Pope Francis has to push to open wide the doors of mercy

December 26, 2015

Pope Francis opens a "Holy Door" at St Peter's basilica to mark the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, on Dec. 8, 2015 at the Vatican. In Catholic tradition, the opening of "Holy Doors" in Rome symbolises an invitation from the Church to believers to enter into a renewed relationship with God.   (Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images)

I heard it first on public radio, that Pope Francis had just opened the special “Holy Year Doors” to St. Peter’s to start the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Photos and video of Francis pushing wide those doors came with the evening news. It was Dec. 8, the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and (not at all accidentally) the 50th Anniversary of the closing session of Vatican II from 1962-65, which helped bring the church into the modern world.

The photo I’ve seen most shows Francis with arms wide, back to the cameras, between the just opened tall bronze doors. For me, the video was even more powerful because he is pushing the very large doors from the outside, and has to push hard several times (probably to signal those pulling from within) before they begin to swing wide.

It’s worth attending to the symbolism, but first some facts.

The practice of a Holy or Jubilee Year has Hebrew roots (Lev. 25: 8-13). Every 50th year (the end of a cycle of 7×7 Sabbath years) the land was left to lay fallow, its ownership returned to an original distribution, debts forgiven, slaves and prisoners set free — all to celebrate the original Sabbath of rest during God’s good creation. There is question whether such a year was ever fully practiced, but its symbolism has remained for contemporary Judaism. Thus I especially recommend Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magnificent and challenging book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man.

The Jubilee entered Catholic tradition during the late Middle Ages and has generally continued with the papal declaration of a “Holy Year” every 50 years (most recently during 2000), and also on extraordinary Jubilee Years like the just-initiated Jubilee of Mercy. In Catholicism, the focus of a Holy Year has been on prayer and pilgrimage and pardon for sin.

The great “Holy Year Doors” at St. Peters (and now at designated churches throughout the world) remain open through that year.

So back to symbolism.

At the most obvious level, the doors are opened so that pilgrims might enter into the experience of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. Francis himself entered first since he’s continually told us that he, too, is a sinner in need of our prayers and God’s mercy.

Yet the video of Francis having to push hard against those great doors was especially symbolic since that is what he’s been doing all along — trying to open the often closed offices and hearts of churchmen (the gender is not insignificant), trying to open the systems of Catholic bureaucracy, starting with the Vatican, and to challenge the gatekeeper mentality of too many Catholics, so that all (and not just Christians) may partake in the celebration of God’s mercy. (Remember his first Holy Thursday foot-washing of young prisoners, Muslims among them.)

Yet open doors invite movement out as well as in. So the image of Francis pushing those doors also symbolizes his constant challenge to church folks (myself among them) to come out from comfortable enclaves into the muddy streets of our world and witness there to the mercy we proclaim.

Of course, to be such witnesses we must first have experienced God’s transforming mercy.

That’s a constant theme in Francis’ teaching. See, for instance, the collection of his talks and writings from the first year of his papacy,The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church (Loyola Press, 2014).

And his proclamation of this Jubilee of Mercy calls to mind other words of mercy learned over the years. In high school we memorized Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice (V, i):

“The quality of mercy is not strained [forced]; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and is “twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Earlier we’d memorized the Catechism’s list of the “Seven Corporal Works of Mercy” derived (we learned) from Matthew 25 (to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned…), as well as a list of “Spiritual Works of Mercy” (to counsel the doubtful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted…).

Then in seminary we prayed (in Latin) the hauntingly alliterative opening of Psalm 51: “Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam miseracordiam tuam” (Have mercy on me, O God, in accord with your merciful love).

And always since childhood we’d heard the words of Jesus’ Great Sermon (Mt. 5: 7):

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Catholics have especially associated God’s mercy with Mary, Mater Miserecordiae (Mother of Mercy).

Just as millions in Asia identify mercy with the bodhisattva Kwan Yin (Quan Am in Vietnamese). I remember standing several years ago before her magnificent hundred-foot statue on the cliffs above Da Nang in central Vietnam. She was (in a typical depiction) pouring from a vase the water of compassion over a troubled world. And it was actually raining that day, a strange drenching but gentle tropical rain, as we stood looking over the large bay which not long before was a vast naval and air base for the American war. I found myself spontaneously praying — whether to Quan Am or to Mary I still do not know, nor do I think it really mattered.

The hard part, of course, was and remains to actually experience and live the teaching given in such words and icons. To open our too-often tired and distracted hearts to God’s ever present mercy, and in turn to become more merciful.

That, of course, is the purpose of the Jubilee year: To engender again among us the experience and practice of mercy — not just in churches, but as we pass daily through the doorways of our lives: in homes and offices, classrooms and courts, committee and board meetings, pubs and coffeehouses…

It is, of course, a dream — but it’s God’s dream and trustworthy. Nor is it just for Christians and other believers, but for all humans. For we actually experience that Mercy through the merciful words and gestures of our brothers and sisters whatever their faith. Especially, for me perhaps, from so many “sisters of mercy” — the religious sisters so named, and other religious sisters who taught me and are now friends, and all the sisters (and mothers and grandmothers) who continually bring so much mercy to our hurting world.

So I close with more words, these from one of Leonard Cohen’s sadly beautiful songs:

Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone

They are waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on

And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song

Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long…

Well, they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them

They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem

If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn

They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.