A month from now, on December 8, Pope Francis will mark the opening of a Jubilee Year in the Church. Normally, Jubilees take place every twenty-five years—the last one was held in the year 2000 to mark a new millennium.
But as he has done in many other avenues, the Holy Father has broken with tradition and called a special Jubilee dedicated to the mercy of God. For a whole year, we are invited to contemplate the “mystery of mercy,” a mystery that we see most clearly in Jesus, whom the pope has called “the face of the Father’s mercy.”
The Holy Year of Mercy, a new study guide from The Word Among Us Press, is meant to be a companion for this special period. Built around eight New Testament passages that reveal aspects of the mercy of Jesus, the book draws from homilies by Pope Francis and includes questions to stimulate reflection and discussion.
From Head to Heart. The most appealing feature of the book for me was the simplicity and power of Pope Francis’ reflections. His words took me beyond intellectual consideration of the Bible passages and led me to look inside myself—but always through the lens of God’s mercy.
In a reflection on John 2:13-25—where Jesus uses a whip to drive profiteers out of the Temple—Francis turns to the question of our own hearts. Invite Jesus in, says the pope, and speak to him honestly: “Lord, look, there are good things, but there are also things that aren’t good.” There’s no need to fear, says Francis:
Do you know what kind of whip Jesus uses to cleanse our soul? Mercy. Open your heart to Jesus’ mercy! Say: “Jesus, look how much filth! Come, cleanse. Cleanse with your mercy, with your tender words, cleanse with your caresses.”
The pope’s thoughts on mercy are all the more powerful because he lives what he preaches. Reading his homily on Jesus’ healing of a leper in Mark 1:40-45, I was drawn to these words: “In the face of a poor or sick person, we must not be afraid to look him in the eye and to draw near with tenderness and compassion, and to touch him and embrace him.” Immediately, I remembered a photo that went viral last year—of Francis embracing a man whose face was covered with tumors.
Lessons New and Old. Pope Francis also offered me new insights into familiar Scriptures, like the resurrection story, when the risen Jesus asks Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” to deliver a message: “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matthew 28:1, 10).
For the first disciples and for each of us, says Francis, going to Galilee means returning to our first encounter with Jesus. It means returning to “that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.” With that flame, we can ignite a fire of joy in ourselves every day that will bring warmth and light to the people around us.
But perhaps the most important message I took from this book was not so much a new insight as an urgent reminder of how central mercy is to our Christian life. Pope Francis stresses this idea:
We are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. . . . It is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart.
Growing in Mercy. The Holy Year of Mercy can also be a helpful resource for study groups—especially small groups. The four sets of questions at the end of each chapter work together to draw out individual responses and spur discussion. It’s an approach that Pope Francis would highly approve!
The “Understand!” questions help us get into each Bible passage and explore the “what” and “why” beneath the surface. One of them asks, “Why do you think the Pharisee invited Jesus into his home?” There’s no single correct answer, but a prayerful, thoughtful reading of the story (in Luke 7) will reveal some possible motivations and help us understand this character—and ourselves—a little better.
Next come the “Grow!” questions, which invite us to examine our lives in light of the passage at hand. After reading how Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to announce his resurrection to the disciples, we consider this: “How do you respond to God’s call to witness to others? What fears do you have?”
The “Reflect!” section was my favorite because it offers not only questions but also relevant and moving quotes from the pope’s proclamation of the Holy Year (the Bull of Indiction). This whole document, which is included at the end of the book, makes for inspiring reading.
Last of all comes the “Act!” section, which challenges us to find ways of responding concretely to each passage. If you’re moved by the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, for example, you might share the story with someone who is sad or depressed. Better yet: “Share how Jesus has called you out of your own ‘dead places.’ Offer to pray with your friend, trusting that Jesus wants to mercifully call that person out of the tomb to live a new life of joy and freedom.”
These are only suggestions, but if we put some of them into practice, the coming Year of Mercy will be a time of renewal and transformation for us. Not only will we come to a deeper experience of the mercy of God, but we will also become more fully the face of God’s mercy to the people around us.
Bob French lives in Virginia.
The Holy Year of Mercy: A Faith-Sharing Guide with Reflections by Pope Francis (softcover, 152 pages) is available from The Word Among Us online at www.wau.org and www.amazon.com.