Fear and mercy

The Year of Mercy began ominously in Rome on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Pilgrims lined up before dawn, clutching our bright-green tickets and jostling in a classic Italian scrum up to the first security checkpoint. A wall of police checked bags and coats and then waved us through to traverse security barriers up the long broad street known as Via della Conciliazione.

Upon reaching the towering colonnade, there was a second security checkpoint where everyone had to pass through airport metal detectors. Only then were we allowed to enter the vast cobblestoned square in front of St. Peter’s for the opening Mass.

Welcome to the Year of Mercy in the Age of ISIS.

A few days earlier, news reports said Italians were so concerned about the risks of something happening in Rome during the Jubilee Year that there was even a hashtag campaign on social media to stop the Jubilee. Taxi drivers guesstimated that crowds were down from the last Holy Year in 2000.

Of course, tens of thousands were brave enough to fill most of the square for the opening Mass under dreary gray skies. The pope in his homily seemed to address the anxiety: “Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved.”

In the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, in the wake of posturing politicians and polls that tell us how scared all of us suddenly are, setting aside fear and dread seems a tall order.

The marketing of fear and dread seems particularly robust these days: In Rome, soldiers in fatigues and police are omnipresent all about the neighborhoods and streets surrounding the Vatican. This would seem a prudent precaution, but a nervous-making one as well.

Here at home, politicians compete with each other to propose more extreme measures of security and retaliation, while the rest of us imagine our own vulnerability at office Christmas parties in the face of random acts of evil. One woman at a dinner gathering in a small Indiana town responded to my wishes that she have a merry Christmas by saying she just hopes she doesn’t get shot.

Terrorists fight an asymmetrical war. We can kill 100 of them and it means nothing. They kill one of us and it gets exhaustive news coverage. They kill 14 of us and it gets headlines around the world. In such a world, it feels like terror has the better hand: Heads it wins, tails we lose.

And in such an asymmetrical contest, we can surrender to the terror, locking out the world, sacrificing our civil liberties, feeding our anger, giving in to our fear.

The Year of Mercy is a profound and providential event. I hope we all prayerfully pass through the Holy Doors in our dioceses with these words from Pope Francis in our hearts: “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 the Holy Door, he said, means that “we ourselves are part of this mystery of love.”

Mercy cannot coexist with fear and dread.

To transform the world, we must first be transformed by the loving mercy of God. This is how we bear witness to a frightened world. Fear gives way in this fatherly embrace, and in turn we extend mercy to others.

As Pope Francis pushed the Holy Door open on Dec. 8, the sun came out, and all the pilgrims were bathed in its December warmth as they waited to cross the garland-draped threshold.

Love conquers fear. Mercy triumphs over dread. A Year of Mercy has begun.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.