A Protestant's Reflection on Pope Francis' Call for a Year of Mercy

This past March, Pope Francis announced that 2016 would be an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. This is a holy year that takes place every 25 years and the Pope can proclaim an extraordinary one as he deems necessary. This one in particular will take place between December 8, 2015 and November 20, 2016. A few days ago Georgetown University marked the beginning of the Year of Mercy with Mass as well as space for conversation and reflection with students. As a Protestant I am typically not aware of these important traditions, but working at a Catholic University, I get the privilege of learning and taking part in them as they come along. The mass that I attended was beautiful and convicting, with it's message focusing on what it means to extend mercy to those around us alongside several spoken declarations we all made about committing to justice and offering mercy this year. We followed it with a conversation among a group of students about what it means for us as a Georgetown community, to extend mercy. What does mercy mean? Who do we give it to? When do we extend it?

As I listened to students talk, I did a bit of reflecting on my own. I thought about our global climate that has been filled with hatred, violence, injustice, misunderstanding and retribution. It has literally clouded our emotions, filled our social networks & media, and permeated our daily conversations. It is so all encompassing that it seems unavoidable. I wonder at times what will remedy it if there is to be any remedy at all. Then there are concepts like this Year of Mercy. Mercy as a stand alone term is nothing new; but in the atmosphere that we live within today, it is certainly uncommon. I thought to myself, if violence begets violence and hatred begets hatred, then this idea of mercy has to beget more mercy. We have to try something different. We have to try something so contrary to the evils which overwhelm us today. Unfortunately, i'm afraid we've thrown around the word "love" so much that it's just not enough to direct people to love one another. The term has become convoluted and obscure. To one person it could mean one thing and to another, something else. Mercy on the other hand is a term less used and less common. It's one that, while most will have to dig deep to garner a meaningful definition they can discern, we will all wind up at the same place: compassion, grace and goodwill. Mercy does not leave room for ambiguity.

In the book of Matthew Chapter 18, Jesus tells a story about an unmerciful servant. He says, "...the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt." The servant pleaded with the king to be patient with him, so the king did and canceled all the mans debt and let him go. Afterward that same servant was put in a similar situation where one of his servants owed him money. He demanded that the man pay him back. The man begged him to be patient with him. The scripture says, "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt." Eventually when the king heard what he had done he called the servant back. " 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed."

This scripture illustrates a clear example of how mercy should work. It's cyclical. Mercy should be given and then in turn given and then in turn given, so on and so forth. We can name places in our lives where we wanted to be extended a little mercy. Living and dwelling in that forgiveness should free us to be forgiving and merciful to others. Jesus once said, "Freely you have received, so freely give. So the question remains, "Where and to whom should we extend mercy?" It's clear that the extension of mercy should rightfully apply to national conversations around the Syrian refugee crisis, ongoing racial tensions, interfaith realities and other pressing realities in our country and world. This is especially in current times where political rhetoric and public opinion is so extreme. Let's also challenge ourselves to discover what it means to extend mercy within our own personal contexts. It is imperative that we explore practices to remedy the suffocating atmosphere of hatred that we live in. This Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us that mercy isn't just something that comes from God. We have to partake in it.