On March 13, 2015, the second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, the pope took the world by surprise when he announced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
God’s mercy has been at the heart of his own life ever since an extraordinary, mystical experience of it at the age of 17 that has shaped his exercise of ministry as priest, bishop and now pope.
Mercy was the central theme of his first address as pope to the hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square on March 17, 2013. And on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome four months later, on July 28, Pope Francis told the international media that this is “the kairos”—the appointed historical moment—for mercy and that the church as mother “must travel this path of mercy and find a form of mercy for all.”
While St. John Paul II wrote an encyclical on God’s mercy, Pope Francis called the jubilee year to communicate this mercy to a wounded world that is in great need of healing and reconciliation. He linked this jubilee directly to the two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on the family and is challenging the church to abandon a judgmental attitude and address the entire spectrum of family situations in the light of God’s mercy and to find ways of integration for those who are excluded.
His apostolic exhortation on the family is expected to be published on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph and the third anniversary of the inauguration of his Petrine ministry. It will draw on the discussions and conclusions of the synod meetings on the family and be framed in the perspective of mercy.
This is the first holy year on a specific theme, and the first that is not centered on Rome. Previous holy years involved mega-events and big business in Rome, which benefited a range of economic, political and clerical interests. The pope’s decision to decentralize the jubilee celebration has disrupted and upset that network of interests and, some predict, could result in fewer pilgrims coming to Rome, compared with the jubilee in 2000.
Above all else, Pope Francis wants the jubilee celebration of mercy to involve local church communities in every country and to be accessible to the poorest of the poor, to prisoners and those trapped in conflict situations. Hence his decision to open it in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, in the heart of a conflict situation.
As is clear from the document that formally announced the jubilee, “The Face of Mercy” (“Misericordiae Vultus”), the pope wants this jubilee to be inclusive, one from which no one feels excluded.
In that announcement he explained that this holy year is a radical call to the church and individual believers to experience God’s mercy and to show mercy in their individual and community lives through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and thereby respond in concrete ways to all who are wounded and suffering in today’s world.
As pope, Francis has blazed the trail in this regard, showing how to be merciful in daily life. He appointed a former humble Polish priest, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, as papal almoner and gave him the task of reaching out on his behalf to provide concrete assistance to the many poor, hungry, homeless, desperate people in Rome, and to immigrants there and elsewhere.
Pope Francis has had showers and a barber’s service installed for the poor and homeless people under the colonnades in St. Peter’s Square and opened a hostel to provide beds for many of them at night. He has organized a visit for them to the Vatican museums and to the Shroud of Turin, and in countless other ways has sought to affirm their dignity as human beings.
He has asked every parish in Europe to take in a refugee family and instructed the Vatican’s two parishes to do likewise.
As pope, Francis has visited prisoners in jails in several countries during his journeys, called for abolition of the death penalty and urged reform of the penal system. He spends much time with the sick, the disabled and terminally ill children.
By his personal witness to the Gospel of mercy, the pope is setting an example for the whole church in this holy year—in the first place for his brother bishops—making clear to everyone that to follow Jesus means to be merciful always.