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Opening a Door of Mercy

Tuesday, 8 December 2015  | Megan Curlis-Gibson

On 8 December 2015, a door was opened. It looked like a normal door (as much as basilica doors look normal) but when the Holy Door opened into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it became a “Door of Mercy”. Its opening by Pope Francis marks the start of an Extraordinary Jubilee “Year of Mercy”, which will continue until the 20th November 2016. This Year of Mercy was announced on the Feast of Divine Mercy (12th April), in a Bull of Indiction  entitled Misericordiae Vultus – 'The Face of Mercy' [1].

I am captivated by the idea of a door and a year named Mercy. It’s not easy to find mercy in 2015. In Australia we began the year by calling for it from the government of Indonesia, but we – and death-row inmates Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – did not find it. In politics, on campuses and online, Social Justice Warriors shout and condemn, anonymous trollers execute judgement with slurs and threats, and we, too, are baited by those more interested in analytics and profits into clicking and commenting and sharing our outrage – righteous or not. And of course, the world at large is even now struggling (and despairing) over what it looks like to show mercy to those seeking, without prior permission, to enter our sovereign borders, as they flee those who have shown no mercy to them.

Surely we need a year of mercy.

Of course, according to the Bible, every year ought to be so. Throughout its pages, mercy is presented as God’s defining quality, and the quality that ought to govern His creation. When God promises to declare His name Moses, mercy (hesed) is at the forefront (Ex. 33:19), just as it is at centre of His revealed character (Ex. 34:6-7). God is kind. He is forgiving. He is full of blessing and compassion, for those He has the ability and grounds to treat otherwise. Mercy is not simply one of many actions of God; it is “the foundation of God’s dealings” with us.[2] In his homily on Psalm 76, St. Augustine writes that God “will more easily keep back anger than mercy.”[3] So it ought to be for us. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” says Jesus, and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Luke 6:36, Matthew 5:7). Jesus definition of mercy is deeply challenging – it is not simply to withhold judgment and show forgiveness to those who have harmed us, knowing that we ourselves are also forgiven debtors (although this is hard enough!), but it goes further – those who love and live mercy will actively work for the blessing and abundance of those around them, regardless of ability to repay, and even if the “other” is an enemy (Luke 6:27-38 cf. Luke 10:29-37).

How different would the coming year be, were this sort of mercy to characterise our days. In calling only the third-ever Extraordinary Jubilee, Pope Francis has taken significant initiative to bring mercy to the attention of his church, calling them to take it the world. Misericordiae Vultus is a document that holds together passion for Christ as the face of mercy, to be contemplated and encountered, (particularly through listening to the word of God [section 13]), as well as works of mercy, from both the hierarchy of the church (Confessors and Missionaries of Mercy being commissioned to bring forgiveness in new abundance) and its members (such as feeding the hungry, spending time with those in prison, and helping people escape doubt that leads to despair).

Yet there is something uneasy about a Jubilee year being named “mercy”.  Not in the Biblical sense—release of debts being the essence of the jubilee (Lev. 25)—but within the Roman church, Jubilee Years (usually every 25 to 50 years) are part of the continuing practice of making available Plenary Indulgences to the faithful through fulfilment of certain rites, and in the case of a Jubilee Year, by pilgrimage through a Holy Door—traditionally in Rome but also in other places around the world as designated by the Pontiff in his letter.[4] Indulgences are necessary corollaries to a theological position which holds that, despite the guilt of sin being removed through Christ’s death (mediated to the individual via the sacraments), God’s mercy does not extend to the removal of the temporal penalties of sin, but rather that His justice requires time in Purgatory in order to be satisfied, as well as for the stain of sin to be cleansed. The Church, as trustee and dispenser (as Pope John Paul II put it)[5] of God’s mercy, may grant plenary (or partial) indulgences which provide the faithful with the means to fulfil this purgatorial penalty for past sin for either themselves or an individual who has died.

Of course, we do not want “cheap mercy” (to adapt Bonhoeffer’s phrase). Not only is unpunished wrong unjust, it is unsatisfying and ‘un-transforming’. I remember talking about the Prodigal Son with one man who, rather than being dazzled by the mercy of the Father (“he lifted up his robes and ran, don’t you see?”), saw him as a fool whose actions would lead to presumption and recidivism. This was certainly the logic that ruled the day in Indonesia in April – and perhaps in our hearts we expected nothing less.  

God’s mercy is not cheap, yet it requires no indulgences. Not because it ignores justice—but because His mercy comes through the cross of Christ, where justice is fully met even as mercy is fully expressed (Romans 3:21-26). Pope Francis appears to say just this in summarising Galatians 2:16: Salvation comes not through the observance of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, who in his death and resurrection brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies.” At the conclusion of Sections 20 and 21of MV on the relationship between justice and mercy he also writes (with passion if not with meticulous clarity of theological expression): “God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life.”

These words are followed immediately by Section 22 “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences”. Such a year is linked earlier in the document to Luke 4:19 and Isaiah 61:2 (as it was for the 2000AD Jubilee)[6] as an expression of “The Year of the Lord’s Favour” yet surely Jesus’ application of this text to himself affirms that since the incarnation, those who live with trust in Christ live each moment, past, present and future, in this favour. And in light of His resurrection, we have even more confidence that this is so! In Acts 13:30-40 Paul teaches that Christ’s resurrection confirms the promises of God’s full favour for individuals, not simply for the “Church,” because “through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin” (v.39). (Interestingly, “resurrection” occurs only three times in the Bull, in summarising Paul’s teaching on justification by faith (Gal 2:16, Rom. 10:3-4). It might be telling to trace the impact in any denomination of the emphasis upon or neglect of the doctrine of the resurrection on the development of doctrines concerning the fullness and efficacy of God’s mercy for the individual Christian.)

With generosity, we can at least appreciate that Pope Francis is using the structures and patterns available to him as “path[s] to conversion” out of confidence that an encounter with Christ through these pathways will transform individuals and societies. There is an experiential flavour to the anticipated year – even the indulgence is to be “lived” and the Pontiff expresses his expectation that those who receive the indulgence will be “free[d]… and enable[d]… to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.”

Living the essence of mercy has always been more difficult – and far less attractive - than performing religious acts. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 – I desire mercy not sacrifice - to the Pharisees, as they criticise his choice of dinner companions (Mt 9:13) and his disciples actions on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:7). There has been some online grumbling regarding the Year of Mercy. The alignment with Vatican II through the opening of the Holy Door on the 50th anniversary of the closing of that council, the inclusion of St. John XXIII’s words “the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity” and the clear echoes of St. John Paul II’s second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (The Riches of Mercy, 1980) within MV (although the current Pontiff is clearly not the systematician Wojtyla was), have obviously dismayed those who feel (not without some reason) that the Second Vatican Council sought to put the church on a modernist, universalist and immoral trajectory.  Yet the accusations of “mercy without repentance” and “leniency and laxity” against this document are fascinating and perplexing.[7] One such writer notes that every corporal and spiritual work of mercy listed in Section 15 of MV is reiterated or expanded upon except for the admonishment of sinners, and concludes that Pope Francis has little interest in calling sinners to repentance.[8] And yet, the document itself does just that! In Section 19, an “invitation to conversion” and call to change their lives is given to “men and women belonging to criminal organizations of any kind” and those “who either perpetrate or participate in corruption.”  (Surely, if you want to change the world, these are pretty good areas on which to focus!) To these he speaks of the impending judgment and vengeance of God! And yet he concludes “To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests. All one needs to do is accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice [civil law] during this special time of mercy offered by the Church.”

This personal address and offer of conversation and confession seems to me to exemplify, in as much as a short official document can, the merciful and relational way that our gospel communities are to hold together the call to holiness (or even perfection) together with (as Richard Hays puts it) an overriding hermeneutic of mercy.[9]  In Matthew 18, we see that “sin is not to be tolerated or ignored” and yet mercy creates disciplinary processes that avoid humiliation, prevent gossip and judgmentalism, and allow all voices to be heard. Even when the unrepentant can no longer be included in community life, they are not to be shunned without mercy, but they become “an object of the community’s [merciful] missionary efforts” (in the same way as “Gentiles and tax collectors” are in Matthew’s gospel).[10]

The “felt needs” of our world have always been the point at which we are to start our application of the balm of the gospel.[11] Francis’s papacy seems to recognise that these needs are not simply found with the marginalised (as we might have expected it to), but also those who have felt the severity of the church, those who are estranged from God through love of money, and by Christian people who need to be awakened from “humiliating indifference”, “monotonous routine” or “destructive cynicism” to live lives of mercy. Reshaping our priorities to live such lives of mercy will take more than a year.  Contemplating the fullness of mercy will take our whole lives. And yet, when that door opened on 8 December, it seemed like a worthwhile time to start.



[1] The full text of the Bull can be found here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_bolla_20150411_misericordiae-vultus.pdf

[2] Francis I. Andersen, “Yahweh, the Kind and Sensitive God”, in God who is Rich in Mercy, Lancer Books, NSW, 1986 p.49

[3] Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the Psalms, 76 section 10 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801077.htm (Also cited in Misericordiae Vultus, Section 21)

[4] https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150901_lettera-indulgenza-giubileo-misericordia.html

[5] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Dives in Misericordia Section 13, cited in MV, 11.

[6] http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01031997_p-22_en.html

[8] http://wdtprs.com/blog/2015/04/a-curious-lacuna-in-misericordiae-vultus-the-bull-for-the-holy-year-of-mercy/

[9] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Harper, San Francisco, 1996, p.99

[10] Hays, p.102

[11] Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, 2nd ed. P&R Publishing, New Jersey, 1997 p. 46-54

Rev. Megan Curlis-Gibson works in Melbourne as an Anglican school chaplain, an online Old Testament educator with Ridley College, a locum church minister, and a mum.

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