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It is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thus a Holy Day of Obligation, one that thrusts us headlong into mysteries so deep we can (and perhaps should) spend a lifetime pondering them. It is a Holy Day so holy it can never be fully understood, but today, its wonders can help us to become quiet — not just for a moment but throughout the year, because they are an ever-accessible gateway to the building-up of the interior life.
It is the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, a council whose aims are sometimes poorly implemented, badly misconstrued, misinterpreted and stretched beyond reason. A source of hope for some, and doubt for others, it has become a bringer of exterior noise. Today is a good day to resolve to spend the Holy Year reading (or rereading) the documents of the council, and considering how popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (both contributors to the council and the documents) used them to usher in a New Evangelization, a new sense of mission to the world. A good time to let the documents speak to heart and mind, in the quiet of the ongoing Incarnational mystery.
Today is also the opening of the Year of Mercy. Kyrie Eleison is a prayer that predates the formation of the church, the prayer uttered (and shouted) at Christ Jesus, and shared in parable. Justice and Mercy exist on the same horizontal beam of the Cross, balanced by the weight of Christ, vertical, heavenward, in the middle (study the crucifix …).
Today, Pope Francis said:
To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. It is he who seeks us! It is he who comes to encounter us! This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy. How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy (cf. St. Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 12, 24)! But that is the truth. We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy.
The invitation to ponder and engage with the Mercy of God is not meant to be a license to sin — to do anything we like because God, who is All Love, cannot love us less, and “his love endures forever …” It is true that the well of God’s mercy never runs out, but conversion is the catalyst by which its healing water is directed our way, and comes to bathe us in consolation. To convert means “to turn.” We turn in needful contrition, and God is there. Let us turn, today, turn tomorrow, develop the habit of turning to God in our need. We are not holy; we turn to Christ, and in that turning — in the encounter with his majesty — we find the desire to become holy.
So there are these three things happening, concurrently, today. But something else is too.
As Pope Francis stood in the center of the opened doors, paused just a moment, with one hand on each, I saw Peter — the Rock upon which the church is built — opening it to the world and saying, “Come in.” I saw the one to whom Christ gave the keys of the kingdom, and I remembered his promise at that moment: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19).
I couldn’t help thinking, Peter has just loosed a rampant mercy on earth; what shall ‘drop down from heaven, as dew’? (Isaiah 45:8). How much of this healing, living water will be as a balm upon a people lost, largely unmissioned-to, confused, self-hating and imprisoned by illusions? How will a rain of mercy melt the frost-hardened hearts of our age when we are “too smart, too sophisticated,” able to publicly mock the practice and power of prayer?
And how many, having felt that first thaw, will turn, and turn, and turn, seeking out further mercies and desiring to become holy?
The opening of the Holy Doors is an invitation to come inside, and begin to turn. It is an invitation to become so enamored of the pursuit of holiness that we will wish to remain into eternity.
In Rumer Godden’s classic novel In This House of Brede, we read of a young novice, newly veiled and ready to begin her life of exactly this pursuit. She too approached a door:
The procession wound through the Abbey grounds into the forecourt, through the big outer front door and the high hall, to the enclosure doors, where Cecily knocked. “Open to me the gates of justice,” the full clear voice rang out. The nuns answered from the inside. “This is the gate of the Lord … the just shall enter,” and the door opened, showing Abbess Catherine with her crook, the whole community behind her. On the threshold, Cecily knelt and sang, “This is my resting place forever …” Bishop Mark said the last prayer and signaled for Cecily to rise … “We hereby entrust to you our sister and pray that under the guidance of the Holy Rule and through obedience she may deserve to obtain perfect union with God. May the peace of the Lord be always with you …” He blessed Cecily, who went through, and the doors were shut.
The Bishop of Rome is giving us all a chance to sing out, “Open to me the gates of justice.” All of us deserve a chance, through guidance and obedience, to obtain perfect union with God.
Elizabeth Scaliais editor-in-chief of the English edition of Aleteia.