Bishop's Interview: Receiving and extending mercy in the Jubilee Year
Editor: December 8 begins the observance of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which centers around the mercy of God. Why is it important to dedicate this year to this particular focus?
Bishop Vásquez: In his letter “Misericordiae Vultus,” Pope Francis writes, “Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” He very much wants to communicate to the whole world that mercy is at the heart of the church and mercy is what we are about as a church.
As the Holy Father writes, God sent us Jesus Christ, who is the eternal merciful face of God. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has focused on mercy in his speeches, his talks and homilies. During his visit to Cuba, the Holy Father was welcomed by the people as a missionary of mercy and he highlighted the importance of sharing the mercy of God with others and becoming the face of mercy for a world that is suffering in pain and hungering for God.
Editor: What do you think is our biggest challenge in understanding and receiving the mercy of God?
Bishop Vásquez: One of the biggest challenges that I see today is a lack of understanding of sin, which has existed since Adam and Eve. Sin is a turning away from God and a rejection of his will and love, which also affects one’s life with others. The struggle with sin is part of our daily lives –– some days are good and other days are challenging. As sinners, we must be willing to acknowledge our sins and seek God’s mercy.
Many times when a child does something wrong, the child will hide from his or her parents. Likewise, there is an instinct in us to hide from God when we sin, much like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Instead, when we sin, we should turn to God and refuse the instinct to hide from him.
We have been created in the image and likeness of God, but our sinful decisions have consequences. Thankfully, God does not allow sin to define us or to have the last word. He always offers us another way – the way of mercy.
“Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy,” Pope Francis writes. Therefore the sacrament of reconciliation is a great place for people to experience God’s mercy. In this sacrament the church through the priest welcomes the sinner back into the community. For us priests who are called to be ministers of reconciliation, Pope Francis challenges us to reject the sin but never the sinner. Every son or daughter of God must be shown mercy. Jesus Christ came as a remedy for our sin, and he saved us through his suffering, death and resurrection. Thus the church opens her arms to embrace the sinner.
Editor: Some may consider this Year of Mercy a time to possibly water down the faith, but that is not the pope’s intention, correct?
Bishop Vásquez: The Holy Father’s intention in calling for the Jubilee is to call the church and the world to experience God’s mercy. In the papal bull, he is very clear about sin. He even tells us priests as confessors to be very clear and direct because we do a disservice to people when we don’t help them understand the seriousness of sin and help them overcome sin. Even so, Pope Francis counsels confessors to listen carefully for and accept the “plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent.”
Editor: The extraordinary Jubilee is symbolized by the opening of the holy door. What is the significance of that symbol?
Bishop Vásquez: We are all on a pilgrimage. Therefore, each one of us is walking along the way but where we find strength is in the community of believers, the body of Christ, which is the Church. The door of the church signifies a new beginning, but more importantly it signifies Christ, who calls us to a deeper life of faith and love. By crossing that threshold, we are displaying our willingness to walk closer to Christ. Therefore, Pope Francis wants to make sure that we observe this great tradition of the holy door.
I encourage people through our diocese to make a pilgrimage to one of the five parishes throughout the diocese where we have designated holy doors. This is an opportunity for us then to experience God’s loving care for us as a people because we see ourselves on a journey together.
Editor: Pope Francis has also written a letter inviting us to obtain the Jubilee Indulgence. Can you explain more about that?
Bishop Vásquez: There is a special Jubilee indulgence granted during the Year of Mercy. As Catholics we believe that sacramental confession addresses one of the consequences of sin by restoring our communion with God. But all sins, even minor ones, have a temporal consequence as well, so in the church’s jurisdiction, an indulgence simply allows baptized faithful who have confessed their sins, received the Eucharist, and completed all acts required of them, to diminish or cancel that temporal punishment on their behalf or on behalf of a deceased person. It’s not through our own merits that this is done; rather, the Jubilee indulgence gives us an opportunity to apply to our situation the reparation already accomplished by Christ and the saints. So for the Jubilee of Mercy, just as in any Holy Year, the indulgence is offered to pilgrims who cross the threshold of the Holy Door at the Vatican or in any of our five diocesan pilgrimage churches, confess their sins, receive the Eucharist and pray for the pope’s intentions. There are also special provisions for shut-ins and prisoners who cannot make a pilgrimage. Finally, the Holy Father stresses the importance of performing one of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as a visible and concrete sign.
Editor: The diocese will observe the Year of Mercy under three aspects: Receive, Understand and Share. Please explain these three aspects.
Bishop Vásquez: First, we must know that God is the one who initiates the gift of mercy, thus it is ours to receive. When we sin, God is waiting and longing for us to return to him. The sacrament of reconciliation is the perfect way to experience God’s mercy. However, in order to receive it, we are required to examine our lives and to recognize the areas of weakness in our lives. So how do we prepare for the sacrament? Has it become routine for me? Have I been away from the sacrament for a long time? I encourage all of us to experience this sacrament in a new way, so we can benefit from the grace of the sacrament.
To understand is really to know, not just as an intellectual proposition but as a wholehearted acceptance. We need to understand who God is because God is a merciful God. He is not mean. He is not trying to judge us. He is not out to get us every time we go astray, but rather he desires the best for each one of us. In understanding this, we will begin to identify places in our lives where we can change for the better. I pray during this Year of Mercy that many will turn back to God and understand his love for us.
And then each of us is called to share mercy. If we are only worried about ourselves during this Year of Mercy, then we will find it lacking. When we experience God’s mercy, then our natural response will be to invite others to experience that mercy too. We are changed and we then become people of mercy who desire that God’s limitless love is made available to all. St. John Paul II also taught that acts of mercy are always reciprocal — the one who extends mercy to another also receives it.
Editor: We can also use this year to learn more about the church’s tradition of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. What can parishes do this coming year to highlight the traditions?
Bishop Vásquez: This is a great opportunity to catechize and to evangelize. The corporal works of mercy and spiritual works of mercy are very practical, uncomplicated ways that we can reach out to others as the hands and face of Christ. Many people are already doing these works of mercy on a regular basis; however, perhaps it is time to challenge ourselves to do something different that moves us out of our comfort zone. Maybe we could visit a prison, spend time visiting the dying in a hospital, or care for the homeless. We must not be afraid to ask God where he wants us to go or what he wants us to do to extend his mercy to others. These are challenging questions, but if we are able to ask these questions, then I think we also have the ability to experience at a deeper level what it means to be people of mercy.
Editor: What is your prayer for all of us as we begin this Jubilee year?
Bishop Vásquez: I pray God may grant us the humility to recognize our sinfulness and to seek his face of mercy in Jesus Christ. May the sacrament of reconciliation be an encounter with God where we hear and sense his compassionate and forgiving love. Also I pray he will give us the courage to help others seek God in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Let us also seek the intercession of Mary, our Mother of Mercy, for she always intercedes for us to follow her only Son.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Diocese of Austin
“Therefore, I have decided to announce an Extraordinary Jubilee which has at its center the mercy of God. It will be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live in the light of the word of the Lord: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (cf. Lk 6:36) ... This Holy Year will commence on the next Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will conclude on Sunday, 20 November 2016, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe and living face of the Father’s mercy.” (Pope Francis, March 13, 2015)
After the solemn inauguration of the Holy Year –– marked by the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8 –– all the particular churches will open their own Doors of Mercy in communion with the Church of Rome as part of the Eucharistic celebration of the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), on Dec.13. In the Diocese of Austin, the blessing and opening of holy doors will occur at the five parish sites (see map below) as designated by Bishop Joe Vásquez. Visit the diocesan website at
www.austindiocese.org/yearofmercy for further details about individual times and locations.
What is a Jubilee indulgence?
An indulgence is an act of faith by which a person may obtain release from the temporal punishment associated with sins committed, either for oneself or on behalf of another. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471) As with other jubilee years, the Holy Father has instructed that special indulgences be available for the faithful through the duration of the year. Here’s how to get one.
For able-bodied Catholics:
Take a pilgrimage. Make a journey to your local holy door (a physical portal in your local cathedral, shrine or other designated church). Crossing through a holy door is a spiritual journey that signals, as the Holy Father said, “the deep desire for true conversion.”
Go to confession.
Receive the Holy Eucharist “with a reflection of mercy.”
Make a profession of faith.
Pray for the pope and for his intentions.
It is appropriate that the sacramental confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the pope’s intentions take place on the same day of the pilgrimage, but it is not necessary. The sacramental rites and prayers may be carried out within several days (about three weeks) and at a place other than the pilgrimage site.
For the elderly, confined and the ill:
Pope Francis said that they may obtain the indulgence by “Living with faith and joyful hope this moment of trial, receiving communion or attending Holy Mass and community prayer, even through the various means of communication, will be for them the means of obtaining the Jubilee Indulgence.”
Why make a pilgrimage?
“The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 14)
In the Diocese of Austin, the faithful are encouraged to visit one or more of these five designated sites during the Holy Year, crossing the thresholds of these “holy doors” as a sign of our desire and dedication to be “open doors” to the Father’s merciful love. Whether or not one is seeking the Jubilee indulgence, visiting a parish outside of one’s own region is a beautiful way to build spiritual solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the diocese.