By Bishop Edward J. Burns
– May 2015 Southeast Alaska Catholic

In his recent papal document, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis declared an extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy—a Holy Year—as a special time for the faithful of the Church to grow in the experience of God’s compassion and forgiveness. This Holy Year will open on December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The Holy Year will conclude with the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 20, 2016.

In this papal bull, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis points to the refrain that repeats after each stanza in Psalm 136, “For his mercy endures forever.” Pope Francis states, “before his passion, Jesus prayed with this psalm of mercy… Knowing that Jesus himself prayed this psalm makes it even more important for us as Christians, challenging us to take up the refrain in our daily lives by praying these words of praise: for his mercy endures forever.”

Pope Francis processes into St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate first vespers of Divine Mercy Sunday at Vatican
Pope Francis processes into St. Peter’s Basilica to celebrate first vespers of Divine Mercy Sunday at the Vatican April 11. Before celebrating vespers, the pope released a 9,300-word document officially proclaiming the 2015-2016 extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)

Throughout Scripture, indeed throughout the New Testament, expressions of God’s mercy are seen on every page. Mercy is the foundation of God’s loving and salvific action toward us. He demonstrates his sincere love for us. In turn, mercy is at the heart of the life of the Church. In fact, the credibility of the Church is based on how the Church lives out the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ toward all people. As members of the Church and followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be witnesses to His mercy in the world. Pope Francis identifies the Church’s mission: “To announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person.”

Pope Francis makes this urgent request, “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.”

Logo for Holy Year of MercyIn order that the entire Church may effectively celebrate this Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has asked that every diocese follow his example of identifying a Holy Door that will serve as a threshold of God’s love and mercy. The Pope has identified a Holy Door at the Cathedral of Rome—that is, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. Through the symbol of these Holy Doors, it is his hope that the faithful may discover “a path to conversion.” Pope Francis would like to see this Holy Year be for all of us “an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal.”

In order to effectively experience the grace of the whole year, the Holy Father has asked that the season of Lent be a specific time of experiencing God’s mercy. In a very tangible way, the Holy Father has asked that we observe a “24 hours for the Lord”. This 24 hour period of the Sacrament of Penance is to be available to the faithful on the Friday and Saturday before the fourth week Sunday of Lent in every diocese.

As I write this column, I am preparing to be with all the priests of the Diocese of Juneau at the Shrine of St. Therese for our annual retreat. I am pleased that Bishop Chad Zielinski of the Diocese of Fairbanks will be leading our retreat. While gathered, I will speak with the priests about the initial plans for the Jubilee Year of Mercy and will seek their recommendations on identifying a Holy Door within our Diocese, as well as plans for the “24 hours for the Lord.”

I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is working through our Church; in particular, with the initiative of Pope Francis in his declaration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. As your Bishop, I pledge that we will do all that we can, in union with the successor of Saint Peter, to experience and celebrate God’s great gift of mercy. It is my hope that each of us will experience God’s love and forgiveness as we echo the words often found in the Liturgy of the Hours: “Claim me once more as your own, Lord, and have mercy on me.”