Pope Francis' Letter on the Jubilee of Mercy

by Michael Sean Winters

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It has become amusing to see people try to fit Pope Francis into the narratives they have held long before the Argentine was elected in 2013. Yesterday, with the release of his letter to Archbishop Rino Fisicella, who leads the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization, was one of the more interesting such exercises in papal parsing.

The letter itself does not take long to read. It can be found here. Its intent and context is also clear. Pope Francis writes:

With the approach of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy I would like to focus on several points which I believe require attention to enable the celebration of the Holy Year to be for all believers a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God. It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to it be ever more effective.

He says that in granting Jubilee Indulgence, it is his hope that Christians will have “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.” That is something we were not taught in CCD, that God completely forgets our sins once we confess them, even though I suppose it has always been the case. The letter as a whole clearly evidences what people find so attractive about Francis, that he is committed to reminding us that the Gospel is not first and foremost about this law or that canon, but about God’s infinite mercy, His perfect mercy, so perfect that God the Father does what we humans find so difficult, forgetting a wrong that has been perpetrated against us.

The Holy Father goes on to make provisions for those who are homebound and cannot make it to one of the diocesan, or Roman, Holy Doors on pilgrimage. He mentions those who are incarcerated, too, emphasizing not only the fact that he wants them to participate even though they cannot go on pilgrimage, and making the prison chapels a destination for pilgrimage, but reminding the faithful that Jubilee years are traditionally the occasion for amnesty for prisoners. Hoe badly does our U.S. culture need to think about that traditional practice and how it may correspond more closely than our current system of mass incarceration, to a judicial framework that warrants the adjective “Christian.”

Inarguably, the part of the letter that should be getting the most attention, because it applies to all Catholics, is this paragraph on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The Holy Father writes:

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. 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. The Jubilee Indulgence is thus full, the fruit of the very event which is to be celebrated and experienced with faith, hope and charity.

Here he draws the link between mercy and evangelization, calling the entire Church to show the merciful face of God to those with whom they interact. He also repeats his urging that the Catholic faithful live in the light of the “power of the love of the Father who excludes no one.” It is not just his tone that is different from so many official Church statements. It is not just a different emphasis. The pope is reminding us that the heart of the Gospel is this proclamation of God’s mercy for repentant sinners, His power to overcome sin and death in our lives. I recall during the debate about the HHS contraception mandate hearing TV talking heads explain that the Church’ ban on contraception was “a core doctrine” of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis reminds us that this, the mercy of God, is a core doctrine of the Catholic Church. That is what the Jubilee Year is all about.

The most controversial part of the letter comes in the Holy Father’s treatment of abortion, and most of the commentary shows precisely the problem the pope is trying to address. Some thing the pope is sending a signal that abortion remains a sin. Some think he is trying to find “a balance” on the issue. Americans, of course, interpret this letter as a prelude to his trip to the U.S., which it is not. Some delve into the difference between the sin of abortion and the crime of abortion. Lost in all the to-and-fro is the core message: God’s mercy is available to any who seek it.

The pope is not a progressive is by progressive we mean he is particularly satisfied with efforts at human improvement. The pope is not a conservative if by conservative we mean s stickler for the rules. The pope is recalling the Catholic faithful to the essential narrative of the Christian faith. That essence is best expressed in the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son Jesus Christ, you have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” That narrative, not our previously devised narratives, is the point of the Jubilee Year. Pope Francis is calling the Church, even defining the Church, as the place where the Holy Spirit is among us for the forgiveness of sins. We do not often evidence that soteriological fact in our interactions with the ambient culture, not even in our interactions with each other. And, then we wonder why people are leaving!

The words of absolution are among the most beautiful words a human can speak or hear. More people should go to confession just to hear them. They always make me feel like I have been swallowed up, with all my failings, in God's mercy. And, they point to the dogmatic nature of our faith: The work of redemption has been accomplished, God "have" not "will" reconcile the world to Himself. The question to us, as we approach the Holy Father’s visit, as we debate the issues to be addressed at the Synod, and as we look forward to the Jubilee Year, is this: Do we believe, really believe, that God so loved the world, that He so loves us, that He sent His Son to reconcile us to Himself and to receive the Holy Spirit in our midst so that our sins may be forgiven? It is that belief, and the actions that flow from it, that set the world ablaze in grace and apostolic fervor before. It is that belief, and the actions that flow from it, that can set the world ablaze again. The other day, I was talking to one of my conservative friends, and he was defending the whole narrative about the Church needing to erect strong defenses against the forces of secularization. I think those forces, which are real, have met their match in Pope Francis, or, more precisely, in the manner in which Pope Francis is reintroducing the world to the heart, the real heart, of our Christian faith. 

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