THERE is a judder at the turn of the ecclesiastical year. One week, we are celebrating the kingship of Christ; the next, we have undergone a theological reset — and must think of the vulnerability of incarnation, as we prepare for the birth of the defenceless baby.
Pope Francis sees the process as not a cycle, but a spiral. This new liturgical year is an invitation to deepen our experience of the mercy of Christ, and hold out that mercy to others. The Pope’s thinking follows on from the experience of his Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which ended on the eve of Advent.
Protestants, and indeed some Roman Catholics, had reservations about the Year of Mercy, with its plenary indulgence to expunge purgatorial punishment, and its veneration of the glass-encased bodies of two dead Capuchin saints. But the year’s pilgrimages to cross the threshold of a Holy Door offered a more universal call to spiritual renewal, and a passage from sin to grace.
This universality was signified in the Pope’s decision to make this the first occasion in the 700-year history of Jubilee Years in which the Holy Door was not just to be found in the Vatican, but in cathedrals and churches around the world, even down to the chapel door of every prison. Pope Francis inaugurated the year not in Rome, but in the Central African Republic. He opened the Holy Door in Bangui Cathedral to signal that the path to peace in our war-torn world is through a reconciliation and mutual forgiveness that is rooted in mercy.
Nothing better demonstrated Pope Francis’s insistence on the world’s need for a “revolution of tenderness”, from which “justice and all the rest derives”, than his monthly Mercy Fridays. Mercy, he said, meant rediscovering the richness of the Church’s spiritual and corporal works of mercy (to which he characteristically added “care for the environment”).
So, dismissing the TV cameras, he visited the homeless, elderly, refugees, asylum-seekers, recovering addicts, the disabled, and people in a persistent vegetative state. There was a silent visit to Auschwitz, a meeting with women who had liberated themselves from prostitution, and to another to priests with “various difficulties”, probably a euphemism for psychiatric treatment. At the end, to the discomfit of some conservatives, he met men who had left the priesthood to marry — and embraced their wives and children, too. “We have to meet people where they are,”
”All Christians must forgive! Why? Because they have been forgiven,” he said. But mercy without works was dead, he continued. To be “merciful like the Father” was not just “a slogan for effect, but a life commitment”.
Advent invites us to reflect on the contrast between our daily routine and the unexpected coming of the Lord. It does so not to frighten us, but to open our eyes to the fact that “the gospel of mercy begun by Jesus and the apostles is still unfinished.” It is “an open book that each person is called to write through their words and actions”. That is the task that Advent ushers in.
Paul Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.