In a formal apostolic letter addressed to all Catholics, Pope Francis has announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy, beginning on 8 December 2015, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception and 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II.
Special graces are available to all those who participate in Year of Mercy activities during the Holy Year.
His 28 page Apostolic Letter is a profound exposition on God as the embodiment of love, and the role of the Church in explaining and dispensing God’s mercy on mankind.
The Apostolic Letter announced that a week after the Holy Door of St Peter’s is open on 8 December, the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Rome – that is, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran – will be opened.
Holy Doors of the other papal basilicas will then be opened. As well, as a sign of communion of the whole Church, the pope has requested that every diocese in the world open a similar “Door of Mercy” for the local celebrations of the Jubilee.
In his letter, the Holy Father highlighted the words of St John XXIII at the opening of the Vatican Council: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity … The Catholic Church, as she holds high the torch of Catholic truth at this Ecumenical Council, wants to show herself a loving mother to all; patient, kind, moved by compassion and goodness toward her separated children.”
He also referred to the words of Paul VI at the end of the Council: “We prefer to point out how charity has been the principal religious feature of this Council … the story of the Good Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the Council … a wave of affection and admiration flowed from the Council over the modern world of humanity. Errors were condemned, indeed, because charity demanded this no less than did truth, but for individuals themselves there was only admonition, respect and love.”
Pope Francis also highlighted how our Heavenly Father, revealed to us in both the Old Testament and the New, is a God of mercy.
He said, “‘Patient and merciful.’ These words often go together in the Old Testament to describe God’s nature.
“His being merciful is concretely demonstrated in his many actions throughout the history of salvation where his goodness prevails over punishment and destruction.
“In a special way the Psalms bring to the fore the grandeur of his merciful action: ‘He forgives all your iniquity, he heals all your diseases, he redeems your life from the pit, he crowns you with steadfast love and mercy’ (Ps 103:3-4).
“Another psalm, in an even more explicit way, attests to the concrete signs of his mercy: ‘He executes justice for the oppressed; he gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin’.”
He also referred to the numerous acts of mercy which Jesus showed, from his first miracle at Cana in Galilee, to his last moment on the Cross, when he forgave those who had crucified him.
Pope Francis said, “With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.
“The mission Jesus received from the Father was that of revealing the mystery of divine love in its fullness. ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8,16), John affirms for the first and only time in all of Holy Scripture. This love has now been made visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life.
“His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously. The relationships he forms with the people who approach him show something entirely unique and unrepeatable.
“The signs he works, especially in favour of sinners, the poor, the marginalised, the sick, and the suffering, are all meant to teach mercy. Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion.”
Pope Francis says that the extraordinary love which Jesus showed to all is also a commandment he gives to us.
“Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.
“Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive!
“And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully.”
Pope Francis insisted that the Church itself must become a more effective instrument of God’s mercy. He made an impassioned plea that Lent 2016 in this Jubilee Year should be a time of particular mercy.
“The initiative of 24 Hours for the Lord, to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent, should be implemented in every diocese.
“So many people, including young people, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives.
“Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.”
The Holy Father also emphasised that it is the particular role of priests to be agents of God’s unlimited mercy.
“I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically.
“We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy. Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves.
“We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this.”
Pope Francis also announced that he would send out “Missionaries of Mercy”, who are priests who would be commissioned to both preach and offer the sacrament of reconciliation for the Jubilee Year.
He said, “They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer.”
This statement has given rise to a great deal of confusion and erroneous commentary, arising in part from a letter which Pope Francis wrote to the head of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, on the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
After explaining that the Jubilee Year is an opportunity for Catholics to receive Indulgences by participating in the Year of Mercy, and receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion, he referred specifically to the church’s wish to offer Christ’s mercy to all involved with abortion.
He said, “I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in the heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision. What has happened in profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.
“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.
“For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding any thing to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
Many media and TV reports have falsely claimed that women who have had abortions would be able to receive the sacrament during the Jubilee Year – implying that they cannot currently receive it, or have not been forgiven if they have been to confession.
This is completely wrong.
The Code of Canon Law (1983) identifies “sins reserved to the Holy See”. They do not include women who have had abortions.
It does include doctors who procure abortions, as well as priests who have violated the seal of confession, a person who physically attacked the Pope, an apostate from the faith, and a bishop who ordains another bishop without a papal mandate.
Pope Francis made a particular call to those involved in organised crime and corruption to reconcile themselves to God during the Jubilee Year.
The Holy Father then discusses the complementary roles of justice and mercy. He is emphatic that “these are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.”
He upholds the principle on which justice is based. “Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law. Justice is also understood as that which is rightly due to each individual.”
But faced with “a vision of justice as the mere observance of the law that judges people simply by dividing them into two groups – the just and sinners – Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation.”
This is the role of Christians, and of the Church.
Pope Francis then entrusted the Jubilee Year to Our Lady. He said, “May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness.
“No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love.”