Pope Francis can be described in the words of the Anglo-Irish poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy (slightly adapted here) as both “a mover and shaker” and “a dreamer of dreams.” He wants to move and shake so the dreams become reality. We have seen this since his election as pope on March 13, 2013, and we are sure to see more this year.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy is a priority event in Francis’ dreams. In a world marked by conflict, violence, brutality, vendetta, poverty and exclusion, he is advocating the rediscovery of mercy as the path to a more humane world. He wants the church to blaze the trail.
But he knows the church has often adopted a judgmental mentality and obscured the central place of mercy, so he is insisting on putting mercy before justice—not just in words but in creative ways too, including through the practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. He is promoting a “revolution of tenderness.”
Francis highlighted the significance of mercy for the life and mission of the church in the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. He goes into greater depth in an interview that will appear in book form as The Name of God Is Mercy on Jan. 12. Five days later, he will visit the synagogue in Rome.
Ever since Boniface VIII opened the first holy year in 1300, the 28 subsequent ones have been Rome-centric, but Francis has broken with this tradition in two important ways: first, by opening the jubilee in the cathedral of Bangui, in the Central African Republic, which is crushed by poverty and conflict; and, second, by decreeing that this jubilee be decentralized and that a holy door be opened in every diocese and sanctuary worldwide, as well as in situations of exclusion, like hospitals, prisons and refugee camps. An estimated 10,000 holy doors are being opened in some 3,000 dioceses worldwide.
Francis has explicitly linked the Jubilee Year of Mercy to the meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family, and it is expected that he will publish his apostolic exhortation on the family in the first part of the year. It will be his most important magisterial text of 2016. It remains to be seen in what ways he will open the doors of mercy to Catholics who feel excluded from the life of the church for one reason or another.
His two main foreign journeys this year—to Mexico (Feb. 12-18) and to Krakow, Poland, for the World Youth Day (July 26-31)—are directly linked to the theme of mercy. The logo for his visit to four cities in Mexico is Misionero de Misericordia y Paz (Missionary of Mercy and Peace), while the one for World Youth Day is centered on the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). He is likely to visit Auschwitz while in Krakow.
On March 16, 2013, Francis told the media that he dreams of a church that is poor and for the poor, and throughout his pontificate he has given attention to the peripheries. He is sure to continue on this path when he creates new cardinals in June.
This first Latin American pope dreams of a church where synodality is exercised and decentralization is a reality. He proposed this in his programmatic document, ‘The Joy of the Gospel,” and expanded on it in his keynote speech on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops.
Furthermore, Francis and his council of nine cardinal advisors will devote one session of their next meeting (Feb. 8-9) to this topic, because of its relevance for the reform of the Roman Curia.
It is worth mentioning, too, that the International Theological Commission is currently studying the question of synodality and the church. These reflections could pave the way for a transformation in the governance of the church and could have important implications in the ecumenical field.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, Francis hopes for a breakthrough in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church through a meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I. He also hopes for a breakthrough in relations with China. These could happen before he closes the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Nov. 20.