What am I supposed to do for the Year of Mercy?

This story appears in the Holy Year of Mercy feature series. View the full series.
Jubilee Year of Mercy graphic (CNS/Malcolm Grear Designers)

Jubilee Year of Mercy graphic (CNS/Malcolm Grear Designers)

by Mike Jordan Laskey

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At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives. For this reason I have proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy as a special time for the Church, a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective. – Pope Francis, Bull of Indiction announcing the Jubilee of Mercy

I don't want to let Pope Francis down.

I really want to gaze more attentively on mercy this Jubilee Year, and grow into a stronger witness.

But first, I have some questions. Like, what is mercy, exactly? It's not a word I use a lot outside of the beginning of Mass. It sounds to my modern ears like weak surrender or cheap forgiveness. Or, even worse, the self-satisfied flinging of a coin to a beggar. Why not a Jubilee Year of Justice or Solidarity or Kinship or Encounter?

Thinking about this, I vaguely remembered a pithy definition of mercy I had liked in Kerry Weber's great book Mercy in the City, which I read a few months ago. So I pulled it off the shelf and paged through the first few chapters, and there it was on page 12, where she quotes the Jesuit priest Fr. James F. Keenan. "Mercy," he says, "is the willingness to enter into chaos of another."

The willingness to enter into the chaos of another. This definition unlocked my imagination, and I was immediately flooded with images and stories.

Mercy is the Holy Child Jesus Church community in Queens. When a desperate mother left her newborn son in the church's manger scene in late November, multiple parish families stepped forward to adopt him. "I think it's beautiful," Fr. Christopher Heanue, the church administrator, said. "A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable -- a place where Jesus will find his home -- a home for her child." Parishioners have two name suggestions for the baby: John, because he came before Jesus to prepare the way; and Emanuel, which means "God is with us."

Mercy is the Intergenerational Learning Center at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle -- a preschool inside a nursing home. Through planned and spontaneous activities, the kids and the seniors interact throughout the day, sharing in art projects, exercise, story time, and more. Both the youngsters and the residents have a lot to offer one another and a lot to receive.

Mercy is a mother who sleeps on the floor of her three year-old son's room at 2:00 am because he thinks there are monsters in there.

Mercy is Oakland Athletics pitcher Sean Doolittle and his girlfriend Eireann Dolan, who partnered with Chicago city government officials to organize Thanksgiving dinner for the city's 17 families of Syrian refugees last week. And mercy is the nonprofit organizations -- many of them Catholic -- that have proclaimed "Refugees welcome" in states where elected officials have threatened to close their doors.

Mercy is when a person returns to the Sacrament of Reconciliation after decades, nervous as can be and embarrassed to have forgotten the act of contrition, and the confessor responds with warmth, gentleness and bit of good humor.

Mercy is the hashtag #PorteOuverte, or "Open Door," that scores of Parisians used on the night of the terror attacks there to signal that they would open their homes to anyone who needed shelter.

Mercy is Rosa's Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia, where you can spend an extra dollar to have a post-it put up on the wall. Homeless members of the community are then welcome to come in to the shop and trade in a post-it for a slice.

Mercy is the Gospel stories of the prodigal son, the woman caught in adultery, Matthew the unscrupulous tax collector, and Peter the denier. The forgiveness they receive does not condone them in their selfishness. They are not condoned, but redeemed.

These images of mercy share some things in common. Each example features the element of "willingness" that Keenan emphasizes. Instead of avoiding or dismissing the chaos of another, these practitioners of mercy move toward the chaos with creativity and boldness. They make me wonder, "If we Catholics were 10 times bolder and more creative in our practice of mercy than we are right now, how might things be different?" Well, we'd probably have preschools in all our nursing homes and refugees at all our family parties, for starters.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy begins on Tuesday, Dec. 8 and runs all the way until next November. How willing, bold, and creative can we be?

[Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of Life & Justice Ministries for the diocese of Camden, N.J. He blogs for the Camden diocese at camdenlifejustice.wordpress.com.]

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