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Published on National Catholic Reporter (http://ncronline.

The multiple audiences for the Year of Mercy
Thomas Reese , Dec. 17, 2015 Faith and Justice
Holy Year oI Mercy
From the beginning oI his papacy, Pope Francis? homilies and speeches have emphasized ?mercy |1|? as a
common theme. As a result, it was no surprise when he declared that the church would celebrate a holy year oI
mercy this year.
The year oI mercy is directed at three audiences: individuals in the church, clergy, and the world.
Every person?s experience oI God?s mercy is unique and personal.
When Francis was asked in the Iamous 2013 interview |2|, ?Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?? he replied: ?I am a
sinner. This is the most accurate deIinition. It is not a Iigure oI speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.?
He went on to acknowledge that he is ?a bit astute,? adaptable, and ?a bit naïve,? but ?the best summary, the one
that comes more Irom the inside and I Ieel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.?
And, he said, ?I always Ielt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo |by having mercy and by choosing Him|, was
very true Ior me.?
I must admit that while I was very ediIied by the pope?s response, it is not the answer I would give to this
question. My own experience with scruples in my youth does not encourage me to go down the path oI dwelling
on my sinIulness. Perhaps I am also rejecting the decades oI hellIire preaching that saw Iear and guilt as the path
to redemption.
But the simple Iact is that my sheltered upbringing in the 1950s and my entrance into a Jesuit novitiate right out
oI high school did not provide many opportunities Ior great sins. I was always jealous oI Mary Magdalene and
the prodigal son, Ior as Jesus said oI the sinIul women in Luke |3|, ?many sins have been Iorgiven; hence, she
has shown great love. But the one to whom little is Iorgiven, loves little.?
As a result, I tended to identiIy with the older brother rather than the prodigal son in the parable. My sins were
less blatant and more insidious. So it took me longer to recognize with Francis, that I was a sinner.
It is also very easy Ior us in the contemporary world to psychologize away our sinIulness by understanding that
we are shaped by our heritage and our environment, which is the way I would describe Original Sin. We can
neither take all the credit Ior our achievements nor all the blame Ior our Iailures.
Once I had a better understanding oI my sins, I realized they are so deeply imbedded in me that I will never get
rid oI them. It will be a liIelong struggle which I will not win. At that point, I was Iinally ready Ior God?s mercy
because I Iinally had to acknowledge that I could not save myselI. ?This is who I am God, take it or leave it.?
And he took it.
In the year oI mercy, we are all called to look into our hearts and recognize our sinIulness and our need Ior
God?s mercy. But this is not a year oI sad reIlection on our sinIulness, rather it is a year oI rejoicing that God?s
mercy is gratuitous and overwhelming. Mercy is not earned. It is given.
The second audience Ior the year oI mercy is the clergy.
Francis has insisted that the Iirst words oI evangelization must be God?s love and mercy, not a list oI rules and
regulations. This is the message that people should hear Iirst and most Irequently Irom the clergy, not only
during the year oI mercy, but always.
As a priest, I am convinced that when people leave the conIessional, they should be smiling not crying. II there
are tears, they should be tears oI joy.
During a TV interview, I met a young producer who had been inspired by Francis and her Iiancee to give the
church a second chance. AIter going to church Ior a while, she decided to go to conIession. Luckily, her
boyIriend warned her that going to conIession was like playing Russian roulette. Unluckily, she got the bullet
Irom a priest who chewed her out Ior avoiding conIession Ior 10 years. He should have simply said, ?Welcome
She was hoping to meet someone like Francis, and instead she met his polar opposite. There will be no ?Francis
eIIect? iI people do not met someone like Francis in their local parish.
Other than sexual abuse, I think that conIessional abuse is the worse sin a priest can commit. Vulnerable people
come into the conIessional looking Ior the kind and merciIul Jesus, and they get a mean, insensitive ogre.
Granted the secrecy oI the conIessional, it is impossible to monitor what priests say in conIession, but bishops
need to hear Irom the IaithIul who have been badly treated in conIession. Some priests should not be allowed in
the conIessional. A priest stands in the place oI Christ in the conIessional, not as a Iierce judge, but as a
compassionate healer. This is what Francis means when he says that the church should be like a Iield hospital.
In the Gospels, Jesus never got mad at sinners. He only got mad at the Pharisees and the Scribes. Francis is the
same. He speaks constantly oI mercy, but harshly condemns clericalism.
The third audience Ior the year oI mercy is the world.
It is noteworthy that Francis started the year oI mercy early in the Central AIrican Republic by opening the
holy door in the Bangui cathedral |4|. Francis recognizes that the only path to peace is through mercy, mutual
Iorgiveness, and reconciliation.
Whether it is in our Iamilies, our neighborhoods, our nation, or the world, without Iorgiveness and
reconciliation there will be no peace. This appears naïve to those who think every crime must be avenged, every
problem has a military solution. But millennia oI experience shows that such philosophies simply result in
unending Iighting and striIe.
The year oI mercy reminds us that mercy is not only shown by God. It should also be shown by us. We who
have experienced mercy must in turn grant it to others.
Jesus made this very clear in the parable oI the unIorgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35 |5|) who is punished by
his master Ior not Iorgiving a Iellow servant aIter he himselI had been Iorgiven. ?So will my heavenly Father do
to you, unless each oI you Iorgives his brother Irom his heart.?
Mercy, however, does not ignore justice. ?True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands
justice, it demands that the poor Iind the way to be poor no longer,? Francis told Jesuit ReIugee Services on
Sept. 10, 2013
|6|. ?It asks us, the church,? he continued, ?it asks the institutions ? to ensure that no one ever again stand in
need oI a soup kitchen, oI makeshiIt-lodgings, oI a service oI legal assistance in order to have his legitimate
right recognized to live and to work, to be Iully a person.?
The year oI mercy has started. Mercy should be part oI our DNA as Christians, something we practice 24/7.
Francis has raised it up during this year to remind us oI its centrality to the Gospel message oI Jesus and
thereIore its need to be central to our lives as Christians.
|Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst Ior NCR and author oI Inside the Jatican. The Politics and
Organi:ation of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj¸ |7|.|
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