Today, the Holy Door has been opened. The Year of Mercy has arrived.
The prophet Balaam is called a “man with far-seeing eyes”. There is something of that to Pope Francis and this call for a Year of Mercy. He has seen a need, beyond and beneath all the immediate ones; a need of the soul; a need of humanity and of the Church at this historical moment. Many strands have come together here. There are the saints, like St Therese of Lisieux who offered herself to Merciful Love, St Faustina Kowalska, the apostle of Divine Mercy, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, such a practitioner of the works of mercy. There are the many Catholic and Christian endeavours for peace and justice and health and education, the best of them with mercy as their motive. Bl John XXIII said, at the beginning of the 2nd Vatican Council, that now was the time for the Church to administer ‘the medicine of mercy.’ Bl. Paul VI summed up the spirituality of the Council as that of the Good Samaritan. St John Paul II gave a whole Encyclical to mercy, Dives in Misericordia, set St Faustina as the first canonised saint of the 3rd millennium, and designated the 2nd Sunday of Easter as the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Pope Francis, by this Jubilee of Mercy with its door and music and logo and motto, with his words and gestures, has brought all this close to us in a very real and practical way.
Today, the Door is the thing.
Holy Doors have always been a symbolic feature of Jubilee Years. Hitherto, though, these doors have been restricted to the great Cathedrals of Rome. This time, the Pope has asked every Cathedral to have its Holy Door, and allowed bishops to establish others in their dioceses. So, in our diocese, there will be three: that of St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen; at Pluscarden Abbey; and at St Mary’s, Inverness. Thus, these three churches will be pilgrimage churches, and – on the usual conditions – an indulgence will be granted to all who pass through these doors in humble search of the mercy of God.
Doors lend themselves to symbolic meanings and metaphor.
Think of what it means for migrants, for refugees or asylum seekers, when a country opens its doors to them.
Jerusalem was famous for its gates, and the Temple had its gate. This was always understood as more than a physical object. And so the Psalmist says: ‘Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will enter and give thanks. This is the Lord’s own gate where the just may enter. I will thank you for you have given answer and you are my saviour’ (Ps 117:19-21).
So, our door is a symbol of righteousness, holiness. Salvation lies beyond it.
Then there are the words of Jesus: ‘I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture’ (Jn 10:7, 9). So, our door is a symbol of Christ, our way to the Father.
Often in children’s stories, there’s a secret, magic door. We pass through it into another world. Think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Beyond the wardrobe door lies the Kingdom of Narnia. Beyond ours, the Narnia of Mercy.
I think Pope Francis sees two invitations in these doors. A door is something through which one enters and leaves. They are two-directional. We go in through this door to receive mercy. We go out through it to give mercy. We are to breathe mercy in, fill our spiritual lungs with it, and then breathe it out, fill the world with it.
So, first we’re invited to access the mercy of God. In God, as it were, it is always Open Doors day. We’re invited to receive mercy, experience it, be surprised by it.
And what is it? What is mercy? Mercy is the name we give God’s infinite love when it turns to us in our frailty, when it comes to meet us in our limitations, difficulties and perplexities, our physical, mental, spiritual aches and pains, our struggles and sadnesses. It’s God’s goodness touching everything that isn’t good in our life, most of all the great non-good of sin. But what is sin? Our natural, first answer would be: doing something morally wrong, breaking the commandments. That’s true. But more importantly it is a failure in love. It’s damaging a relationship. It’s hurting someone who loves me and deserves my love. And this someone is God. Sin is hurting God. Be it directly or by failing others or by damaging myself, sin always goes back to God. It affects that first and most fundamental of all our relationships. We only have to think of wounding God to recoil. But this is what we have done and do. So we go through the door, like the Psalmist entering the Temple: ‘To you all flesh will come / with its burden of sin. / Too heavy for us, our offences, / but you wipe them away’ (Ps 64:2-4). We go in carrying the truth about ourselves. We go in saying, ‘Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; in your compassion blot out my offence’ (Ps 50:3). We pray, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ We bring our whole selves, our failings and hopes. We ask for help and for pardon. We simply open ourselves up to the mercy waiting for us. The German word for ‘mercy’ is Barmherzigkeit. ‘Herz’ is ‘heart’, ‘Barm’ is bosom, breast. We’re wanting his merciful love to embrace us. We’re asking God to hug us to his heart, to take our miseria into his cor and heal us Beyond the door, there’s the father of the parable, not just waiting for us, but running to meet us. A divine tenderness is lying in wait. It’s the tenderness of someone Almighty. God shows his power above all in having mercy and forgiving us, and this changes and renews us. It makes us whole and light. ‘This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy…Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved…Let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things’ (Pope Francis, Homily, 8 / 12 /15). Yes, Pope Francis wishes us to have the experience of Matthew the tax-collector rising up and following, of Zacchaeus speeding down the tree, of the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well, or of Mary Magdalene, or of Peter weeping for his denial.
The Holy Father’s second summons is this: let’s give what we’ve received, let’s show it to others. We go in through the Door and then we go out of it: back into the world, into our life, our relationships. We are to be icons of the merciful Christ. This is not to be soppy or sentimental and unrealistic, or laissez-faire. Jesus was merciful; he was hardly soppy; and it took him to the Cross. Our hearts are to be expanded to all the needs and wounds and distresses in us and around us. But instead of recoiling from them or simply lamenting or condemning them, we will respond to them. We will prefer mercy to judgment, as St James says. We will respond in practical ways. We have the 7 corporal and 7 spiritual works of mercy to focus us. I would hope each parish or each group would choose one or other of these, or variations on them. And so, too, each of us as individuals. There is so much pain in lives. Let’s not run away from it, by absorption in our own private worlds or in a whirl of distracting pleasures. Let’s carry it in our hearts.
And let’s aim to give, not just our mercy, but God’s.
On 11 March 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake shook northeastern Japan and unleashed a tsunami. Thousands died. Among the Aid Agencies that acted to relieve the situation was Cor Unum, the Pope’s own charity. Several members of it were engaged in the aftermath of the disaster, including the Cardinal who heads this body, at that time the African Robert Sarah. After his visit, he received this letter from a young Japanese, Buddhist woman: ‘After the terrible tsunami in which we lost several members of our family and everything we had, I wanted to take my life. But after having heard you on television, after having rediscovered peace and serenity when you prayed for the survivors and the dead, having seen your recollection and silent prayer beside the sea and after witnessing your moving gesture of throwing flowers into the sea in memory of the drowned, I gave up the idea of suicide. Thanks to you I realized, and now I know, that, despite this disaster, there is Someone who loves us, who lives at my side and shares our sufferings, because we are certainly of great value in his eyes. This Someone is God. I felt his presence and compassion through the Holy Father, the Pope, and through you. I am not a Catholic, but I write these lines to thank you and the Holy Father Pope Benedict for having brought me this huge comfort. I know that others too received this precious spiritual help of which we are all in need, above all times of great and terrible trial’ (quoted in Dieu ou rien, by Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat).
Mercy, Pope Francis has said, is ‘what God most loves’. Let us love what He most loves!