Pope Francis opens the Holy Doors at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome on Tuesday to mark the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy for the universal church. But that’s old news. He already opened last week the Holy Doors of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Bangui in the Central African Republic. So technically, the Jubilee Year is on! You can’t open an already open door!
So when we stop to consider what this all means, this Jubilee Year of Mercy, our attention might gravitate toward “those people” who “should” be more forgiving, more compassionate, more merciful; for instance, people in power; people whose words and actions have a much greater influence and impact than our own; people who could use a monumental conversion experience or a similarly monumental personality transplant to make the Holy Father’s vision of a Year of Mercy worth our attention and effort so much more. Why? Because what it ultimately hinges on is the support and involvement of a few key individuals whose attitudes and actions have power to determine what life could potentially be like for the rest of us. And if they are not on board, what good will anything we say or do accomplish, we the insignificant and inconsequential? In this year of outsized and outspoken personalities vying for the highest office in the land, first impressions, viral images, videos, and sound bytes get a lot of attention. So if our leaders refuse to embrace the Holy Father’s plan, it matters little whether or not they call it forgiveness, compassion, or mercy; if those already in positions of influence directly oppose the implications of the Jubilee, or simply ignore the whole thing and remain on the sidelines, and if everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move, we might as well quit now and resign ourselves to this present state of fear, misery, suspicion, and complacency because nothing different is realistically going to change, and nothing different will realistically ever get done.
Well, that’s a load of cynicism I’m sure you never expected to hear in church. It’s also a lot of unsupported assumptions and untruths. I’ll tell you why. You see, what we say and do matters, we the insignificant and inconsequential, because what it ultimately comes down to is that we have power to affect and influence people and events around us for good. Each and every person has that kind of power, more like a superpower. It is unfortunate that we have neglected it or been reluctant to use it for so long.
When I react to people, when I respond to events and circumstances that catch me unawares, I often do so impulsively, emotionally, and without a lot of reflection. When I am hurt or offended, when I am caught off guard, when I am shocked into action, I tend to surprise myself because I might behave out of character, and I am not unwilling to pin blame on them—people, events, circumstances—that instigated the whole thing. Those evil people made me do it. Radical Islamic extremists made me do it. This terrible atmosphere of mistrust and violence made me do it. And when I am incapable of taking responsibility for my own actions or what comes out of my mouth, I have effectively surrendered my freedom. “They” are in control of what I say or do.
But that is all so far from the truth. For as long as I have power to choose my own response to people, events, and circumstances around me, I can actually accomplish great and wonderful things. This Advent season, we hear a lot about what God wants to accomplish on behalf of his people. “For God will show all the earth your splendor; you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.” The prophet Isaiah tries to project an image of God who makes awesome things happen. “Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights! … God will bring [your children] back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones … for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
But even God cannot accomplish great things without our sincere and willing cooperation. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul gives thanks for their “partnership for the gospel.” He tells the Philippians that they have not been passive recipients of God’s grace. God “who began a good work in you will [also] continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Consequently, we must put our efforts and energies toward accomplishing God’s purpose and design. If we truly desire a world of justice, peace, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy, we have to work with God to realize that plan. We must proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation with grace and conviction. Pope Francis tells us as he told the assembly in the cathedral of Bangui last week, “Those who evangelize, [that is, those who proclaim Good News,] must therefore be first and foremost practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy.” (http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/full-text-pope-s-homily-at-mass-at-bangui-cathedral) The wonderful and awesome plan of God to create a world of justice, peace, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy begins with you and me. It isn’t up to the Pope, or world leaders, or celebrities alone, to achieve the fulfillment of God’s plan. You and I are essential to that effort.
The appearance of John the Baptist in the gospel account of Luke situates the entire narrative of our salvation in a specific time and place in human history. That tells us that God is always at work in the world, in our time and in our midst. God sent John to prepare God’s people to receive Jesus’ invitation to reconciliation and healing. It was not a particularly remote or significant part of the world, and yet God chose to make himself known there. They were not untouched by conflict or injustice, not without their share of struggle with prejudice and indifference. So Pope Francis says “in every place, even and especially in those places where violence, hatred, injustice and persecution hold sway,’ [we who are] Christians are called to give witness to this God who is love.” (ibid.)
In the face of violence, injustice, economic instability, and fear, mercy can be perceived as a show of weakness. The more satisfying approach is to show unwavering force and confidence and strength. But if we respond and react with great emotion but not much reflection, we are simply surrendering our freedom to the powers of sin and selfishness, darkness and death. Pope Francis proclaimed unapologetically “to all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: lay down these instruments of death! Arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace. [Then he tells the assembly and all the world,] As followers of Christ … your vocation is to incarnate the very heart of God in the midst of your fellow citizens.” We are bearers of God’s mercy and healing to all people. We have superpowers. And we should be willing to use them toward achieving God’s plan.