May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst! – Pope Francis
December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, will mark the beginning of an important year in the life of the Church: the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.1 It will end at the close of the liturgical year – on November 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
This celebration is a great grace for each one of us, for the whole Church is in need of mercy; we are all sinners. It is a year in which we are invited to not only enter into a deeper, more personal experience of God’s mercy in our own lives, but to also bear witness to God’s mercy in our encounters with others. In announcing the Jubilee, Pope Francis gave voice to the hope that we will all be able “to find in this Jubilee the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy, with which we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time.”2
It all begins at the Holy Door …
The Year of Mercy will officially begin when Pope Francis opens the Holy Door at St. Peter’s in a solemn ceremony that will begin at 9:30 a.m. (CET) on December 8th.3 The rite of the opening of the Holy Door has great significance because it “symbolically illustrate[s] the idea that the Church’s faithful are offered an ‘extraordinary path’ toward salvation during the time of jubilee.”4 “[It] is opened to evoke the concept of forgiveness, which is the main focus of a Holy Year,”5 and to symbolize “a passage or transition into a special year of evangelization and prayer.”6
“According to Mondo Vaticano, a mini-encyclopedia published by the Vatican, the designation of a Holy Door may trace back to the ancient Christian practice of public penitence when sinners were given public penances to perform before receiving absolution. The penitents were not allowed to enter a church before completing the penance, but they were solemnly welcomed back in when their penance was fulfilled. Still today, Holy Year pilgrims enter the basilica through the Holy Door as a sign of their repentance and re-commitment to a life of faith. Both the opening and closing of the Holy Door take place with formal ceremonies to mark ‘the period of time set aside for men and women to sanctify their souls’.”7
Even the manner in which the Holy Door will be opened is significant. “For centuries, the doors were opened with a silver hammer, not a key, ‘because the doors of justice and mercy give way only to the force of prayer and penance’, the encyclopedia says.”8 However, when St. John Paul II opened the Holy Year in 2000, he didn’t use either a hammer or a key, but simply strongly pushed the door open.9
What is the Year of Mercy all about?
According to the Vatican website, Jubilee of Mercy, “The logo and the motto together provide a fitting summary of what the Jubilee Year is all about. The motto Merciful Like the Father (taken from the Gospel of Luke, 6:36) serves as an invitation to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure (cf. Lk 6:37-38). The logo – the work of Jesuit Father Marko I. Rupnik – presents a small summa theologiae of the theme of mercy. In fact, it represents an image quite important to the early Church: that of the Son having taken upon his shoulders the lost soul demonstrating that it is the love of Christ that brings to completion the mystery of his Incarnation culminating in redemption. The logo has been designed in such a way so as to express the profound way in which the Good Shepherd touches the flesh of humanity and does so with a love with the power to change one’s life. One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ. Every person discovers in Christ, the new Adam, one’s own humanity and the future that lies ahead, contemplating, in his gaze, the love of the Father.”10
The image is contained within a mandorla, a pointed oval figure shaped like an almond. This figure, which was quite important in early and medieval iconography, reminds us that Christ has two natures: divine and human. “The three concentric ovals, with colors progressively lighter as we move outward, suggest the movement of Christ who carries humanity out of the night of sin and death. Conversely, the depth of the darker color suggests the impenetrability of the love of the Father who forgives all.”11
How can each one of us participate?
One of the great graces offered to the faithful during the Jubilee Year is the possibility of gaining a plenary indulgence. A plenary indulgence absolves us, in the sight of God, from whatever temporal punishment might still be due for sins that have already been forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.12 Although God forgives the guilt associated with our sin, effects of that sin still remain, and this is where the indulgence comes in. Let me give you an example.
Imagine for a moment that you have a fight with a friend, and in a fit of rage, you bash up the hood of their prized sports car. After you have a chance to cool down, you apologize to your friend. They forgive you, and the ‘guilt’ of your destructive act is taken away. But other effects remain. You still need to ‘purge the fault’ which led you to smash the car in the first place, and you also need to make reparation for the damaged car itself.13 These are some of the temporal punishments for which you are still accountable.
We have the opportunity during the Holy Year of Mercy to seek a plenary indulgence for the remission of such temporal punishment. One of the first conditions is to make a pilgrimage to a Holy Door as a sign of our deep desire for true conversion. But it is not enough to simply walk through a Holy Door. We also need to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to reflect on mercy as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. In addition, we must make a Profession of Faith and pray for Pope Francis and for his intentions. And, as is the case with all plenary indulgences, we need to be free from all attachment to sin. This last condition is the hardest.
No sin is so great that God cannot forgive it; nothing that we have ever done is beyond the reach of His infinite mercy. God never gets tired of forgiving us; it is we who tire of asking for forgiveness. Pope Francis is particularly sensitive to women who – either because they did not really understand what they were doing, or because they felt they had no other option – have resorted to abortions. Many bear the scars of what has been for them an agonizing and painful decision. He desires that they, too, should have the confidence to seek absolution from the sin of abortion in the confessional. He wrote, “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.”14
Pope Francis wants the Jubilee Indulgence to reach each one of us “as a genuine experience of God’s mercy, which comes to meet each person in the Face of the Father who welcomes and forgives, forgetting completely the sin committed.”15 But a plenary indulgence is not just an easy out. You don’t automatically gain an indulgence by simply going through the motions. There must be a deep and interior change – a turning away from sin towards God. We must sincerely repent of our sins and experience an authentic conversion of heart. But even if we are not perfectly disposed, it is still possible to receive a partial indulgence.
What if you don’t live near the Holy Door?
There are only a small number of Holy Doors in the world (and only one that is outside of Europe): at St. Peter’s in Rome, at the shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France, at the Cathedral of St. James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Québec City, Canada. Not everyone has the means (or the opportunity) to make a pilgrimage to one of these holy places, but the Pope doesn’t want anyone to be left out. Therefore, for the first time in history, Holy Doors will be designated in every diocese throughout the world. The Holy Father has asked that Holy Doors be open in every Cathedral (as well as in churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop) and at the four Papal Basilicas in Rome so that everyone will have the opportunity to gain the Indulgence.16 The Indulgence can also be obtained in Shrines in which the Door of Mercy is open, as well as in churches that are traditionally identified as Jubilee churches.17 “In this way,” he writes, “the Jubilee will be celebrated both in Rome and in the Particular Churches as a sign of the Church’s universal communion.”18
Those who are serving time in jail have not been forgotten; they will be able to receive the Indulgence in their prison chapels. Pope Francis has also made special provisions for those who are homebound, sick, and/or elderly. He writes, “For them it will be of great help to live their sickness and suffering as an experience of closeness to the Lord who in the mystery of his Passion, death and Resurrection indicates the royal road which gives meaning to pain and loneliness. Living with faith and joyful hope this moment of trial, receiving communion or attending Holy Mass and community prayer, even through the various means of communication, will be for them the means of obtaining the Jubilee Indulgence.”19
Finally, although the priests and superiors of the Fraternity of St. Pius X are not yet in full communion with the Church, Pope Francis does not want anyone to be excluded. If members of these churches approach priests of the Fraternity of St. Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they will validly and licitly receive absolution of their sins.20
We also remember the deceased in our prayers
It is also possible to obtain the Indulgence for those who have died. “We are bound to [the deceased] by the witness of faith and charity that they have left us,” explained Pope Francis. “Thus, as we remember them in the Eucharistic celebration, thus we can, in the great mystery of the Communion of Saints, pray for them, that the merciful Face of the Father free them of every remnant of fault and strongly embrace them in the unending beatitude.”21
Are there any other ways we can gain the Indulgence?
Fulfilling these requirements of pilgrimage, prayer, and penance is not the only way we can gain the Indulgence. During this Jubilee Year, Pope Francis has asked us to rediscover the richness contained within the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy include such things as instructing others, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving, and bearing wrongs patiently. “The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”22 The Pope writes, “The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence. Hence the commitment to live by mercy so as to obtain the grace of complete and exhaustive forgiveness by the power of the love of the Father who excludes no one.”23
The Jubilee of Mercy and the world
From this we can see that the Jubilee of Mercy is not meant just for Catholics, but should reach out to embrace the entire world. “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church,” writes Pope Francis. “It relates us to Judaism and Islam, both of which consider mercy to be one of God’s most important attributes.”24 It is the hope of our Holy Father that this Jubilee year, with its emphasis on the celebration of the mercy of God, “will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions. May it open us to even more fervent dialogue,” he writes, “so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.”25
It is challenging for us to understand the depth of God’s mercy, though, especially in light of the tragic events that recently occurred in Paris.26 But God’s mercy has a place even here. In a recent interview, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin said, “In this world torn by violence, now is the right time to launch an offensive of mercy. It is understandable that after the attacks there are feelings of revenge,” he said, “but we must fight against this urge. The Pope wants the Jubilee to help people see eye-to-eye, understand one another, and overcome hatred. After these attacks, this goal is strengthened. We receive the mercy of God to adopt this attitude toward others. The Merciful is also the most beautiful name of God for Muslims, who could be involved in this holy year, as the Holy Father desires.”27
Mary, Mother of Mercy, Pray for Us!
But we cannot live God’s mercy without first opening ourselves to His grace. Thus, as we prepare to enter into this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, we entrust ourselves in a particular way to the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother of Mercy. Mary remained free of the stain of sin for her entire life, and because of this she is able to have compassion on our every weakness. She understands us, and she loves us with a mother’s love. Mary points us to her Son and helps us at the same time to understand the unconditional love and mercy of God. As Pope Francis reminds us, “God forgives all, and God forgives always. Let us never tire of asking forgiveness. Let us henceforth entrust this Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey: our penitential journey, our year-long journey with an open heart, to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.”28
– Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer of Pope Francis for the Jubilee
Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
“If you knew the gift of God!”
You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.
Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.
We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of
Mercy; you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and
1 The date is also significant because December 8, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Normally, a Jubilee Year only occurs every 25 to 50 year; however, the last Jubilee Year occurred in 2000 during the papacy of St. John Paul II. Thus, the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy is referred to as an Extraordinary Jubilee.
2 Pope Francis, “The Announcement of the Jubilee of Mercy” (March 13, 2015), Jubilee of Mercy [Vatican website]; available from http://www.im.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/annuncio.html; Internet; accessed 16 November 2015.
3 However, this will not be the first Holy Door that the Pope will enter. On November 1, “Pope Francis announced that he will jump-start the Jubilee of Mercy by opening the diocese of Bangui’s Holy Door while in the Central African Republic, as a sign of prayer and solidarity for the war-torn nation. ‘To manifest the prayerful closeness of the entire Church to this afflicted and tormented nation and to exhort all Central Africans to increasingly be witnesses of mercy and reconciliation, Sunday, Nov. 29, I plan to open the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Bangui,’ the Pope said.” (Elise Harris, “Pope Francis to open Bangui’s Holy Door while in Central African Republic,” CNS, 1 November 2015; available from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-to-open-banguis-holy-door-while-in-central-african-republic-99621/; Internet; accessed 17 November 2015.)
4 Harris, “Pope Francis to open Bangui’s Holy Door while in Central African Republic,” CNS, 1 November 2015.
5 Elliot Williams, “Proclaiming the Holy Year at the Holy Door” (April 9, 2015), Catholic News Service Blog; available from https://cnsblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/proclaiming-the-holy-year-at-the-holy-door/; Internet; accessed 16 November 2015.
9 “Until the Holy Year of 1975, after being cut and attached to winches, the wall that sealed the Holy Door was demolished and slowly lowered after the Pope dealt three blows to it with a silver hammer saying: ‘Aperite mihi portas iustitiae… Haec porta Domini… Introibo in domum tuam, Domine’ [Open to me the gates of righteousness … I will go into thy house … This is the gate of the Lord , O Lord]. On that occasion, on Christmas night in 1974, a minor accident took place and [was] captured on camera: Paul VI was [hit] by some falling debris as the door was being knocked down. Since then, the ceremony was simplified: the Pope no longer used the trowel, lime and bricks to seal a section of the Holy Door, but simply used a key to lock it, leaving the building work entirely up to Vatican labourers known as sampietrini.” (Quoted from Andrea Tornielli, “Jubilee: Masonry around Holy Door is loosened ahead of opening,” Vatican Insider; available from http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/giubileo-2015-44739/; Internet; accessed 19 November 2015).
10 Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, “Description of the Logo,” Jubilee of Mercy; available from http://www.iubilaeummisericordiae.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/logo.html; Internet; accessed 16 November 2015.
12 Cf. CCC, 1471.
13 Cf. Edward N. Peters, A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Chicago, Ill: Hillenbrand Books, 2008), 3. Available from https://books.google.com/books?id=LVlAXL6qJxkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=A+Modern+Guide+to+Indulgences:+Rediscovering+This+Often+Misinterpreted+Teaching&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAGoVChMIps-c1uyGyAIVydOACh3H-wRF – v=onepage&q=A Modern Guide to Indulgence; Internet; accessed 20 November 2015.
14 Pope Francis, “Letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization” (1 September 2015), Jubilee of Mercy; available from http://www.iubilaeummisericordiae.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/lettera.html; Internet; accessed 16 November 2015.
16 In the Diocese of Calgary, Alberta, Bishop Henry has designated six pilgrimage sites for the Jubilee of Mercy: St. Mary’s Cathedral (Calgary), Corpus Christi Church (Calgary), Holy Cross Church (Fort McLeod), Holy Trinity Church (Siksika Nation, Cluny), Mount St. Francis (Cochrane), and Divine Mercy Centre (Balzac). Bishop Henry will open the Jubilee Door at St. Mary’s Cathedral at 10 a.m. on Sunday, December 13th, 2015 (Third Sunday of Advent). In Rome, St. John Lateran’s door will open Dec. 13, St. Mary Major’s Jan. 1, 2016, while that of St. Paul Outside the Walls will open Jan. 26, 2016. For a map with the locations of Holy Doors across the world, go to http://www.iubilaeummisericordiae.va/content/gdm/en/mondo/porte-della-misericordia.html.
17 Holy Doors are normally sealed shut from the inside so they can’t be opened. They are only opened during Jubilee Years so that pilgrims can enter through them in order to gain the plenary indulgence connected with the Jubilee. For example, after a special ‘recognitio’ ceremony on November 17th, 2015, workers began to remove the brick wall that has sealed the Holy Door at St. Peter’s since the Holy Year of 2000.
18 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy (11 April 2015); available from http://www.iubilaeummisericordiae.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/bolla.html; Internet; accessed 19 November 2015.
19 Pope Francis, “Letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization” (1 September 2015), Jubilee of Mercy.
20 For more information about the issues surrounding the Fraternity of St. Pius X, see https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/sspx_fssp.htm.
21 Pope Francis, “Letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization” (1 September 2015).
22 CCC, 2447.
23 Pope Francis, “Letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization” (1 September 2015).
24 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy (11 April 2015).
26 For a summary of those events, see “November 2015 Paris attacks,” Wikipedia; available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/November_2015_Paris_attacks; Internet; accessed 20 November 2015.
27 Iacopo Scaramuzzi, “General mobilisation needed after Paris attacks. The Jubilee is open to Muslims,” Vatican Insider; available from http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/giubileo-2015-44702/; Internet; accessed 17 November 2015.
28 Pope Francis, “The Announcement of the Jubilee of Mercy,” Jubilee of Mercy.
29 “Prayer of Pope Francis for the Jubilee;” available from http://www.im.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/preghiera.html; Internet; accessed 16 November 2015.