By late November, a sense of closure sets in. Thanksgiving Day is a time to look back: What good things have I experienced since a year ago? Whom have I met? Where have I gone? How am I a better person? In the Catholic calendar, the Solemnity of Christ the King ends the liturgical cycle before we begin again with the First Sunday of Advent, a chance to start over a month before our civil calendar runs out.
This year, Christ the King, on Nov. 20, wrapped up the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis announced in January 2015 and inaugurated on Dec. 8 a year ago. The pope offered this special year as an opportunity and a challenge. It was an opportunity to change for the better, to reach out to those estranged from us, to mend our ways where they needed mending. And it was a challenge to open our eyes to see those in need who walk our streets and pass us by, to open our hearts to the stranger, the migrant, the other.
A jubilee in the Jewish tradition was to occur every 50 years. It was a time for forgiveness of debt, a time of special celebration. Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the first Christian jubilee year of 1300 for reconciling sinners and others estranged. People liked the idea, and subsequent popes declared more frequent jubilees, usually every 25 or 50 years.
A strong symbol of a jubilee year is the holy door. St. Peter’s Basilica has a special door that is closed off except in jubilee years. The pope opens the door and the year begins. This year churches around the world—from Bangui in the Central African Republic to a modest tent in Erbil, Iraq—designated a holy door as a reminder that this is a privileged time for reconciliation, for setting things right, for entering a sacred space.
Other doors can open us to mercy—those that close off refugee camps or prisons, those we might open to visit a nursing home or a hospital. And the sacred space we enter does not have to be physical. It includes relationships with those we love. It includes encounter with those we may have closed off. It includes looking into the eyes of those we usually do not see.
This jubilee year included many special events. One Friday a month Pope Francis carried out some special sign of mercy—visiting a home for needy children or a refuge for prostitutes rescued from the streets. He made mercy a central theme of World Youth Day in Krakow in July. He canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who had spent her life doing works of mercy. On Nov. 5, 1,000 prisoners from 12 countries along with family members and security staff walked through St. Peter’s holy door at the pope’s invitation to attend Mass with him; marginalized and homeless people came to a similar event the following Saturday.
Several dioceses set up websites specifically for the Year of Mercy, and many of the prayers and resources will go on after the official year has ended. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, for example, listed monthly actions for people to try to show mercy. Many parishes provided volunteer opportunities; others provided lectures on mercy. These do not need to stop.
As this jubilee year ends, the need for mercy does not. This year has seen floods of refugees driven from their homes in Syria and elsewhere, risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes facing hostility in their new homes. And many in our own society could use a helping hand, another chance. Fighting racism, ending scapegoating, feeding our own hungry would be great acts of mercy, too.
This jubilee year has coincided with a long, bruising political campaign, in which violent words and hostile attitudes not only revealed deep divisions in our country but even fostered them and exploited them. We have not heard many calls for mercy here.
As this year ends, it is crucial that we not shut the door—holy or otherwise—on the needs of those around us. Modern life produces stress in families and other relationships; we need to examine ourselves for how we can make things right. Our country has a great deal of healing to do, and we need to step back, recover our better selves and reach out to those with whom we may legitimately disagree. Disagreement does not have to include vilification, recrimination or charges of ill will. It does not call for shutting doors to respect or to recognition of the good in those with whom we have differences. If our country is to be strong, we must be just and offer opportunity to all.We must work to find common ground in order to carry out works of mercy. The weakest and most vulnerable suffer the most from a permanent state of political warfare.
If the Year of Mercy now ending sparks even some tentative first steps in this direction, Pope Francis’ courageous initiative in calling us to this celebration will be an enduring legacy.