both the word of God and the story of God in time. It traces the history of God’s dealings with men, recalling his merciful provisions for humanity, from Eden to Calvary and beyond. God’s mercy cannot be understood apart from the Bible. Which is why Pope Francis has called upon the faithful to ponder its pages more closely this coming year, especially during the Lenten season.

“How many pages of Sacred Scripture are appropriate for meditation during the weeks of Lent to help us rediscover the merciful face of the Father!” the Holy Father asked (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 17). In Misericoriae Vultus, Francis pointed specifically to the prophets Micah and Isaiah as starting points for that meditation. But the psalms, which are ancient Israel’s songs of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, also offer almost endless insights into God’s mercy, as does the entire history of ancient Israel, from Genesis through Maccabees.

During Lent, or throughout the year, heeding the Holy Father’s advice to contemplate God’s mercy in Scripture is as simple as reading a chapter from the Bible each morning, praying the Divine Office with the Church or praying an abbreviated form of it with the Magnificat. Bible studies, like the St. Paul Center’s Journey Through Scripture and Ascension Press’s Bible Timeline, or books like Father Mitch Pacwa’s “Mercy: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics” (OSV, $9.95), also offer insights into God’s mercy through familiarizing people with the story of salvation history, while Pope Benedict XVI’s trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth can serve as a guide to seeing God’s mercy incarnated in the face of Christ.

Year of Mercy App
Our Sunday Visitor has designed an app to accompany you on your spiritual journey during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Called “365 Days to Mercy,” it reflects the motto for the year: “Merciful like the Father.”
opening session

Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet

At the end of Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis points to St. Faustina Kowalska as a “great apostle of mercy” (No. 24). That’s understandable, considering that the devotion God entrusted to the Polish nun in 1935, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, comes loaded with more promises and graces than the Year of Mercy itself: great mercy at the hour of death, great mercy for the dying, grace for sinners, grace for the world, and more.

Through a series of private revelations, God showed St. Faustina a glimpse into the depths of his mercy. He tasked her with sharing that glimpse with the world and teaching others to pray the simple chaplet, which implores God’s mercy, “For the sake of [Christ’s] sorrowful passion.”

Although St. Faustina especially urged people to pray the prayer in the nine days before the feast of Mercy (the Sunday after Easter), it’s also commonly prayed after Holy Communion, at the bedside of the sick and dying, and during the Hour of Mercy — the hour of Christ’s death, 3 p.m. — every day.

How to Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet
Using an ordinary rosary, with five decades of beads:
rosary
Shutterstock

Forgive those who have hurt you

Extending pardon to those who’ve wronged us is one of the spiritual works of mercy. During the Year of Mercy, however, Pope Francis has asked men and women to pay special attention to this particular command of the Church.

hug
Shutterstock

Referencing Jesus’ words to Peter — that we must forgive our enemy “not seven times but 77 times” — and the parable of the ruthless servant, who refuses to forgive when he has been forgiven, Pope Francis writes, “Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves” (Mt 18:22-35, Misericordiae Vultus, No. 9).

Ultimately, we cannot live the Year of Mercy, unless we’re merciful. We can pray, sacrifice, read Scripture, go on pilgrimage and walk through Holy Doors, obtaining indulgences on a daily basis. But unless we strive to forgive those who’ve hurt us and do what we can to repair broken relationships, we’re missing the point. It’s the merciful who obtain mercy, so if we want to receive mercy during this great Jubilee and become the witnesses we’re called to be, we have to extend it to others (Mt 5:7).

To some, this can seem impossible. But the Angel Gabriel was clear: With God’s grace, all things are possible.

And during this Year of Mercy, the grace to be merciful is sure to abound.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.



Prayer for the Year of Mercy