Contrary to what some Catholics may think, not all Vatican offices are housed within the walls of the Vatican itself. On Via della Conciliazione, 5, resides the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Founded by Pope Benedict in 2010, its first and only president is Archbishop Rino Fisichella. A short, wiry man who is an expert on the famed Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Archbishop Fisichella had a long Vatican pedigree before being given the mandate by Pope Benedict to launch the new council.
In March 2015, the council was charged with what may become one of the legacy achievements of the pontificate of Pope Francis: The Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The day after the Holy Year was launched on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, Archbishop Fisichella sat down with Our Sunday Visitor to discuss the Holy Year and its meaning for Catholics.
The first question concerned the remarkable project commissioned by Archbishop Fisichella at the behest of the Holy Father: Eight short books on varied aspects of mercy. (Our Sunday Visitor is the exclusive English-language publisher of these works.)
Our Sunday Visitor: How did the eight books for the Jubilee Year come about?
Archbishop Rino Fisichella: When I spoke to the Holy Father, we discussed how to prepare a large number of people to reflect on mercy for the Year of the Jubilee. We thought about the possibility of putting together several aspects of mercy. First of all the celebration of mercy, because the event is a spiritual event. Sometimes we can worry about structures, about pilgrimages, about many other things. But in the mind of Pope Francis, the jubilee should be first of all a moment of spirituality. [After that] we have several books: the parables of mercy, the psalms of mercy, the fathers of the Church and mercy, the teaching of the popes and mercy, the saints and mercy, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Our understanding was to reflect on several aspects of mercy.
OSV: How the world views or understands mercy is often different from how the Church views mercy, is it not?
Archbishop Fisichella: I think that we are in a very crazy moment for culture because in some ways for both believers and non-believers we forget the concept of mercy. We keep the word, but the word is empty. It is not filled with our witness. Probably in the past we confused mercy with piety, and not with the essence of the Gospel. And we don’t realize that especially for this moment, we need mercy. We need to be instruments of mercy. In today’s world of violence and poverty, we have forgotten mercy. Mercy is to be close to someone. Mercy means to console, to share, to dialogue, to support, to care for someone.
OSV: Pope Francis in his papal bull announcing the Holy Year talks about justice and mercy as two dimensions of a single reality. Some people say they are all for mercy, but there has to be justice. What is your reaction to these statements?
Archbishop Fisichella: Several times I have had people tell me: “Mercy, mercy, you speak about mercy, but first of all there is justice. We must not forget justice.” I smile when I hear this kind of objection because they do not have the right understanding of justice and mercy. First of all justice: Because we cannot confuse the human concept of justice with the biblical understanding of justice. They are two different elements. When we speak about justice and we say we need to put justice before mercy, probably we don’t have coherent understanding of mercy. [On Dec. 8] in the homily of Pope Francis, there was a beautiful passage he attributed to St. Augustine: “How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy.”
OSV: You are an expert in Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar explored the idea that God in his mercy could find a way to save everyone without violating their freedom.
Archbishop Fisichella: The quote about the thought of von Balthasar is often misunderstood. Von Balthasar never said that hell is empty. He never said that. He said he hoped that hell would be empty, and that makes the difference. The Church can say with certitude, in a definite way, that this man, this woman is in Paradise and he is a saint. But never, never does the Church say that anyone is in hell, because this doesn’t belong to us. This is about the personal, intimate meeting between God and each of us at the moment of our death, in the moment we are making the last decision of our life, to decide for God or for our self.
OSV: Does it seem providential that the start of the Holy Year of Mercy coincides with a huge controversy in the U.S. and in Europe about refugees and immigrants?
Archbishop Fisichella: I think that in the heart of the Year of Mercy are the works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy include sheltering the homeless. This can be the person without country or land, without anything. The problem is not just the refugees. The problem is immigration first of all. For the refugees is just one aspect of immigration. Immigration is irreversible because it is a phenomenon that belongs to humanity. This is not just for the society of today. The first immigrant was Abraham.
OSV: The Holy Year has just begun. Are there any initiatives of this Year of Mercy that will be of particular interest?
Archbishop Fisichella: For the moment we start with opening the Holy Door. This is the beginning. One Friday a month the Holy Father will give a sign of mercy. The Holy Father wishes that this sign can be also shared with bishops, priests. And so I think that during the Holy Year these signs of mercy can be an initiative for many dioceses.
OSV: What advice would you give ordinary Catholics about living a more merciful life in this Holy Year?
Archbishop Fisichella: First of all, pray the prayer of the jubilee, because this is a way to stay in communion with everybody. This is why the pope wrote the prayer for the jubilee: It is a way to live a common experience. Second I would say to take the works of mercy — the 14 spiritual and corporal works of mercy — and live in a concrete way the Year of Mercy. Become an instrument of mercy.
OSV: Why did the pope give the task of this Holy Year to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization? What does the Year of Mercy have to do with the new evangelization?
Archbishop Fisichella: The Holy Father explicitly explained the reason why we are responsible for the Year of Mercy. He said the Year of Mercy should be a special topic for the new evangelization because mercy is the essence of the Gospel. The new evangelization should be able to show the essence, the most important thing, about the Gospel, and this is mercy. For this reason, we need to find a new language to show how mercy is real, is urgent for people today.
Greg Erlandson is OSV publisher.