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.