Mark Nicholls on the forthcoming Holy Year

Some of us may have heard of Lampedusa. Some may even know what and where it is. For those of us who do not, it may be useful to cast our minds back two years or more. It was the first place outside the diocese of Rome that Pope Francis visited after his election as Pope on 13th March 2013. It is a rocky outcrop: an island in the southern Mediterranean, and Italian territory between Sicily, Tunisia and Malta.

Pope Francis visited the place in July 2013 following the death by drowning of migrants crossing the sea by boat from Africa to Europe.

The Pope said a simple mass for those who had lost their lives and called for a reawakening of consciences to counter the indifference shown to migrants, saying “we have lost a sense of brotherly responsibility and have forgotten how to cry for migrants lost at sea”.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is not about the current and growing crisis of migrants and refugees, but it is natural that the one ought to bring the other into sharper focus. And the point is that it is ‘Extraordinary’ – so perhaps the crisis has been a spark that kindled in the Pope’s mind and ministry a burning fire to focus on not just justice, but more particularly on mercy as a guiding principle undergirding the faith of Christian people and indeed his own pontificate.

Pope Francis, celebrating the second anniversary of his election earlier this year, proclaimed the Holy Year during a Lenten penitential liturgy in St Peter’s Basilica, and the biblical passage on which the Year is based comes from the words of Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel (6.36): ‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful’. Similar words appear on the logo for the Holy Year.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception will mark the inauguration of the Year and it will continue until the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2016. One of the features that will inaugurate the year will be the opening of the Holy Door in St Peter’s and in other cathedrals and churches throughout the world. The Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiæ Vultus, is published by the Catholic Truth Society at £2.50 in a very useful pocket- or handbag-sized booklet. At 44 pages, it is deeply scriptural and fascinating devotional material; and also a foundation document for ideas for parishes and dioceses to do something practical: both liturgically and at a human, humanitarian level.

Far from being another case of disaster fatigue, the international refugee crisis has highlighted the need for mercy and humankindness in the face of one of the greatest mass movements of people since the Second World War. In Misericordiae Vultus Pope Francis revisits the traditional idea of the corporal works of mercy: practices that have their roots in Christian action and service and are based on the Scriptures, but which have grown increasingly neglected in western society with the growth of individualism and the prominence of the state in welfare issues. Many of these works of mercy are among the criteria upon which we shall all be judged: feeding the hungry; welcoming the stranger; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; healing the sick; visiting the imprisoned; and burying the dead.

It is to the Scriptures that Pope Francis looks to set the scene and basis for the Jubilee of Mercy: in the Old Testament and among the Psalms, but particularly in the teaching of Jesus, frequently through the parables and the challenges that the Lord laid at the feet both of his followers and his critics. The Pope also reflects on the teaching of the Fathers, and in a very personal note he tells us that he chose his own episcopal motto – miserando atque eligendo [compassion in decision-making] – from one of the Homilies of St Bede the Venerable on the call of Matthew, when Jesus looked on him ‘with merciful love, and chose him’. He also invokes the spirit of the Second Vatican Council – the Holy Year will begin on the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Council – and the words of St John XXIII at its opening – ‘Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity…[she] wants to show herself a loving mother to all… moved by compassion and goodness.’

The aims of the Holy Year are to encourage clergy and laity to grow in faith, witness, and service; and the Pope looks at Lent as a time when the impact of the year might set down some deep roots. No doubt we will see Lent Courses and liturgies published that will guide us into a more profound understanding of what we might do to make it a fruitful season in a year that envisages growth. There is, of course, a natural place for revisiting the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the Year of Mercy, drawing us closer to the Father’s abundant mercy in the forgiveness we receive having made our confession. There is a natural place for social action within the Holy Year, and as is usually the case the faithful are recommended to make a pilgrimage journeying with the intention of growing in mercy and love. An interesting note, if not an original one, is that the Pope weighs in to those who perpetrate criminal acts, violence, and corruption: inviting them to conversion of life and heart. He also advocates interfaith dialogue and discussion on the concept of mercy as it is seen in the world’s three great faiths. Finally the Pope commends the year to Our Lady, the Mother of mercy, and invites us all to obtain the grace of living and walking always according to the mercy of God. It should be a year which we approach with great anticipation: let us hope that its fruits will be plentiful. ND