The Holy Year of Mercy: A Reflection

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Spring 2016

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In spring 2015, when Pope Francis announced his intention of holding a Holy Year of Mercy beginning in November, he was drawing on an ancient tradition dating back more than a millennium before the birth of Christ.

According to Leviticus 25:8ff, the ancient Israelites were to declare a Jubilee at the end of seven cycles of seven years. The land was rested, equity in land holding was observed, slaves were freed, debts resolved and so on. Those special observances were considered as a kind of grand Sabbath designed for the refreshment of the land and the people, as well as a time of intense spiritual renewal.

Christianity took over that old notion of a Jubilee Year for the first time in 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII declared it to be a Holy Year. Pilgrims were invited to Rome to visit the tombs of the apostles, seek absolution for their sins and renew their commitment to the Christian life.

Even Dante (who hated Boniface, calling him the “great prince of the Pharisees” and consigning him to hell in his famous work, The Divine Comedy: Inferno) evidently made the Holy Year pilgrimage himself. In Inferno, he refers to the vast crowds crossing the bridge over the Tiber to visit St. Peter’s on the Vatican hill: “As when the Romans, because of the multitude gathered for the Jubilee, had pilgrims cross the bridge with one side kept for those bound toward St. Peter’s, facing the castle, while those headed towards the mount were all assigned the other side …” (Inferno XVIII: 28-30).

Boniface’s proclamation initiated the custom of subsequent popes declaring a Holy Year every 50 years (sometimes there were such declarations at 25-year intervals) that continued down to the present age. On some occasions, a pope might designate a particular theme for a special Holy Year. The late Pope John Paul II celebrated such an occasion for the year 2000 to mark the two millennium anniversary of the birth of Christianity. The particular theme for this Holy Year is God’s mercy.

A Holy Year is, in effect, a call to pilgrimage. Travelers were to come to Rome, visit the four major basilicas of St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul outside the walls, make a good confession, receive Holy Communion, have the punishment due their sins remitted by indulgence, and take the period as a time to renew their profession of faith.

Each of the basilicas had a special door open only during the Jubilee years. Passing through that door was the symbolic act indicating that they had “made” the Holy Year. Those who could not make the Roman pilgrimage were encouraged to visit locally designated churches to go through the same exercises. Interestingly enough, there is an ancient inscription welcoming pilgrims that dates back to the original Jubilee Year of 1300 over one of the doors of the cathedral in Siena, Italy.

The traditional practices of the Holy Year described above in general apply to the current one just proclaimed by Pope Francis. The Holy Year doors of the Roman basilicas are now open, as are the doors of significant churches throughout the world.

Locally, Bishop Kevin Rhoades has designated the main door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame as one such location. This special time in the life of the church will close as Advent comes in the late fall of 2016.

The main question to be asked is this: Why did Pope Francis, seemingly on his own inspiration, designate this period as a Holy Year and to what purpose?

It is clear that Pope Francis has a special predilection for the poor, a passion for serving people and a fundamental desire to preach mercy, both within the church and more broadly to the whole world. His constant message emphasizes that God shows us mercy first in order for us to be merciful to others.

My own sense is that the pope called a special year to underline in a dramatic fashion the core message of mercy and, in doing that, to erase the common feeling that religious faith is judgmental and legalistic. The prayer the pope composed for the opening of the Jubilee Year sets forth his intention in its opening lines: “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.”

During this Jubilee Year (and to the consternation of Rome’s mayor, who struggles with infrastructure problems!), hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will descend on the city to make the historic pilgrimage to the four basilicas, to enter the holy doors, to have their confessions heard and to attend Mass.

However, it is also clear that the vast majority of Catholics will be unable to make such a pilgrimage. There will be opportunities for such persons to make “mini pilgrimages” to local churches to likewise pass through the holy doors. In setting out his hopes for the Holy Year, the pope did ask churches to make confessors available at least once for a full 24-hour period so parishioners have the chance to ask for God’s mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation.

That opportunity, in turn, raises another question: To what degree will local congregations take an opportunity to do so? The success of the Jubilee Year at the local level depends on a number of things that reflect more than organizational skill.

How enthusiastic is the local church in embracing the theme of mercy? Will those who respond find a merciful church? Will the message of mercy reach only those who are already predisposed to hear it (“preaching to the choir,” in other words)?

I raise those somewhat indelicate questions because the very people whom the pope is anxious to reach, at least in this country, are the ones who might, at first glance, be most reluctant to respond. Only the enthusiasm of the local church will guarantee the results the pope hopes for.

The pope also has made it clear that we must distinguish between God’s mercy and the mercy that we in turn show others as a reflection of God’s grace to us. We all need the mercy of God. In receiving that mercy we are called to be merciful: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

The Catholic tradition, drawing on biblical resources, has listed the seven corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners and burying the dead. Perhaps during this Holy Year, it might be opportune to think about the ways in which each of us can be instruments of God’s mercy, since, as Jesus teaches us, in being merciful we draw upon the mercy of God.

The Catholic tradition parallels the corporal works of mercy with seven spiritual works: converting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowing, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.

Because the works of mercy are remembered as lists of seven, it is easy to forget that these lists have behind them a profound biblical theology that stretches back before the time of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah decries those who fast, but oppress their workers. He says that true fasting is to “share your bread with the hungry/to bring the homeless poor into your house/when you see the naked to clothe him” (Isaiah 58:7).

Centuries later, in a dramatic speech describing the last judgment, Jesus says that in the final age, the Judge will divide the sheep and the goats, calling the sheep into heavenly bliss because they saw Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus concludes: “Amen, I say to you as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

That list in Matthew is not unlike one found in Luke’s gospel when Jesus reads out from the Torah scroll in the synagogue, applying the words to himself: “He has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor/He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives/recovering sight to the blind/to set at liberty those who are oppressed/to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 18-19). Jesus, of course, is quoting Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1ff).

The works of mercy have been part of the mission of Christianity since its very beginnings. It would be too difficult to recount even a superficial history of the ways in which the church exercises this fundamental part of its mission of mercy, but here is a short way of thinking of it in contemporary terms.

Anyone can take a compass, put its point on a map centering on the campus of Notre Dame and draw a circle, say, six miles out. Within that circle, one would find roughly the following: hospitals, hospices, schools, wardrobe pantries at parishes, two Catholic Worker houses, more than one St. Vincent de Paul center, a parish soup kitchen, a respite house for caregivers, a medical clinic for the poor, nursing homes, several schools, three places of higher education, and a number of parishes with their particular works of mercy. Some of these ministries go back to the fourth century (hospitals); others to the 12th (higher education) and the 19th (St. Vincent de Paul). Still others such as the Catholic Workers, date to the present century. Of course, one could draw similar circles in any midsize city and find similar outlets for the ministry of the church.

Of course, we do not need a special year to ask for God’s mercy and we do not need such a year to perform one or many of the works of mercy; such activities are part and parcel of Christian living. What is particular about an event such as a Holy Year is that it highlights or underscores fundamental truths in order to jerk them out of the ordinary and bring them into sharp focus.

For two millennia, Catholics have attended the Sunday liturgy and said, “Lord, have mercy [Kyrie eleison].” We may even say it in an almost rote fashion. What the pope is asking us is this: What do we mean when we say it? Do we really want mercy and for what? Do we show mercy and how? It is during this time that Pope Francis asks us to reflect deeply on these questions and act upon them.

Asking for God’s mercy is, to be sure, a deeply personal quest since we alone know what our hearts cry out for. When it comes to extending mercy, we must step outside ourselves and enter the world of the social. How do we show mercy once we have received it? The exercise of mercy must ripple out from the intimate to the more universal. The first exercise of mercy is to be reconciled with those of whom we are estranged; from there we have obligations of mercy toward those who are our true neighbors. It is useful to remember that the word “neighbor” comes from the Old English words meaning “near dweller.”

Besides asking for God’s mercy, we might also ask how we can exercise compassion beyond gestures that cost us little more than leaving an offering in a poor box or donating good used clothes to a parish wardrobe. Those are worthy things to do, to be sure. But they tend toward the abstract in the sense that they are a step removed from real flesh and blood people who have real needs.

While working on these reflections, I was thinking about the notion of mercy in the scriptures as well as the writings in the Christian tradition in general and the writings of Pope Francis in particular, and a distant memory was stirred. Like many high school students of yore, I was forced to memorize a good deal in English classes to say nothing of catechism. (Is this still true today?) One of those texts was from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath/It is twice blessed/It blesses him that gives and him that takes …”

Pope Francis wants that twice-blessed mercy — from God and for us — to cover this sad, weary and too often uncaring world. After all, Christ himself insists that if we are merciful, we shall obtain mercy.

I will leave the last word, however, to the Bard. In the same scene from The Merchant of Venice, the speaker of those lines adds: “We do pray for mercy/and that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.”  


Steps for obtaining the jubilee indulgence for yourself or a deceased person:

•  Pass through a Holy Door in a church that has a designated one

•  Carry out the following three conditions within several days
preceding or following passing through a Holy Door:

•  Make a sacramental confession with a firm desire to avoid all sin

•  Receive the Holy Eucharist

•  Offer prayers for the intentions of the pope


Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame