Living out the Final Weeks in the Year of Mercy
The end of the liturgical year is fast approaching, as is the end of the Year of Mercy. With the holiday season coming up, the last weeks of the Year of Mercy will fly by even faster. Special years carry great graces along with them—we need to take advantage of these opportunities!
Jubilee years have been proclaimed by the last few pontiffs based on an anniversary. In the case of the Year of Faith (2012-13), Pope Francis wanted to both celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and encourage a rekindling of the light of faith in every Christian. On the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of St. Paul, Pope Benedict proclaimed the Year of St. Paul (2008-09).
Pope Francis decreed the 2015-16 liturgical year (12/8/15 through 11/20/16, the final Sunday of Ordinary Time) to be the Year of Mercy. He did so via a papal bull, Misericordiae Vultus. With this action, he sought to urge the Church inti “a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective.” In particular, Pope Francis called on everyone to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, called confessors to be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy, and offered special indulgences.
For many, two of the words on that list elicit a strong reaction: mercy and indulgences. Mercy is often spoken about, but rarely defined. Problems arise in cases where “mercy” describes blanket approval of however a person chooses to live their life. That understanding of mercy is not just false but self-contradictory. To remain effective, mercy needs to stay in communion with Christ and the teaching authority of the Church He founded. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to admonish the sinner, in the model of Christ: that is, always out of concern for that person’s salvation. How could someone, in the name of mercy, encourage a fellow sinner to persist in sin? A supposed act of mercy is otherwise robbed of the grace it was meant to communicate.
There’s actually a longer list of what indulgences are not than what they are. With so much misinformation on indulgences leftover from the Protestant Reformation, it’s important to clarify and reclaim it as an authentic Catholic practice. Indulgences are not a get-out-of-hell-free card, a way to buy forgiveness, or a way to circumvent the saving action of Jesus. Blessed Paul VI clarified the Catholic Church’s teaching on indulgences in Indulgentarium Doctrina. An indulgence “is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (CCC 1471).
A practical example is if my son broke a window in our house and came to me to apologize. I would forgive my son (as our Heavenly Father forgives us if we’re contrite) but I would then give my son a broom and a dustpan to clean up the broken glass (the temporal punishment for our sin). Indulgences are the spiritual equivalent of the broom and dustpan, where we can clean up the temporal punishment incurred by our sins. This ties into the Church’s authority and mission to bind and loose sins (cf. CCC 1478).
Indulgences are offered either plenary (full) or partial. The Year of Mercy offers many avenues to obtain a plenary indulgence for those that make a pilgrimage to a holy door or perform one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy. The accompanying requirements need to be done within three weeks of that act: go to confession, receive the Eucharist, make a profession of faith, pray for the pope and his intentions, be in a state of grace (i.e. free from mortal sin), and have the interior disposition of being detached from sin.
Here are 7 things you can do to close out the Year of Mercy well. Don’t wait for something to come to you, take action now!
1. Encounter Jesus in the soul: dive into the spiritual works of mercy
The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead. Pope Francis has repeatedly talked about going to the margins, and he’s done so himself. Being Christ to others requires discomfort on our part; He often asks us to stretch beyond our comfort zones. This could be inviting a friend to learn about the Catholic faith or asking a fallen-away Catholic to join you at Mass. Opportunities to be a catechist are likely abundant; many parishes are in perpetual need of volunteers. And may it please God to provide chances to counsel the doubtful; we have to remember that our faith isn’t only a gift to us. It is a gift to the entire Body of Christ as well.
There’s an abundance of chances to develop patience (usually more than we’d prefer), willingly forgive, and pray for all. These things are part of our simple Christian obligation.
2. Encounter Jesus in our neighbor – dive into the corporal works of mercy
The corporal works of mercy are feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. When we do these things, we minister to Christ Himself: “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40) The apostle James also issues a stark reminder as to the importance of charitable works. The Holy Father points this out: “we cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged.”
Drives for food, coats, and other necessities usually pop up during the holidays. Do you have more than one coat, hoodie, or sweater? Give to one that has none (Luke 3:11). Some are called to prison ministry, which is laudable! There are also people in their homes or a care facility that have no one to visit them. With a little investigation, the opportunities for the corporal works of mercy—and the need—is likely greater than we think.
3. Encounter Jesus via the intellect – read one of the papal documents on mercy
Papal documents are easily available on the Vatican’s website. Pope Francis’ Misericordiae Vultus is relatively short and a good read. St. John Paul II’s Dives In Misericordia is a longer read, and a very fruitful one. Both can be found easily online, on the Vatican website. Sit at the feet of our shepherds and listen as they teach about the Divine Mercy. In addition, both documents are a treasure trove of scriptural reflections. In Dives, St. John Paul II includes a wonderful reflection on the parable of the prodigal son. Pope Francis similarly cites parable after parable. Reading these documents will open up new paths to contemplation of the Divine Mercy of Jesus.
4. Encounter Jesus as a pilgrim – go through a Holy Door
Every diocese has at least one Holy Door, and many dioceses have more than one. By doing so, we can participate in a rich Catholic heritage of undertaking a pilgrimage. That includes our ancestors in the faith—centuries before the time of Jesus, Jews journeyed to Jerusalem for special feasts. The Psalms of Ascent were written to accompany the pilgrims on their way through the city, up to the Temple Mount (see Psalms 120-134). In the Christian era, a couple hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians began to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. The Holy Doors in the Year of Mercy continue the ancient tradition of pilgrimage.
Passing through the Holy Door is filled with spiritual meaning. We cross from the world into the realm of God, leaving behind the old and putting on the new (cf. Eph 4:25). We leave the world and enter into the house of God. When making the journey and passing through the Holy Door, resolve anew to walk more closely in the footsteps of Christ.
5. Encounter the Incarnate Jesus – pick up St. Faustina’s Diary
This is not only great reading but perfect for reading in small amounts of time. St. Faustina didn’t write an academic treatise; she wrote about her prayer life, her daily struggles, how she sought to work through them, the conversations she had with Jesus, and accounts of the mystical experiences she had. Through it all, she constantly sought to unite herself to the will of God.
6. Encounter the Divine Physician – go to confession
It’s so easy to let other things get in the way of going to confession regularly—or at all. The Church requires us to confess our sins once a year, but that’s the bare minimum. It’s not uncommon for Catholics (for one reason or another) to let years or decades pass between confessions--and fear is a frequent factor.
My old spiritual director once said that it takes about three years for a new priest to hear everything in confession. "Everything," he said again. For any sinner that might think God couldn’t possibly forgive their darkest sin, that priest in the confessional has likely heard far worse. Besides “negative” reasons, there are so many more positive reasons to go to confession. Take the words of Our Lord to heart:
“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
“There is no misery that could be a match for My mercy, neither will misery exhaust it, because as it is being granted—it increases. The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it.” (Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1273)
“Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)
Above all, the best reason to go to confession is to be free of sin. Run to Him Who Is the Truth, and the Truth will set you free (cf. John 8:31).
7. Encounter Jesus in person – visit Our Lord in Eucharistic adoration
God, in His graciousness, has gradually revealed Himself to humanity. That revelation reached a climax in Jesus, the Word made flesh. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He promised the apostles His constant presence, to the end of the age (Matt 28:20). This presence is not simply the His spiritual residence in our hearts; He gave the Eucharist to the Church in order to be physically present to us forever.
“My daughter, love has brought Me here, and love keeps Me here.” (Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, #576)
The Eucharist really, truly is Jesus Christ. Let every work of mercy, pilgrimage, reading, and our reception of the sacraments be directed toward Him.
Participating in the Year of Mercy has the aim of helping us heal, aid others in healing, and penitently seek the salvation of our souls. Pope Francis tells us, “how much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! 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!” By our activities and devotion, the Holy Father wants us to encounter Christ; He Who is mercy itself.