Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, a time that popular culture usually depicts as the beginning of the Christmas season, full of gifts, holiday parties, and halls decked with holly. But Advent holds a deeper meaning for Catholics: It is the beginning of the new liturgical year. And this one is particularly special.
Called the Jubillee Year of Mercy, it is a time when all Catholics are called to reflect upon and to practice one of the most important ideas in Christianity.
In a very fitting symbol, Pope Francis officially opened the year of mercy at the Cathedral of Bangui, the capital of the Central-African Republic, one of the poorest countries on Earth, and one that has problems with ethnic and religious strife. While most press coverage of the pope's trip to Africa focused on hot-button political or social issues, given that this is the lens through which most of the media views him, this was actually the most momentous part of the trip.
Mercy is an idea woven throughout the message of the Christian Gospel.
Often, it is portrayed in individualistic terms: the idea that we can have a right relationship with God, not based on whether we're "worth it," or based on whether we've done everything right, but based solely on God's love. That is an important doctrine, one that has changed countless lives.
But the Christian message of mercy is much broader. John 3:16 might be the best-known verse of the entire Bible, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life", but the next verse is almost as momentous: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
The Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, drawn from the beginning of Genesis says that God created the world out of sheer generosity, not for his sake but for the sake of his creatures. In other words, our entire existence, and everything around us, is in itself a sheer act of mercy. Christian mercy is not, or not just, about a legalistic transaction whereby God decides to forgive our sins because he feels good, but about the fact that God always acts out of supererogatory generosity towards us.
Christians, then, are called to respond to God's mercy with mercy of their own, to become agents of God's mercy in their own lives and around them. In Catholicism, the pillars of the Christian life, prayer and good works, are called "spiritual works of mercy" and "corporeal works of mercy" respectively.
In the pagan world in which Christianity emerged, that was the most striking thing about Christians. The pagan world was not amoral, far from it, but its morality emphasized justice, which can be in tension with mercy — justice is about getting what you're owed, mercy is about getting more than what you're owed. It is about getting a break not just when you deserve it, but when you don't.
And we all know it from our lives, don't we? We all come at a point in our lives when all we can count on is mercy. When we need a break, even though we might not "deserve" it. And if we get that break, if some person goes above and beyond and gives it to us, that can be a ray of light that changes our lives.
In Catholicism, mercy takes a specific form: the sacrament of confession, one which Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized. Political polls like to divide Catholics sociologically, or in terms of who goes to Mass, but I think perhaps the most important divide is between those who go to confession and those who don't.
And if you don't go, I don't blame you. I have gone for years without a confession. It's hard, maybe one of the hardest things in the world, to face up to whatever wrong you've done and ask for mercy. But that's why the relief, and spiritual growth, that comes from confession is so powerful. It is meant to feel like the crucifixion, but it ends with a new, healthy life — a resurrection.
People have often wondered about whether there is a "Francis Effect" — whether Francis's tremendous PR appeal and powerful symbolic gestures have or will have a noticeable impact on the faith and piety of Catholics at large. I think the right criterion for the Francis Effect, and perhaps even the unknowable criterion by which he measures himself, is how many Catholics start going to confession again. This, not whether you agree with the Church on this or that issue, or whether you volunteer, or even whether you go to Mass, is the key sign of spiritual health.
Go to confession. If there's one thing I know from the bottom of my heart, it's that we can all use some mercy.