A centuries-old tradition, jubilee years in the Catholic Church take place approximately every 25 to 50 years and serve as calls to recommit to prayer and penance — and through these acts, to one’s relationship with God. However, the pope can also call for a jubilee year outside the normal cycle. That is known as an extraordinary jubilee year, which is how Pope Francis called for a special year of mercy.
For the global Catholic Church, the celebration of a jubilee year includes traditions such as opening special holy doors at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, and at other churches across the world, symbolizing the belief that Jesus has opened the doors to salvation.
While the symbols and vocabulary are important parts of the year of mercy, at its core, they are not the focus of it. The year of mercy is about jump-starting our commitment to leading lives of merciful, loving service.
In announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reminded us that God makes love “visible and tangible.” Love, he reminded us, “indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us.”
Through the year of mercy, Pope Francis has challenged each of us to consider how our own concrete actions might help make God’s mercy more evident in our world today.
Those looking to act with mercy during the jubilee year could look to the corporal works of mercy — such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and sheltering the homeless — acts named by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. For those hoping to use the year of mercy as a starting point for a more merciful life, here are five concrete suggestions for getting started:
Find ways to build community. Sometimes building community is as small as bringing snacks to a club meeting or making sure newcomers to a group are introduced to others. Sometimes it means working on a larger scale to ensure our nation welcomes those in need. We must ask ourselves: Are we doing all we can to build inclusive churches, schools, societies? How can we work to empower and lift of marginalized voices? How do we mercifully extend invitations to others? Invitations to be a part of a community convey a powerful message: You are not alone.
Seek out a mercy mentor. Find people who know more than you about an area of service. Parishes and nonprofits often have volunteer opportunities available, with coordinators ready to answer any questions you might have. Be willing to ask what seem like silly questions to help discern what is needed in your community and where your skills and talents might be best used. And acknowledge that there is not one right path to leading a merciful life. There are as many ways to live the gospel call to mercy as there are people willing to attempt it.
See the person in front of you. Francis chose to title the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, “The Face of Mercy,” because, he said, in the face of Christ we see the mercy and love of God.
People often ask, “What do I do when I see a person in need on the street?” At the heart of this question are actually larger questions: How do I respond when an abstract challenge or injustice becomes a lived reality? How should I respond when facts and figures become faces? Whether one responds by offering money, a sandwich, a conversation or a prayer, what is clear is that these encounters challenge us to make sure that our own exhaustion or apathy does not blind us from seeing God in those we meet each day.
Truly seeing the person in front of us means we know that at the heart of an issue are individuals whose humanity and dignity must be respected.
Find mercy already present in your life. Often, mercy is already part of our day, if only we would recognize it. The work to feed a child or care for an aging parent or even bring a co-worker a cup of coffee is part of a life of mercy.
Merciful service can be lived out alongside those closest to us, too. As a child, I helped my mother make meals for our local soup kitchen, and we’d go together to drop them off. Later, she made sure that our family ate the same meal that night in solidarity. Hamburger macaroni became a kind of communion.
As Saint Teresa of Avila writes, the “Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done.”
Be willing to be changed. Mercy is disruptive. It might make us uncomfortable. It might urge us to take responsibility.
When we take mercy to heart, we are no longer are able to say, “Someone should fix this.” We must ask instead, “What can I do?” How can I be a catalyst for change?
To live out mercy, we sort out what we believe in, why we believe it and then, crucially, what action is required to demonstrate these beliefs. Mercy can call us to study the history that has shaped our society’s views on race, the sociology behind how we view gender or the economics that perpetuate or alleviate poverty. And then we are called to do something.
But when we present our imperfect, authentic selves, we offer a gift that no one else can offer. “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just,” Pope Francis has said. And that’s just a little. We can all do a little.
Kerry Weber is managing editor of America, and the author of “Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job.”