Much has rightly been made about the continuity between the great pope of mercy – St John Paul II – and the proclamation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis, who has put the experience of mercy at the heart of his pontificate. Yet the special jubilee is more than just a link between the two pontificates: it’s part of broader shift by the papacy in the 21st century towards the fundamentals of the faith.
In the immediate years after the Second Vatican Council – the 50th anniversary of the closing of which was chosen for the opening of the jubilee – the Church found herself in a time when all things were contested, from the liturgy to the nature of the Church to basic moral questions.
It was a period when what it meant to be Catholic was no longer certain.
Blessed Paul VI attempted, as best he could, to keep the ship of faith on course amid the storm, with the articulation of his Credo of the People of God and other measures, but as he faced his death in the summer of 1978, he felt obliged, in his final public homily, to insist, with St Paul, “I have kept the faith!” Many others evidently had not.
It fell then to the long 35-year pontificate in two acts of Wojtyła and Ratzinger to stabilise the ship by a slow and steady re-presentation of the entire faith. Over 20 years, John Paul’s encyclicals from 1978 to 1998 included two trilogies, one on the Trinity and another on social doctrine; the treatment of the Church’s mission; her Marian devotion; the foundations of morality, the sexual revolution and the culture of life; ecumenism; and the relationship between faith and reason. Amid all that, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger supervised the first universal catechism in four centuries, a monumental project that gave a compelling account of what the Church believed and proclaimed to the world.
Having achieved tranquillity in her liturgical and doctrinal life, Wojtyła/Ratzinger shifted focus away from disputed questions toward the fundamentals of living the Catholic life. The central moment was the Great Jubilee 2000, which had as its focus Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. After the great jubilee, that focus continued with John Paul’s letter for the Church’s entrance into the third millennium, which took as its starting point the disciple’s contemplation of the face of Christ.
In 2002, there followed a Year of the Rosary, the most ordinary and powerful of Catholic devotions, to be followed by a Year of the Eucharist, the occasion of which was preceded by John Paul’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia.
John Paul died in the Year of the Eucharist and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI, whose first encyclical was not a matter of contested doctrine, but on the most fundamental theme of all, God is Love. It was there that Benedict would articulate clearly the principle later given fresh impetus by Pope Francis, namely that alongside the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel and worship of God was an third indispensable mission, the service of charity. Benedict directed the Church towards the summary of the law provided by Jesus himself – love of God and love of neighbour.
Benedict then undertook a double trilogy of his own, dealing with Catholic fundamentals. The first served as a capstone of one of the Church’s greatest theological careers, the three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, presenting a lifetime of scholarly contemplation of the face of Christ as revealed in the scriptures. The second trilogy was the encyclicals on the theological virtues of love, hope and faith, the last of which was published by Pope Francis. Benedict chose two topics for the synod of bishops, both foundational, the Word of God, and the mission of evangelisation.
This shift towards the fundamentals of the Catholic life was taken up by Pope Francis, with his heart for the poor and his zeal for mission. The Jubilee of Mercy brings all this together in an imaginative and compelling way, for as John Paul taught in his own encyclical on mercy, “this love [of Jesus] makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty – in contact with the whole historical ‘human condition’, which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral; it is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself [and] that in biblical language is called ‘mercy’.”
Mercy speaks of the nature of God, the creation of the world and the mission of the redeemer. The disciple who encounters mercy experiences conversion and is sent in mission. It is absolutely at the heart of the Catholic faith, both doctrine and practice – the Church’s priority at the beginning of the third millennium.
Fr Raymond J de Souza has been appointed a Missionary of Mercy for the Jubilee Year, and was present at the opening of the Holy Door in Rome.