This past weekend, we Catholics and many other fellow Christian denominations celebrated Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means "rejoice" in Latin. The rose-colored candle in our Advent wreaths were lighted and there was an option to use rose-colored vestments — rose symbolizing an invitation for joyfulness within what is otherwise the more solemn and restrained weeks of Advent. The Eucharistic celebration of this 3rd Sunday is meant to have more of a celebratory ring marking a heightened sense of joyfulness and anticipation.
But, just a few days ago, another event happened which is suppose to draw our attention and guide our spiritual practices. On Tuesday the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis officially started the Church's extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Jubilee years in the Catholic Church history are nothing new. In fact, officially they occur every 25 years. Our last one, declared by Pope John Paul II, happened to welcome in the new millennium in 2000.
However, every now and then a pope declares an "extraordinary" year. In early April of this year, Pope Francis pronounced through an official declaration know as a papal bull, that starting December 8th and going through November 20 of next year, the Church would break the ordinary 25 year sequence and have a Holy Year focused on the virtue of mercy.
In his declaration entitled in English, the Face of Mercy, Pope Francis shared that the timing is urgent for the world to experience that loving kindness that can only come from God. "Mercy is the very foundation of the Church's life. All her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy." He is challenging all of us to "gaze more attention on mercy" throughout these coming months.
The theme of this extraordinary Year of Mercy is "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." And the Pope, as leader of our world-wide Catholic church, has called us to a special year of conversion, prayer and apostolic works. The options to do works of mercy are endless as most of us know. But, how can we "gaze more attention" on mercy? How can we, by our participation, actively develop more merciful attitudes in our lives? What are other ways that we can get involved in our congregations, or with the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council Services' variety of services, or with other local or regional efforts like the Homeless Coalition or Habitat for Humanities or Hospice or with other agencies or efforts? And, how do we, as a country, gaze more of our attention on mercy? In the wake of tragic shootings and in a presidential campaign that seems to be bringing out the worst in some people, how to we reach for greater depths of mercy towards those who are need and pain? Toward those who have been displace from their homes and countries by war or violence? Towards those who are becoming the daily victims of gun violence? Towards those whose economic security and food security continue to suffer in a global climate where greed rules? Toward a suffering Mother Earth whose weather patterns increasingly are trying to tell us that something has to be done about our carbon-fuel-centered dependence? How do we gaze more attention on mercy in so many places where so much mercy is needed?
Although Pope Francis' challenge to spend this coming year focused on becoming a more merciful people is meant at least for those of us under his care, his invitation is a challenge to all of us — those of other faiths, those of no faith. What can we do to become a merciful person and, in turn, hold our leaders to higher standards? And, for those of us Christians who are celebrating a time of year that brings attention to the greatest act of mercy that God has ever given us — his Son, may we find time to break from the stress and distractions of a secular Christmas to find time to gaze our attention on the real reason for the season. And, be merciful, as our Father is merciful.