Pope Francis is calling the Church to a renewed focus on mercy with the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy that begins today. At a time when people are closing national borders, the Church is opening the doors of mercy, both symbolically and literally. At a time when both terrorism and gun sales are up, the Church is promoting reconciliation, forgiveness, and an end to violence.
In calling for the jubilee year, Pope Francis emphasized that mercy is essential to the life of the Church—and the life of society as a whole, even if it is not popular:
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy.” Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope. (Misericordiae Vultus #10)
So what is a jubilee year, anyway? The law of Moses called for a jubilee at the end of every seventh Sabbath year, or about every fifty years. During the jubilee year, property was restored to its rightful owner, debts were forgiven, and slaves set free. (See Leviticus 25:8-13.) In the Catholic Church, the jubilee year is a time of special focus on justice and mercy, and in particular the remission of sins. The jubilee is usually accompanied by an indulgence, or special remission of the temporal consequences of sin (see Catechism #1471-1473) for those who make a special pilgrimage to Rome or another jubilee site. Typically, the Church celebrates a jubilee year every twenty-five years, the most recent being in the year 2000; however, the pope may call for an extraordinary jubilee, which is what Pope Francis has done.
During the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Church is granting a full indulgence to all pilgrims who visit the sites of the jubilee: the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and the other papal basilicas in Rome, as well as the cathedral church of each diocese, designated shrines, prison chapels, and other places designated by local bishops. The pilgrimage must be made with an attitude of certainty that God’s mercy extends to the whole life of the believer, and it must be accompanied by the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation and Mass, as well as a prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. People who are unable to travel due to infirmity or sickness may obtain the indulgence by living their suffering in union with the passion of Christ. Additionally, believers can obtain the jubilee indulgence by personally performing one of the corporeal or spiritual works of mercy. (See Misericordiae Vultus #22 for Pope Francis’s reflection on the theme of God’s indulgence.)
How can your family experience the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy? Here are some suggestions, many of them taken from the papal bull declaring the jubilee year.
1. Learn the meaning of mercy
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” Jesus told the Pharisees. “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
In a time when politicians the world over are vowing to “get tough,” the Church is calling for a renewed awareness of mercy.
A good way to begin is by helping your kids learn about and reflect on the meaning of mercy.
- Read Misericordiae Vultus, the papal declaration of the Year of Mercy, for an extended reflection on the meaning of mercy in the Gospel and the life of the Church. Focus in particular on the first twelve paragraphs, perhaps reading and reflecting on one a month as a family.
- There are more than fifty passages in the New Testament that refer to mercy; read some of them so that God might speak to your kids’ hearts about the meaning of mercy. (You can search for “mercy” in the New Testament at Bible Gateway.)
- Read what the saints have to say about mercy. Our Sunday Visitor has published a book relating the lives and writings of the saints to mercy, The Saints in Mercy: Pastoral Resources for Living the Jubilee. [Amazon]
2. Go to confession
“Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands,” Pope Francis writes (Misericordiae Vultus #17). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the way by which Christ continues to dispense God’s mercy “in person,” as it were. Those who regularly celebrate this “sacrament of mercy” report that it is a unique experience of God’s forgiveness, peace, and joy.
If your family does not regularly attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation, now is a good time to begin. Set a goal of attending so many times this year—maybe once during Advent, once during Lent, once over the summer, and once in the fall. If your family celebrates the sacrament more regularly, ramp it up—from once every two months to once a month, or every other week. Or celebrate the sacrament prior to special family celebrations, such as your wedding anniversary or a child’s birthday.
If getting to the sacrament poses special challenges for your family, see the article Celebrating Reconciliation with Kids: 9 Ways to Get Into the Habit for help.
3. Go on a pilgrimage
The pilgrimage has always had a place in Christian practice, especially during a jubilee year. Pope Francis writes:
The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us. (Misericordiae Vultus #15)
You might not be able to afford a pilgrimage to Rome, but your family is probably within easy driving distance of one of the local churches designated for the Jubilee. Or go a little further and visit a shrine that has been designated for the Jubilee.
As part of your pilgrimage, plan to walk through the ceremonial Holy Door of Mercy. (These doors will be opened in various places during the first month of the Jubilee.) Also plan time to pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation, and celebrate Mass.
The Vatican has provided a Family Resource for the Passage of the Holy Door. The resource contains text from the pope’s announcement of the jubilee year, as well as a template for your family to write the “Great Hallel” of your family based on the refrain “for his mercy endures forever” from Psalm 136. The resource includes prayers to say and questions to discuss before and after the family’s passage through the Holy Door, and concludes with an invitation to make a commitment to help the poor.
Check your diocesan calendar for special events related to the Jubilee Year, and plan your pilgrimage to include one of those events. If you are able to get to Rome, check out the calendar of special events (below) and plan to make one of them.
See the article Go On a Pilgrimage for more information about pilgrimages and where to go.
4. Perform a work of mercy
Pope Francis has called on Christians to focus in a special way on performing the works of mercy during the Jubilee Year:
It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead. (Misericordiae Vultus #15)
How can your family practice the works of mercy this year? Check out these articles:
- Motherhood, Hospitality, and the Catholic Worker
- What Our Family Did to Fight Poverty This Week
- Invite the Poor to Dinner
Also look for Heidi Indahl’s forthcoming book, 44 Ways to Practice the Works of Mercy with Your Kids. We’ll be publishing excerpts throughout the Jubilee Year.
5. Make your own Holy Door of Mercy
Besides the Holy Door that was opened at St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the opening of the Jubilee, Pope Francis has called for Holy Doors to be established at special churches around the world. The Holy Door is a concrete symbol of Christ, who is the one door that leads to salvation (John 10:9), as well as the openness of the Church to all people, especially sinners. If you keep your home as a “domestic church,” then sometime this month, make the door of your home into a Holy Door of Mercy.
The special Rite of the Opening of the Door of Mercy in Local Churches calls for the Holy Door to be decorated with greenery and symbols of Christ. In addition, you might design a sign or placard with words about mercy—perhaps “Merciful Like the Father” (the motto of the Jubilee), a scripture quote about mercy, or simply the word “mercy.” You can adapt the Rite of the Opening of the Door of Mercy in Local Churches into your own little family prayer service.
In the life of the Church, symbols always point to a spiritual reality. Lead your family in a discussion of what it means to make your home “open to mercy.” What does that look like, concretely? Pope Francis has called upon Christians in Europe to open their homes to refugees fleeing the Middle East. While such an extravagant gesture may not be available to your family, think about some of the smaller, little ways that your family can practice mercy, both inside and outside of the home.
6. Make a specific commitment to acts of mercy
If your family has a mission statement or goals that you regularly revisit, hold a family meeting to consider how mercy fits in. If your family doesn’t have a mission statement, think about adopting some acts of mercy as part of your New Year’s resolutions.
For ideas, see the many resources at the official USCCB Jubilee Year of Mercy Website, or check out 54 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy at Aleteia.
7. Participate in the events of the Year of Mercy
The Church will be celebrating special events throughout the Year of Mercy; check out the events scheduled at your parish or in your diocese (check the diocesan website) and choose a few to put down on your calendar.
Alternatively, note the special events being celebrated by the Holy See and plan for how your family might have its own little celebration:
- December 8, 2015: Opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica
- December 13, 2015: Opening of the Holy Door in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran and in other cathedrals around the world
- January 1, 2016: Opening of the Holy Door in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
- January 19-21, 2016: Jubilee for Pilgrims
- January 25, 2016: Opening of the Holy Door in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
- February 2, 2016: Jubilee for Consecrated Life and closing of the Year for Consecrated Life
- February 22, 2016: Jubilee for the Roman Curia
- March 4-5, 2016: 24 Hours for the Lord, a time during which all the faithful are encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and pray before the Eucharist
- March 20, 2016: Palm Sunday
- April 3, 2016: Jubilee for those who perform the works of mercy
- April 24, 2016: Jubilee for the Newly Confirmed (ages 13-16)
- May 27-29, 2016: Jubilee for Deacons
- June 3, 2016: Jubilee for Priests
- June 12, 2016: Jubilee for the Sick
- July 26-31, 2016: Jubilee for Young People and World Youth Day 2016 in Kraków, Poland
- September 4, 2016: Jubilee for Volunteers
- September 25, 2016: Jubilee for Catechists
- October 8-9, 2016: Marian Jubilee
- November 6, 2016: Jubilee for Prisoners
- November 13, 2016: Closing of Holy Doors outside St. Peter’s Basilica
- November 20, 2016: Closing of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica