Those of us attending the conference for journalists at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross — there are about three dozen of us representing five continents — have been participating in a wide range of sessions meant to give us a closer look at the inner workings and mission of the Catholic Church.
While we’ve explored St. Peter’s and attended an audience with Pope Francis, among other encounters — including Thursday’s reception at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, hosted by Peter Martin, a political and economic counselor at the embassy — much of the work has been done in a classroom setting by lecturers from various curial departments.
The first session Thursday fell into that category, as Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican undersecretary for relations with states, gave members (off the record) a better understanding of the Vatican’s diplomatic responsibilities and the Holy See’s role on the international stage. While it was tremendously informative and interesting, it wasn’t the most engaging of topics.
And I expected the session following it to be of a similar nature.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Father Geno Sylva, a New Jersey native with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which has been charged by Pope Francis to promote and coordinate the Jubilee Year of Mercy events, spoke on the importance and the mission of the Holy Year.
Check that. He didn’t speak on the Holy Year; he sermonized on it. For the better part of an hour and a half, Father Sylva transformed the university’s lecture hall into his pulpit, giving us an enthusiastic homily on how the Year of Mercy should be seen as the "Year of Joy."
He explained the transformative power of mercy on our lives, how the expression of that mercy can only be joy, and the difference between a fleeting moment of happiness and the lasting virtue of joy.
“Happiness is an emotion and feeling that is predicated on the circumstances of our lives,” Father Sylva said. “But joy is not based on the emotions of the moment. Joy is not a feeling. It’s a conviction of knowing that we are loved by Christ. Even when we are not happy, we can still be joyful, and that’s what faith gives us.”
Mercy, he said, “is the concrete action of our God who is love.”
It is this aspect of the Church — mercy-giving and mercy-receiving — on which Pope Francis wants to shine a light during the Jubilee Year, he said.
Father Sylva told a story of an elderly gentleman who came to St. Peter’s Basilica to walk through the Holy Door of Mercy. Because of the large crowds of pilgrims coming to Rome during this Year of Mercy, Father Sylva said, when lines are long, volunteers try to keep the masses moving. But Father Sylva said that one day, he saw a man going through the Holy Door, circling back outside of the basilica and coming through again.
Father Sylva, speaking of the kindness and generosity of the more than 4,000 people who so far have donated their time to come to Rome to become volunteers to help pilgrims during the Year of Mercy, said that he approached the man, saying, “Isn’t this your second time through the Holy Door?” The elderly man corrected him and said, “No, Father, I’ve been through it three times.” When asked why, he told Father Sylva it was because of the kindness of the volunteers. “I felt loved,” the man said.
“Love in action is mercy,” Father Sylva said. “It is mercy that is the supreme act in which our God meets us.”
What Pope Francis has done in celebrating mercy in this special way, he said, “has inspired a hope that is incredible, and this Jubilee Year is the instrument.”
Father Sylva closed his speech by imparting Pope Francis’ message of hope, brought about by mercy.
“When he’s talking about hope, he’s talking about the conviction of knowing that we’re loved by God. We don’t need to know what tomorrow brings because we know we’re loved by God.”
Scott Warden is OSV's associate editor for content. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.