The feast of the Immaculate Conception was a huge day at Mundelein. Not only is Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of our seminary, but also of the United States of America and so many other nations and institutions around the world. But December 8, 2015 was more than the celebration of this wonderful solemnity of Our Lady. It also marked the start of the long-awaited Jubilee Year of Mercy, promulgated by Pope Francis in his letter Misericordiae Vultus, “The Face of Mercy.”
The world is, by and large, not a very merciful place. As even our definition of this word has become secularized, mercy has been demoted to simply being synonymous with “nice” or “lenient.” When we let someone off the hook for something wrong they’ve done, we’re being “merciful.” When our punishments are not as severe as they probably should have been, we were shown mercy. But mercy is not equivalent to being nice, and it is interesting to observe that in a world where politically correct niceties have become the norm, there is a stark absence of real mercy as wars of every kind rage on around us.
Mercy is first and foremost an encounter with the living God. Francis goes as far as saying that “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith…Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person, reveals the mystery of God.” (MV1) The Father sent Jesus into the world to be our savior, certainly, but also to be a living revelation of his mercy and tenderness for the whole of creation. By proclaiming this Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father is calling for a year of encounter during which people of God might come into contact again (or for the first time) with the face of mercy, the face of Christ.
It seems to me that the Pope’s motivations for calling the year of mercy were twofold. First, Francis is obviously keenly aware of the rather distressing state of things in the world. He’s held prayer vigils in St. Peter’s Square, called for the end of violence and an opening of hearts and homelands to refugees, and he’s sent aid of every kind the most devastated parts of the world. The world needs mercy and he knows that it is the Church’s unique mission to bring mercy to the world. His second motivation is seen in his travelling to five continents in the last year. The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ on earth and he is going out to his children; the pope has taken it into his own hands to arrange an encounter with the people of God around the world, but why?
The New Evangelization requires radical personal conversion spurred on and sustained by our own encounters with mercy at the deepest level. God’s mercy is not always a nice or comfortable mercy; more than anything, it is a mercy that challenges. Jesus says to the woman at the well, “Your sins are forgiven” and then adds the challenge, “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) To be effective evangelists, we must live first of all in the real world, preferring to place ourselves in actual, not virtual, reality. We have become a society of independent people who have forgotten what it is to look into the face of another. On many levels, we have become incapable of communicating without the mediation of screens and cameras and text messages. Is it any surprise that so many avoid or shrink in the presence of the merciful gaze of Jesus?
We can learn about God and the Christian life and have a powerful experience of grace and the beginning of a conversion through social media and technology, and in this sense they are profoundly helpful tools for evangelization. But unless these tools call us to eventually put them away and look up from our lives at the world and people around us, they are not helpful. Cool videos and suave articles are great for a springboard, but they cannot be the ends of our evangelization. We must use the screens as a means of encounter only – an encounter that will draw people away from the screen and bring them to meet the mercy of God, Jesus Christ, in his Church and her sacraments. Above all, we need to live in ways that the mercy of Christ will radiate from us as people who know and have experienced the mercy of God. Mercy calls us to be effective signs of the Father’s love in the world. Intentional Christian disciples need to live in such a way that those who know us, but don’t know God, will come to know God because they know us.
Let this Jubilee Year of Mercy be your opportunity to put the screens down, and go out and live in the real world, the one God created to serve as our initial encounter with him. The Father gazes at us through the eyes of Jesus Christ; through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession, let us meet that gaze and find our rest in it.
Michael Brungardt and Isaac Coulter, Diocese of Wichita, contributed to this article.