One of the great Catholic moments of the 21st century occurred on Sunday, when Pope Francis pressed his hands against the holy door of Bangui cathedral in the Central African Republic. After a mighty push, the doors swung open, leaving the Pontiff standing with his arms outstretched. The Year of Mercy officially starts on December 8 in Rome – but the Year effectively began on Sunday in a war-wracked, impoverished nation few of us could place on a map.
The image of Francis opening the holy door in Bangui was as potent as that of John Paul II standing on the threshold of the holy door in St Peter’s Basilica on December 24, 1999. The Polish pope was inaugurating the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. We must hope and pray that the Year of Mercy will touch as many lives as that momentous Year.
The new Jubilee Year is one of the most inspired initiatives of this papacy. It expresses Francis’s desire for a revolution – not in the content of the Catholic faith, but in the way that Catholics reach out to the world. As he said after opening the holy door in Bangui: “Those who evangelise must … be first and foremost practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy.”
While the Church has always preached mercy, the world has not always heard the message. After the Enlightenment, there was a tendency to downplay the supernatural and reduce Christianity to an ethical code. This was disastrous, as Christianity came to be seen as the preserve of a kind of ethical elite, rather than what it truly was: a refuge for sinners.
We must allow the Year of Mercy to change us,
to make us more forgiving
That is one of the reasons why the abuse crisis was so devastating for the Church: a form of authority based on a claim to ethical superiority collapsed spectacularly.
The Year of Mercy can help to restore the authentic image of Catholicism as a sanctuary for sinners. For the Church has always taught that Christianity is not just a moral code, but above all an encounter with Jesus Christ. The Church’s authority comes not from the superior behaviour of her members, but from Christ himself. He sends every Catholic out on mission, taking his message to the ends of the earth.
When we look at the evils rampant in the world today, we realise that the Year of Mercy is timely. A merciless massacre in the heart of Europe has left us shaken and on edge. But what the Pope told the war-weary congregation in Bangui cathedral should also comfort us. “God is stronger than all else,” he said. “This conviction gives to the believer serenity, courage and the strength to persevere in good amid the greatest hardships. Even when the powers of hell are unleashed, Christians must rise to the summons, their heads held high, and be ready to brave blows in this battle over which God will have the last word. And that word will be love.”
We must allow the Year of Mercy to change us, to make us more forgiving, quicker to be reconciled with others and more merciful to those around us. – then we can be the “experts of mercy” that Pope Francis spoke of in Bangui. That is the kind of expert the world needs more of.
The Reformation was a tragedy
One wonders what our Catholic ancestors would have made of the spectacle of the Pope’s personal preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, praising the “theological and spiritual enrichment” of the Reformation in front of the Queen and the Church of England’s General Synod. Surely they would have been aghast. But they lived in a different world, in which Catholics and Protestants viewed each other’s beliefs as dangerous perversions of the Christian faith. Now that Christianity is itself under threat, and members of different traditions have become friends, we can appreciate that, to an extent, we misunderstood each other all along. What unites Trinitarian Christians – the Nicene Creed – is greater than what divides us.
Does this mean that Catholics should participate in the 500th anniversary of Luther’s break from Rome, which is being celebrated by Protestants in 2017? There is no overwhelming case for doing so. We have no idea how the history of Europe would have unfolded if Martin Luther had never been born. Probably the papacy would have lost its spiritual monopoly in any event. But it is quite possible that England would have remained Catholic. Although Henry VIII did not consider himself a Protestant and despised Luther, the Church of England that followed him drew heavily on the ideas of Lutheran and Calvinist preachers. Without the influence of Henry’s Protestant advisers, the literal ruination of so many glorious monasteries might not have taken place. And let us not forget that Catholic reformers, inspired by a renaissance of lay piety, were already addressing the abuses of the medieval Church.
Fr Cantalamessa was speaking in Westminster Abbey, which – as Benedict XVI reminded us when he visited it – is dedicated to St Peter. That the greatest church in our nation’s history is no longer in communion with the see of Peter is a cause for sadness, as is the separation of our ancient monarchy from the Catholic Church. Catholics should indeed be encouraged to recognise the spiritual richness of Anglican and Protestant devotion to Our Lord; but at the same time they should not lose sight of the richness that was lost when Western Christendom tore itself apart 500 years ago.
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