Opinion & Features

Year of Mercy: We need Catholics with ‘attitude’

Pope Francis opens the holy door of Bangui cathedral in the Central African Republic (AP)

Recently, I visited a remarkable day centre in the south of England that cares for the homeless. It’s called The Vine Centre and it occupies a three-floor corner shop in Aldershot town centre, just near the station. Staffed largely by volunteers, the centre exists to help the neediest in north-east Hampshire. It runs a weekly soup kitchen and, in winter, an overnight shelter on the premises of a local church.

But during the week, it offers hot lunches, career guidance, a food bank, skills training, counselling and advice. Its ethos is thoroughly Christian. Just like in Our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, it offers practical help and accompaniment to anyone in need. It is very much like the “field hospital” Pope Francis wishes the whole Church to be.

The story of The Vine Centre is inspirational, a testimony to God’s grace and human cooperation. A parishioner from St Joseph’s, a Catholic church in the town, started it in 1988. On her way back from daily Mass she began to notice more and more people on the streets, begging and apparently homeless. With a couple of friends, she began to organise sandwiches and drinks. She got to know some of
them and after a while offered advice and assistance.

To cut a long story short, the team eventually acquired some premises and thus the day centre as it is today came into being. The Vine Centre is well worth looking up on the internet, at thevinecentre.org.uk, and supporting with prayer and in practical ways. It is currently managed by a wonderful Christian woman, Mags Mercer.

Jesus said in St Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you made me welcome” (Mt 25:35).

Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary Holy Year, a Jubilee of Mercy. It begins on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and ends on the feast of Christ the King, November 20, 2016. The aim is to proclaim and receive the loving mercy of God, who is dives in misericordia, “rich in mercy”.

God has created every person on earth. A loving Father, he longs to enter into a transforming relationship with them. In the fullness of time, he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to conquer sin and evil, sickness, suffering and death. Jesus continues to offer this Good News of salvation to those willing to receive it, especially anyone in need: the poor, captives, addicts, the blind and downtrodden.

Indeed, this is why he calls sinners – people like you and me – to be disciples within his Body, the Church. He wants us to change, to be freed from the misery of sin, to fulfil our potential, to become holy and one day to live with him in heaven.

Pope Francis’s thoughts on the Holy Year can be found in Misericordiae Vultus, the bull announcing the Year of Mercy. You can read it on the Vatican website. It seems to me that the purpose of this Year is to invite every member of the Church to have “attitude”, that is, to open ourselves to receiving God’s mercy, and to manifest that Divine Mercy to everyone around.

In my diocese of Portsmouth, I am encouraging clergy to preach often during the Year about the tender love of God for frail humanity. A great help will be the new liturgical cycle beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, in which the Sunday Mass readings come from the Gospel of Luke. St Luke is often called “the evangelist of mercy” for his account of the Lord’s parables of mercy: the Good Samaritan,the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (or prodigal) son.

At the same time, I am encouraging all our people to undertake each day a “review of life”, in which we thank God for His blessings and where He has brought us to, but at the same time acknowledge our sins, what is going wrong, and the need for His mercy. I really hope that one lasting grace from the Holy Year will be a renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

For many Catholics, this sacrament is currently undervalued. I hope and pray people will go to Confession more frequently during the Year. But apart from confessing grave sins as soon as possible, it would be good for every Catholic to develop the habit of a monthly confession.

Incidentally, at the bishops’ conference this November, there was some discussion of whether during the Year of Mercy parishes might celebrate Rite Three of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (general absolution). It was a lively discussion.

But in the end, the bishops acknowledged that the valid conditions required for general absolution were not generally met in our circumstances. What is more important in the Year of Mercy is to reflect on the processes of conversion and the central place in conversion of a one-to-one encounter with Jesus Christ.

This encounter, whether through an individual confession in the traditional manner, or through an individual confession within a penitential service, is key to experiencing personally God’s love.

In my experience as a priest, teenagers and young people know instinctively what Confession is about. Generally, they make good confessions. This is a testimony to contemporary catechesis and good RE teaching in school.

But where they often fall down is in not knowing what to say or how to begin (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned’’). They often don’t know the Act of Contrition (“O my God, because you are so good …”). In the diocese I am having leaflets and simple Act of Contrition cards printed, for distribution to our schools and parishes.

For the Holy Year, all the dioceses are establishing shrine churches with holy doors. In our own diocese, there will be two: St John’s Cathedral, Portsmouth and St Edmund’s, Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Parishes, schools, groups and individuals are being encouraged to go on pilgrimage to these churches. In them, pilgrims can walk through a holy door and thus, by the specified prayers, and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, obtain the Jubilee plenary indulgence.

The custom of crossing the threshold of a holy door is rich in meaning. It is meant to be a renewal of baptism. Jesus himself is the Door, the Way to heaven, the means to communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. To pass through the holy door is to profess our faith in him, to cross from this world to the next, and to leave behind the old way of life, restored to the holiness of our baptism. To help our preparation for this, a wide range of resources are now available through the Catholic Truth Society and on the internet.

Some dioceses are being very creative. Salford is planning a “mercy bus”, which will travel round, offering people the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Another diocese is planning a prayer tent in a public park with Eucharistic Adoration. In most dioceses there will be special events for the sick, for catechists, for priests and for schools. There is also World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, to look forward to.

In Misericordiae Vultus, the Holy Father asks us particularly to develop further the virtue of mercy, that is, charitable actions that put mercy into practice.

In this respect, the Catholic tradition speaks of seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy.

The corporal works include feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, burying the dead, visiting those in prison and, above all, giving alms to the poor.

The spiritual works comprise giving instruction, advising the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, admonishing sinners, praying for others, bearing wrongs patiently, and – this one can be very hard for most of us – forgiving those who insult us. To all these works, we might add the care of animals and creation, and the support of human life from conception to natural death.

Parishes and schools are the two principal agencies of the Church’s mission, but this is where schools particularly, within and beyond their existing charitable works, can help everyone to reflect more deeply on the meaning for today of these works of mercy. Children have excellent imaginations.

It would be a great idea to ask them to show us how we might put the corporal and spiritual works of mercy into practice. They could paint some pictures for us or make lists of proposals. Indeed, in our own diocese I will be taking part next summer in a Dragon’s Den-style panel, evaluating the proposals and backing the best.

Pope Francis urges us to live the season next year “more intensely, as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy”. He recommends “missions to the people” to beckon others back to the throne of grace. In order to do this, some dioceses have appointed “missionaries of mercy”, priests with a special mission to preach, lead retreats and hear Confessions.

The Holy Father asks us to undertake “24 Hours for the Lord” on the weekend of the Fourth Week of Lent. This is where perhaps one church within a pastoral area or deanery hosts 24 hours of Eucharistic Adoration and prayer, with a rota of priests available at designated times to hear confessions.

At the end of his papal bull, the Holy Father asks for the prayers of St Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun known as the “Apostle of Divine Mercy”. He also speaks of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of Mercy. Mary treasured Divine Mercy in her heart and, in the home of Elizabeth, she sang: “The Almighty has done great things for me” for “His mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear Him.”

I am urging everyone in our diocese to sing and say often the Salve Regina, the “Hail, Holy Queen” prayer, and to use it in the Bidding Prayers at Mass instead of the customary Hail Mary or at the end of Mass.

In the Holy Year, my prayer is that the Mother of Mercy will unite us ever more closely with her Son, Jesus Christ, whose heart abounds in mercy and love. I hope the Holy Year will renew the Catholic community in our land in such a way that we all become even more committed to witnessing to God’s mercy and to enacting it in good works.

In this way, serving our brothers and sisters in need, we might hope to hear the Lord one day say to us: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed. Take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).

The Rt Rev Philip Egan is Bishop of Portsmouth