Pope Francis has declared this liturgical year, from December 2015 through November 2016, a Jubilee Year of Mercy. And while Catholics worldwide are invited to contemplate and celebrate the Divine mercy we have received and continue to receive, we are reminded that “as we have received, so should we give.” A major theme of this Jubilee Year will be performing the Works of Mercy – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, generally seeing to the needs of the less fortunate. It’s one of the more consistent themes of the Franciscan papacy: the dignity and well-being of all, the uplifting of the downtrodden, is our first and greatest moral obligation. Pope Francis wants us to remember, always and in all things, that Catholicism is at its heart a sacramental faith: we experience God’s graces through the actions we take.
As part of this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has opened a Holy Door at a homeless shelter in Rome. It was, as Vatican Radio reports, “designed to emphasize the centrality of concrete works of charity within the Church.” But I think it’s fair to say that the gesture has a deeper significance within Francis’s vision for the Church.
The Holy Door is a means for gaining an indulgence, which is one of the more controversial concepts in Church history – so much so that some pastors are avoiding the word in favor of “special graces” or other euphemistic terms. And there is a long history of the Church offering indulgences as “special graces” reserved only for the wealthiest, for those who could afford them. I think part of what Pope Francis is doing, in bringing these indulgences to the homeless, is part of an idealistic reformation that goes back to his Twelfth-Century namesake.
The story is that Saint Francis of Assisi was praying in a small church in the countryside, when he heard the voice of Jesus telling him that this small church should be made a pilgrimage site which the faithful could visit to receive an indulgence. Up to this point, such indulgences were reserved to sites within the Holy Land, and only those who could afford to make a pilgrimage to the Middle East could receive them. So the idea of appointing a similar pilgrimage site right there in the Italian countryside where just anybody could go in whenever they wanted to would have been a radically egalitarian move for the Medieval Church. The Vatican refused Francesco’s request. But Jesus and His Blessed Virgin Mother were insistent, and St. Francis was sent back repeatedly to tell his superiors that God really, really wants this. Eventually the Vatican relented and the church was, for a short time, made a pilgrimage site.
In the years and the centuries that followed, the Cardinals’ fears were born out as indulgences became more commonplace to the point where just about anyone who wants one can get one. And now we see our current Pope, the first in history to take the name of the great Saint of Assisi, going a step further. He’s taking these Special Graces out of the Church and bringing them into the community. “I want a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” Pope Francis wrote. He is leading the way; we are working to follow his example.
For Additional Reading:
Jubilee of Mercy Homepage: Vatican Website
Jubilee Year of Mercy: USCCB.org (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Pope Opens Holy Door at Homeless Shelter: Vatican Radio