If Pope Francis were to announce that Fridays would become meatless again for Catholics, there would be frenzy on all kinds of social media. The texts and tweets would be flying; morning talk shows would have experts on fasting; night shows would have their jokes ready. Homilies would be preached and theologians would be already looking for the hidden meaning as well as the exemptions.
The bottom line is that such an announcement would be relatively unimportant in the scheme of a Christian life. Pope Francis has actually made a much more extreme announcement which is absolutely critical and vital to the life of every Catholic; and it will hardly get a notice. Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy from December 8, 2015 to November 30, 2016.
In his announcement last March, Pope Francis referred to the story in the Gospel of Luke about the woman who went to the house of Simon and washed the feet of Jesus because Simon had failed to do so. Simon had insulted Jesus according to the customs of their day by ignoring a basic tenet of hospitality. The woman who had a reputation as a public sinner saw this and immediately threw herself at the feet of Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. She must have seen something in Jesus that drew her to him, that convinced her that she would be welcomed by him. Precious ointment is poured over him with abundance. “This woman’s every gesture speaks of love and expresses her desire to have an unshakable certainty in her life: that of being forgiven. And Jesus gives this assurance: welcoming her, He demonstrates God’s love for her, just for her!” (Pope Francis)
This parable is the essence of Pope Francis’ call to mercy. Each of us needs to know that we are welcomed by Christ. Nothing in us is abhorrent to him. He loves us; he searches for us. He carries us as a sheep on his shoulders. Or, as Pope John XXIII said at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, “Now the Bride of Christ (the Church) wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity.”
Both Popes are saying the same thing as did John in his gospel, “God is love.” In a world where refugees are ignored by some and welcomed by others, where the poor go hungry or are fed by compassionate hearts, where many make war and others make peace, the time is ripe for mercy. It is the face of God who speaks only mercy and compassion. As children of God by baptism, what we have received freely we give freely.
The Church needs to be a place where everyone feels welcome and where the Church is the Face of the Father’s mercy to the broken and weary among us. This message is truly earth-shattering. When we receive and accept the mercy of God, we are “called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.” This Thanksgiving let our first prayer for gratitude be for the mercy of God so freely given us.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.