Jubilee Year of Mercy, 2016

“May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in the world.” Pope Francis, April 2015.


The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy begins on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. During the past few weeks, I have been invited to comment on the “Year of Mercy.” Back from Pope Francis’s trip to the United States, I spoke to the Serra Club of the Monterey Diocese, the RCIA Program of Monterey’s San Carlos Cathedral parish, and the Women’s Faith Sharing group of Saint Monica, Moraga.

This presentation is an adapted version of these talks, where I was greatly assisted by the questions and comments from the participants.

The “Year of Mercy” is Pope Francis’ primary tool for worldwide evangelization and the central theme of Pope Francis’ papacy. This theme or “branding,” remains constant in his writings and sermons that no Madison Avenue public relations firm could have done better to connect the various elements of his own leadership in his two and a half short years in the papal office.

From the moment of his election on March 13, 2013, Jorge Bergolio, in taking the name of Francis, also brought his Jesuit training with its instance on a mission into sharp focus almost immediately. While Saint Francis was a man of stark simplicity and apostolic courage, it was his insistence on taking the gospel so seriously that Pope Innocent III and other members of the hierarchy were much challenged. Recall the Giotto fresco of Francis holding up the Church while Innocent slept. So the very name of Francis, never before taken by a pope, was among the first clues about Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis.


To my mind, this underscores the very struggle over the spiritual and ecclesial identity of the Church itself. The now public debates between moderate and conservative forces in the hierarchy deal as they do with matters of governance and mission.

In electing this Pope, some of his electors assumed his conservative stance toward doctrine. Clearly, they did not fully grasp how his missionary impulses might demand changes or adjustments with the “business as usual” conduct of the Vatican or the local churches, for that matter. Watching the “Synod on the Family” these past few weeks, it appeared to be more a “synod on the bishops” and how they too must adjust to the new leadership. In other words, Pope Francis’s own brand of “apostolic courage” is as demanding on the bishops as it is on all Christians.

 This week, Pope Francis was in Florence for the Italian Ecclesial Conference, at its magnificent cathedral he spoke to 2,200 representatives from 220 dioceses across Italy.

He said, “We are not living an era of change, but a change of era.” His is a profoundly spiritual foundation, readying the Church for a new age, and he added, “It is not useful to reach for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism.”

Pope Francis leave for Africa — Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic on November 25.

Let me provide you with some insights, first about the Holy Year, and secondly about the Pope’s successful visit to the United States,  key themes that have resonated during the two years of Pope Francis’s papacy, and some lasting impressions of mine.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy, 2016

In the year 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) announced the first Holy Year in which some 200,000 traveled to Rome to be granted forgiveness for sins by visiting Saint Peter’s and John Lateran and to gain the indulgences associated with the pilgrimage. In effect, this was an attempt to add to the prestige to the papacy and provide a centrality to its leadership.

Recall this was a time after Francis of Assisi, where there had always been a longing for a pope, like Saint Gregory the Great, who combined both temporal ability and authentic spiritual leadership. People saw these qualities in Francis, and consequently, a Franciscan friar was elected, Celestine V. His was a very short papacy; Celestine resigned after only three months.

Pope Boniface was Celestine’s successor, and the Holy Year became a vehicle to improve his grasp on the papacy as well as making claims about the papacy itself. In the document “Unam Sanctam.” Boniface writes, “It is altogether necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” To say the least, he attempted to consolidate his temporal and spiritual powers. Ultimately, he would be the object of a French mob at the papal palace at Anagni and, never having fully recovered from this incident, died only three years after the Holy Year.

The Holy Year has remained a staple of renewal for centuries. Interestingly, Dante himself made the pilgrimage in 1300 to Rome and writes about it in the Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, Dante compares the traffic arrangements for the crowds in hell to the one-way system, he had observed in use for the pilgrims crossing the Tiber on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. So, even then — traffic was hell! By 1450 Pope Nicholas V used the Holy Year, much like the modern Olympics, as an excuse to rebuild the city of Rome in renaissance-splendor.

In his announcement of a Jubilee Year for 2016, Pope Francis states, “How much I desire the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman – bringing the goodness and tenderness of God.” The intent here is to draw pilgrims to Rome and to his pontificate built on the premise of mercy by standing by an opening the Holy Year door of Saint Peter’s Basilica as well as the local diocesan cathedrals and designated churches around the world. Additionally, to establish priests and other ministers as “missionaries of mercy” who will be charged with the extra degree of support for those seeking mercy from the Church.

porta sancta

This past week workers at the Vatican broke down the walls that encase the Holy Doors in the loggia of Saint Peter’s — that have been closed since the last Holy Year in 2000. In a brief ceremony called a “Recognitio” the archpriest of the Vatican basilica received a metal chest containing documents from the previous Jubilee, the key to the Holy Door to be given to the Pope. He’ll need the key. Similar ceremonies take place in the other major basilicas in Rome, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.

In Monterey, like dioceses around the United States, Bishop Richard Garcia will bless the doors of our San Carlos Cathedral on Sunday, December 13, at the 10:30 AM Mass. He also authorized the Holy Year doors of Madonna Del Sasso, Salinas, and Mission San Luis Obispo. At the Chrism Mass on March 21, those “missionaries of mercy” will be honored for their efforts to bring support to the homeless, visit a prison, or help those with special needs. Sister Barbara Long chairs the committee for the diocesan-wide efforts, activities, and events during this “Year of Mercy.”

Pope Francis’ 2015 Visit to the United States & Cuba

To further see how the Holy Year of Mercy is the cornerstone to evangelization for Pope Francis, let me return to his 2015 visit to the United States, and take you to

New York City and his Mass at Madison Square Garden on the evening of September 25.


In his sermon for this New York City Mass, the Pope spoke about the Church and the city and how there is an interchange of personal needs and the importance of belief,

“The Gospel tells us how many people came up to Jesus to ask: ‘Master, what must we do?’ The first thing that Jesus does in response is to propose, to encourage, to motivate. He keeps telling his disciples to go out. He urges them to go out and meet others where they really are, not where we think they should be. Go out, again and again, go out without fear, go out without hesitation. Go out and proclaim this joy, which is for all people.”

Now let’s move back a few weeks to the press/media preview trip to Philadelphia and a particular moment that genuinely inspired me. On August 29, I was in Philadelphia with the three hundred “traveling press.” There, I attended a series of panels about how the city would handle the visit from city officials, public relations personnel, bishops, and journalists. One particular panel entitled “Church in the City—Thriving, Dying or Just Getting by?” was set for late afternoon. I was just about to take a nap in my hotel room, but for some reason, I had an extra cup of black coffee and went into session. Three Protestant ministers from the local community spoke about the Pope’s visit from their unique perspectives.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, the pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, spoke of how the Pope’s moral muscle might bring more considerable attention to issues of racial justice in the United States. Additionally, he told us how her Church would have to be close for the duration of the “Week of the Family,” and the Pope’s visit, since St. Paul’s was within the security zone set up by the Secret Service. This was a most interesting tidbit of information, namely some churches, and not Roman Catholic churches, would be off-limits even to their own parishioners during this period of high security.

Community leader Alan Sanders told us, “We hold the soul of the city in our hands….” He described how he and his housing organization would both preserve the souls of the established community at a time of transition and innovation that could price many out of their own neighborhood. This is the most challenging situation for those in the urban core of major cities.

The third panelist, a writer, social justice activist, Shane Claiborne, is the director of “The Simple Way,” an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia.

shane 2

He noted that Pope Francis has thrilled and fascinated the world. Such religious movements help shape all life. Drawing from Matthew’s gospel, Shane Claiborne added,

“When you welcome the stranger, you welcome me. So welcome Pope Francis, and know that there are so many popes on the ground!”

Claiborne was saying that Pope Francis’ visit would affirm so many good people of moral voice and action — who like the Pope himself are speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ with significant effect. This was among the most authentic moments from a person with a great heart, and whose vision for the gospel was compelling.

So much so, it appears that Pope Francis, weeks later simply fill in the words that Shane Claiborne might have spoken – when Francis ended his sermon at Madison Square Garden with these words,

“God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities. God and the living Church in our cities want to be like the yeast in the dough – to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, proclaiming the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Key Themes of Pope Francis

Now let’s consider Pope Francis’s key themes and just a few points about the Pope’s biography and leadership skills. Some of these items have emerged in the two years he has been Pope and is worth noting.

You can read a more complete treatment of Pope Francis’s key themes and my thinking on his leadership skills, in my article “Pope Francis, Parish Priest of the World,” from the website.

First, coming from his “Joy of the Gospel” are his ideas on mercy and forgiveness as the cornerstone of evangelization. He repeated these themes for his sermon at the closing of the recent Synod of the Family, and stated,

“The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion and lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”

Pope Francis’ day-to-day administration of the Vatican curia evidences a watchful eye on the governance of the Church and forwards reforms within the Catholic tradition. He believes in the process of consultation when dealing with his fellow bishops as well as structural changes of institutions like the Vatican Bank and the Congregation of Bishops. Here he had taken direct personal action to better serve the needs of the larger Church instead of the self-interest of powerfully placed bureaucrats.

He has warned against a “spiritual worldliness” that substitutes for the ministry of service, and apostolic courage or “parrhesia” demanded of all in the department. Lastly, his encyclical on our Common Home, “Laudato Si'” makes a case for the greater connection of all humankind into an “integral ecology” that celebrates the precious creative gift that is life.

Biography of Pope Francis

My own academic background relies on history. In most of the courses that I taught over many years, I would have my students read biographies of political or religious leaders. While today critics may not appreciate the “great men” approach to history, nonetheless, the lives of people are most revealing. As a teacher of mine once told me in graduate school, “All is biography.” Well, maybe this is overstated, but biography is of genuine import in the history of the Roman Catholic Church since cardinals (whose very name mean “hinge”) elect one of their own whose hinges provide a program for the Church at that time in history.


Austen Ivereigh’s “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” is a first-rate analysis of Jorge Bergoglio’s life in Argentina and forecasts the Pope’s spiritual and personal preparation for his work in the papal office.

Again, read my full treatment of this book and the Pope’s early formation in my article “Pope Francis, Parish Priest of the World,” on the website.

Take a careful read of this quote from Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

“It is dangerous to make everyone go forward by the same road, and worse to measure others by yourself.”

Here’s yet one more clue about Jorge Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis. Above all else, the Pope is a Jesuit, where mission and evangelization are central to the work of Ignatius, thus marking his agenda for the Church. The Jesuits remain the most significant religious order of the Church – in high school to graduate school teaching, missionary work, and, most notably, the development of Ignatian spirituality with the Exercises and spiritual direction. All of these activities occupied Jorge Bergoglio’s life and remain his own foundation for discernment today.

At this time in my life, my greatest regret is that friends of mine like Jesuit Father Declan Dean and Father Jack Ballweg did not live to see the election of Pope Francis. These priests were heroes of mine, knowing full well the needs of the Church for their own ministries and how the universal leadership of a progressive pope could greatly assist them in their efforts.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with the staff of America, the Jesuit magazine. The editor Father Matt Malone invited my counsel just before the Pope visited the United States. It was beautiful to hear about their work and plans but also listen to their own ideas about Pope Francis as the first Jesuit elected Pope. With great humor, they concluded that they might as well do their best as Jesuits since Jorge Bergoglio may be the last member of the Society of Jesus to break the “glass ceiling” and become Pope.

So this brings me to my own take on Pope Francis. Typically, I tell people that Pope Francis is “my favorite pope, so far!”

Often I’ll get responses such as “Greater than Pope John Paul II, really?” Then, I know this response is from a conservative. If, on the other hand, the individual tells me, “Greater than John XXIII, really?” At that point, I know the person is a Vatican II progressive.

A careful study of the life of Jorge Bergoglio tells you that nothing in his biography would have predicted that he would become a pope, let alone a bishop or cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. You know that Jesuits in the bylaws do not aspire to the hierarchy, so this was never in Bergoglio’s career path as a priest. For this reason, as a parish priest, he may be the most pastorally experienced person to be in the papacy.

Karol Wojtyla endured great hardships during World War II, but ultimately he became a university professor. Angelo Roncalli, with his unique personal appeal, was the secretary to a series of bishops, a seminary professor, and a Vatican diplomat. Jorge Bergoglio did not study in Rome, he was not a trained canon lawyer nor Vatican bureaucrat, so his primary qualification was that he was a good priest.

Even his Jesuits did not know what to do with him when he returned to Argentina from Germany without his doctoral degree. So for all these reasons, and more, it’s his emotional intelligence and skills of adaptive leadership that make Pope Francis “my favorite pope, so far!”

Final impressions

While most of my time during the Pope’s trip to the United States was spent in control rooms, over several weeks, I had the opportunity to witness many people from across the country volunteering to make the Pope’s visit a success. For those of us working with the 9,000 journalists from 1,300 media organizations, it was a privilege. Among these people were Catholics of every stripe or ideology and point of view, as well as Christians and Jews whose expertise was essential to provide a genuine welcome to the Pope and a country so eager to hear his message of mercy.

In the control room, I had only glimpses of an aura that surrounds the Pope and his embrace of those who reached out to him. Moments like his going into the lines of children waiting long hours at the Vatican embassy in Washington, the packed crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue or in Central Park, and the young parents with their infants – for that very first papal blessing.

My last impression watching from the control room was those tense moments before Pope Francis walked into the Joint Session of Congress. From our monitors, I could see the honor guard alongside the Pope as he walked around the Capitol rotunda, and then into the House chamber. The Sargent-at-Arms announced to the Speaker of the House, “Mr. Speaker, the Pope of the Holy See!” Well, he is a head of state, after all.

But it was Pope Francis’s message, his command of English, and the historical moment, when he told the nation,

“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities, which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to help ourselves.

In a word, if we want security, let us give protection; if we want life, let us give experience; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.

The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”


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