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Francis, Pope of Mercy


AP Photo/Alessandro Bianchi

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/18/15

The Jubilee of Mercy captures the Holy Father's favorite theme

On the second anniversary of the beginning of his pontificate Pope Francis proved once again to be the “Pope of Surprises” by calling an extraordinary Jubilee year with the theme of mercy. Capturing the theme of his ministry and message, the Jubilee of Mercy echoes the emphasis on mercy in Pope St John Paul II’s ministry and the papacy of Benedict XVI.

The tradition of a Jubilee year dates back to the Old Testament. Every fifty years a jubilee was celebrated to mark the universal forgiveness of sins and pardon for all. Debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. The Catholic tradition of Jubilee years begins in the year 1300 when Pope Bonfiace VIII established a celebration in which sins would be fully forgiven for those who prayerfully and faithfully visited Rome to pray in the basilicas associated with the apostles.

At first pilgrims had only to visit the Basilica of St. Peter, but later the basilicas of St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major were added. The Jubilee year was first intended to be only once a century, but because of popularity it began to take place every fifty years, then every thirty three years, then extraordinary jubilees were added for special events. Thus in Pope John Paul II’s pontificate there was the usual thirty three year jubilee in 1983 and an extraordinary “great jubilee” for the celebration of the millennium in 2000.

The Jubilee is a perfect way to recognize and celebrate God’s mercy because during the Jubilee pilgrims may accept the fullness of God’s mercy and forgiveness as they faithfully follow the path of the pilgrim and join their lives with the witness of the apostles with the blessing of the whole church. A Jubilee year is therefore an example of God’s mercy in action through the ministry of his church to all people.

In order to fully appreciate the Jubilee of Mercy we have to fully understand what Pope Francis means by “mercy.” The most common understanding of mercy is being excused for a crime. A criminal stands before a judge and knowing his guilt and realizing that he deserves punishment, he pleads for mercy and a lighter sentence. While this understanding of mercy is not wrong, it is also not complete. Mercy is more than simply letting someone off the hook and not punishing them as severely as they deserve.

In fact mercy and justice must be seen as two sides to the same coin. Justice is fulfilled, not denied when true mercy is exercised. This is because the justice which the law demands is always rightly balanced by the mercy which the human heart demands. Justice is completed by mercy and mercy is fulfilled by justice. In the Christian understanding, our redemption is completed when mercy and justice are both fulfilled by Christ’s death on the cross. There punishment for sin is finished and mercy and redemption are won through Christ’s victory.

Mercy is therefore best understood as an outward action of God’s love in the world. Pope St. John Paul II, who so assiduously promoted the devotion to the Divine Mercy, said that “Mercy is Love’s Second Name.” In his 1980 encyclical entitled, “Rich in Mercy” (Dives in Misericordia) John Paul expounds the full teaching of the church about God’s mercy. He explores the Old Testament context of mercy, focusses on God’s mercy revealed through the parable of the prodigal son, explains how Mary is the Mother of Mercy and therefore how the whole church enacts Christ’ s mission of mercy in the world.  Pope Benedict followed John Paul in speaking constantly about the mercy of God, and emphasized how the Divine Mercy was the hallmark of John Paul’s ministry and message.

By declaring an extraordinary jubilee of mercy Pope Francis continues to proclaim the central message of the gospel and the core truth of his pontificate. The reform agenda for which Francis is famous around the world is not essentially about financial reform of the Vatican Bank, ridding the church of abusive priests or cleaning up corruption in the curia. All of these efforts and others are simply the fruit of Francis’ emphasis on mercy.

We can think of it like this: for the goodness, truth and beauty of God’s mercy to be seen and experienced, the church must be the clear and clean. Like a lens through which a thing is magnified and clarified, so the church is the lens through which we see and come to know God’s mercy. Corruption and hypocrisy in the church must be purged if the church is to be the clear lens through which the world can glimpse God’s mercy.

Pope Francis realizes that this cleanliness and clarity must extend to all the church’s faithful. Efforts at reform are not simply for the cardinals and curia. Reform and repentance are not simply for the priests and prelates. They are the right action of all of the faithful. As the faithful participate in the joyful jubilee they will know the power and freedom of their redemption. At that point true reform and renewal will come to the church not simply from the top down, but from the ground level up.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, SC. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at

Devotions and FeastsPope FrancisPracticing Mercy
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