In my many Christmas letters I received this year was one from my dear friend Revd Dr. Roger Newell, former minister of Claypath United Reformed Church, Durham, now Professor of Religious Studies, George Fox University, Portland, Oregon, USA. At the end of his letter Roger remarked that Pope Francis “made him smile…….he makes me feel uncomfortable…… he makes those in his own communion particularly uncomfortable…… and yet he does so in such a kindly way.” Certainly the first Jesuit Pope is a remarkable and brave man. In December the Pope used his Christmas message to Vatican prelates to upbraid them for bad behaviour and urged his colleagues to show pastoral spirit, humanity and sobriety. Last year the Pope accused the cardinals and bishops at the Vatican of becoming power-seeking schemers who believed they were “immortal” but suffered from “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” Like I said. A brave man.
Just a few weeks ago in a surprise move the Pope, in the dusty war torn streets of Bangui, the capital city of Central African Republic, one of the most dangerous places in the world, declared 2016 to be an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. In the capital’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Francis opened the cathedral’s Holy Door symbolising the start of a year in which God’s mercy, compassion and reconciliation would be made available to all. It was an audacious move; security was at a high level. The city has been the scene of intense rebel activity and destruction during decades of political upheaval, including the current rebellion.
Although the start of the Jubilee was announced in Bangui, other holy doors of major basilicas, including the Great Door of St. Peter’s, Rome have now been opened. In line with the Pontiff wishes, the Jubilee is to be celebrated not only in Rome but around the world. Special “Doors of Mercy” have been opened in the world’s great Roman Catholic cathedrals, basilicas and major churches. Pope Francis stated that: “The Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instils hope.” Pope Francis has declared “the time for tenderness, joy and forgiveness has begun.” The Pontiff said this simple gesture of opening God’s house to the world serves as…. “An invitation to joy….. the time of great pardon has begun….. it is the Jubilee of Mercy.” This pope wants the church to use the year to open its doors, both literally and metaphorically to show the overflowing wellspring of divine mercy. “No one can place limits on the love of God, who is ever ready to forgive,” the Pope said when he announced the Jubilee. I can understand why the Pope makes my American friend feel uncomfortable. A reforming Pontiff he is refreshingly direct. He has a common touch; he is welcoming as he is humble.
Jubilee years are an ancient Jewish tradition. They were moments when slaves were set free and properties returned to their original owner. But what do we mean by “mercy”? What is the Roman Catholic understanding of mercy in particular? Mercy comes from the Anglo -French word merci, from Medieval Latin merced-merces, or the Latin “price paid, wages from merc-merx – merchandise”. It is a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious and legal contexts. The concept of a “Merciful God” appears in various religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Performing acts of mercy as a component of religious beliefs is also emphasized through actions such as the giving of alms, and care for the sick. In the social and legal context, mercy may refer both to compassionate behaviour on the part of those in power e.g. mercy shown by a judge toward a convict, or on the part of a humanitarian third party, e.g., a mission of mercy aiming to treat war victims.
The bible tells us that the Old Testament God is considered “Merciful and Gracious” and is praised for it, e.g. as in Psalms 103 (8). The emphasis on mercy appears in numerous parts of the New Testament e.g., as in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy”. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus describes fatherly mercy as “a gratuitous, generous gift”. In Ephesians 2:4 Paul refers to the mercy of God in terms of salvation: “God, being rich in mercy……even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ”.
Psalm 117 calls upon all nations to praise the Lord, on account of his “merciful kindness”. This is quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 15:11 to show that God has now fulfilled this prophecy and promise through Jesus Christ, who has been merciful in giving his life as a sacrifice for his people, both Jew and Gentile. Thus St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9,10, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.”
In the Roman Catholic Church this year of mercy – quickly defined – is a period of prayer which started on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (8th December 2015) and will continue to the Feast of Christ the King (20th November 2016). Like previous jubilees, the 2016 jubilee is seen in the Roman Catholic Church as a period for remission of sins and a universal pardon by focusing particularly on God’s forgiveness and mercy. This Jubilee year is Extraordinary because this Jubilee had not been predetermined – usually ordinary jubilees in the Roman Catholic tradition take place every 25 years.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of the Works of Mercy. In Roman Catholic teaching, the mercy of God flows through the work of the Holy Spirit. Roman Catholic liturgy includes frequent references to mercy, e.g., as in Kyrie Eleison, Christie Eleison: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. In the 20th century a new focus on mercy began to emerge in catholic teaching, later to be called Divine Mercy Devotion. From the diary of a young Polish nun, a special devotion began spreading through the world in the 1930s. The message is nothing new, but is a reminder of what the Church has always taught through scripture and tradition: that God is merciful and forgiving and that we, too, must show mercy and forgiveness. But in the Divine Mercy devotion, the message takes on a powerful new focus, calling people to a deeper understanding that God’s love is unlimited and available to everyone — especially the greatest sinners. The primary focus of the Divine Mercy devotion advocated by Pope John Paul II (who established Divine Mercy Sunday) is the merciful love of God and the desire to let that love and mercy flow through one’s own heart towards those in need of it. The first World Apostolic Congress on Mercy was held in Rome in April 2008 and was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is his recent call for an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is continuing this catholic practice of teaching.
So why an extraordinary Year of Mercy? The world has faced yet another year of increasing violence, claiming religion for it’s inspiration as seen most recently in the Paris terrorists attacks perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. During the year there has been a dreadful litany of atrocities – plane crashes in Sinai, in the French Alps, in the Ukraine, thousands have lost their lives in the Syrian civil war causing a European humanitarian migrant crises not seen since the second world war. There have been massacres in Nigeria, Kenya and on the beaches of Tunisia, at shrines in Bangkok, Thailand, in Ankara, Turkey. The beheading by ISIS of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this year on a beach in Libya shocked the Christian community and has led to the claim that Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions – most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but also in Africa. The Bishop of Leeds writing in The Times on Christmas Eve drew attention to Christians “being the most persecuted people on the earth in the 21st century”, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Christmas Day message similarly stated that the “forces of theocratic fanaticism are perilously close to extinguishing Christianity in the region where Jesus of Nazareth was born.”
Confronted with the existential threat of terrorism, of living in fear in an uncertain world, of shameful political fear mongering and the disorienting din of a 24-hour news cycle, the instinct to bunker down and hold tight to our ideologies, possessions and prejudices may be easy to understand. Lock the door. Turn out the lights. Perhaps if you live in America – buy a gun?
But not for Pope Francis. To respond and counteract this growing fear of terrorism, in the war-torn Central African Republic last month, where Muslims and Christian militias have battled in a civil war, Pope Francis insisted that one of the “essential characteristics” of being a Christian is a love of enemies, “which protects us from the temptation to seek revenge and from the spiral of endless retaliation.” He held up “practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy” in contrast to those who wield “instruments of death.”
As the Catholic Church begins a Jubilee Year of Mercy, what does mercy means to us as a Reformed congregation living in an age of terror, of wars, in the face of a creeping darkness in our political mood? Some might dismiss the Pope’s idea of mercy as a soft solution or sugary option. This is a mistake. The German Cardinal Walter Kasper once described mercy as the “essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life.”
Well beyond church life, its dogma and practise there is a politics of mercy deeply connected to justice and the common good. Mercy is not blind to the ways social structures can diminish human dignity and perpetuate inequality. Mass incarceration, environmental devastation, racism and an “economy of exclusion” should compel us to grapple with mercy not as an abstract ideal or a high-brow theological concept, but as something tangible and gritty that requires individual and collective action. The great moral leaders and prophets have always known this. The 10 Statues of the 20th-century martyrs on the façade above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey unveiled in 1998 represent religious persecution and oppression in each of the continents. Among them are victims of nazism, communism and religious prejudice in Africa. The shadow of death did not stop them. They took their place among the centuries of Christian martyrs.
Pope Francis, as usual, has a knack for explaining the essence of mercy better than most. He even coined a new word in Spanish – misercordiando. Mercy-ing in English. In this way, mercy is not just an object, a static noun, but an active verb signifying motion. Mercy requires leaving the safe place, confronting complexity, even facing evil. The Christian doesn’t travel this hard path alone. We believe that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” as we read in the Gospel of John, a text quoted by HM The Queen in her Christmas Day broadcast. None of this gives us easy answers for how to make sense of senseless gun violence, radical extremism or craven politicians who exploit fear. Pope Francis does not oppose military action against Islamic state. He said in 2014 “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” Mercy does not preclude justice in the Pope’s eyes.
Prayer and mercy require hard work, they require struggle. Christ enters the world amid chaos, violence and fear. We may be guilty of sanitizing the stable in Bethlehem, and domesticating the Gospel by smoothing out its radical edges at this time of the year. In this Holy Season of Christmas as we remember the slaughter of the Innocents on the 28th December, the murder of infant boys. The sacred and profane, as always, are never far apart. We reach the light by walking through darkness. Prayer can deepen a commitment to social transformation, and has always been interwoven into historic struggles for justice. “To clasp the hands in prayer,” the Protestant theologian Karl Barth observed, “is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Behind the image of this popular Pontiff who loves the poor is a steely determined figure. It is this lesser know quality of Pope Francis that has perhaps been most necessary in order to get mercy on the Vatican agenda and into our prayers.
As the jubilee year unfolds, I expect more surprises from this extraordinary and outstanding Pope.
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook