Making the jubilee truly ‘extraordinary’

The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis was not only “extraordinary” in the sense that it fell outside the cycle of “ordinary” jubilees, which fall every quarter of a century. Pope Francis also made his jubilee special for the signs that characterized it.

Beyond the solemn celebrations at the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis set out to embrace the disabled, former addicts, infants in a neonatal unit and others in a series of visits. The idea was to celebrate a monthly “Mercy Friday,” visiting a place dedicated to serving the poor, the sick or people otherwise on the peripheries of society, to remind Catholics of the importance of corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

For example, near Termini Station, the biggest train station in Rome, there is a Caritas hostel well known by the poor and the homeless as a place to obtain shelter, clean clothes and a hot meal. On Dec. 18, 2015, the cafeteria entrance became a Door of Mercy, crossed first by Pope Francis before he celebrated Mass with hostel residents and volunteers.

According to Roberta Molina, manager of the hostel, it was the love that Pope Francis has for the poor that led him to place a Holy Door, for the first time, not in a place of worship, but in “a place where the poor are loved, recognized, greeted.”

Personal encounters

After December’s appearance at the train station, Pope Francis began to live out the “Mercy Friday” visits privately, without the press, without disrupting the lives of the people he visited.

Father Lucio Zappatore, a pastor in Torre Spaccata, a suburban district of Rome, recalled the lighthearted warning from the Vatican — “God help us if you tell anyone, because they will jump all over it!” — ahead of the pope’s visit to Bruno Buozzi, a home for senior citizens. On Jan. 15, Pope Francis made a surprise appearance to unsuspecting seniors.

“What do you usually do at this hour?” asked the pope.

“We have tea.”

“We take it together?” Pope Francis proposed.

On Feb. 26, near Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the popes, the Comunità san Carlo (CEIS, Italian center of solidarity founded by Father Mario Picchi) welcomed the pope with a snack of pizza and a conversation lasting more than two hours with the young guests of the community, all former drug addicts.

“But the pope never looked at the clock,” said Roberto Mineo, president of CEIS. “He didn’t avoid any question, not even the most uncomfortable, very naturally, as if it were in his house.” The pope stressed the importance of always getting back up after a fall. And this, Mineo added, “is also our experience of 50 years of the CEIS. It is not easy, but you can conquer all the addictions.”

People on the peripheries

In March, on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Castelnuovo di Porto, near Rome, and washed the feet of 12 refugees. Three were Muslims, and one was Hindu.

April’s “Friday of Mercy” was moved to a Saturday, when Pope Francis went to the island of Lesbos in Greece to meet refugees who arrived, mostly from Syria, through Turkey. But the real surprise came on the way back to Rome, when it was revealed that Pope Francis had brought 12 refugees — three families — back with him. They now live in Italy.

'Mercy Friday' visits in the Year of Mercy
Dec. 18: Holy Door at Termini Caritas shelter

On May 13, Pope Francis visited the Chicco community, which belongs to L’Arche (The Ark), founded by Jean Vanier. Its guests are all people with mental disabilities. Pope Francis offered snacks of fruit and pastries. The TV coverage by the only authorized camera showed the pope smiling while chatting with everyone, children and adults, in the dining room. He also visited the bedridden in their rooms.

“He put in the middle, those that the world considers ‘unnecessary,’ people that society does not consider,” recalls the head of the community, Marco Veronesi, who notes that the pope “in asking us to pray for him, recognized that the poorest are those who are closest to the heart of Jesus.”

On June 3, the Jubilee of Priests was held in St. Peter’s Basilica. Thinking about those who were unable to attend, two weeks after, the pope visited Mount Tabor community in Pomezia. “Guests,” as Deacon Ermes Luparia, director of the house, describes them, “are priests who face psychological problems, vocational crises, or simply burnout that affects many priests.” Deacon Luparia recalled, “He was very fatherly. He also recounted his experiences in Argentina, and at the end, he just said, ‘It did me good to be with you’.” On the way back to the Vatican, he stopped also in another house, home to 21 elderly and sick priests.

For July, the “Mercy Friday” was celebrated during his trip to Poland for World Youth Day, with prayer at Auschwitz and a visit to the Krakow pediatric hospital.

Women and children

On Aug. 12, Pope Francis visited a house of the Pope John XXIII Community that is home to 20 young women. These women are mostly foreigners who have been reclaimed from a criminal prostitution racket. They are victims of serious physical and psychological violence. For Pope Francis, it was another occasion to condemn human trafficking as a “crime against humanity” and “a plague in the flesh of Christ.”

The Sept. 16 visit to the neonatal ward of Rome’s San Giovanni hospital saw the pope don doctor’s scrubs to visit babies and their parents. The same day, he visited the hospice Villa Speranza for the terminally ill.

“There were two young South Americans, brother and sister, who had just lost their mother. Only by chance they found themselves along the way of Francis,” said Pier Francesco Meneghini, president of the foundation managing the hospice. “But anyway, he stopped, heard and hugged them, and both of them broke down in tears.”

The most recent Mercy Friday was on Oct. 14 at the SOS Village in the Boccea zone, a suburb of Rome, where the guests are children from troubled or poor families. It was an afternoon of games, chats and selfies.

“Francis brought sweets and candies. He recommended to let children play as usual. He tasted the lollipop of a child. He also heard a rap from headphones of a young boy’s smartphone,” the village director, Paolo Contini said.

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.