Bishop Mark talks to the Westminster Clergy on the Year of Mercy

I want to thank Peter Newby for this invitation. It’s very nice to be back with you. I echo Cardinal Vincent’s congratulations to the two bishop-elect, Paul McAleenan and John Wilson. Your ministry will, I know bring great blessings to this diocese.

I know my theme for this talk is the Year of Mercy. I don’t just want to repeat what’s in the Bull of Indiction, Misericordia vultus, which I’m sure you’ve read for yourself. If not, it doesn’t take very long. Neither do I want simply to go through a list of possible resources, of which many are available. Many of us are pleased to have Cardinal Vincent’s “Pilgrimage Companion” produced through Alive Publishing. That's been well received in Plymouth. CTS have also produced a whole host of resources over the years on the theme of mercy and have re-issued many of them for this year. It is good too, to see, Fr Ivano Millico’s new little booklet among them. I was pleased also to talk to Canon Danny Cronin before this meeting and he was telling me that he also has an anthology on this theme, entitled, “Abounding in Mercy”, which is due to be published soon. Recently, we had Bishop John Arnold with us in the Diocese giving a great reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He was telling me that his book, on that Sacrament, titled, “The quality of mercy…” is coming out in a new edition. There are also good ideas and resources on the Vatican’s website for the Year including eight helpful little booklets on the different themes for the Year. They’re really superb, and I highly recommend them to you. There are also resources on the website of the Bishop’s Conference.

So there’s lots of practical ideas and resources that we can all plug into and which you can access for your parish. I don’t want, this afternoon, just to go through those. Instead, what I’d like to do is to stand back and to look a little at the Spiritual and theological roots of this Year, and to give one or two pointers as to what this means for each of us, personally, so that we might also enter into the real depths of this Jubilee Year and the gift of mercy which is at its heart.

You have before you “The Call of St Matthew”, a Caravaggio painting of circa 1599, which is in a side Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Franchesi, in Rome.

There is some debate as to which is Matthew. The two figures on the left – an old man and a young boy - maybe Matthew at different stages. The boy, bent over money, shows Matthew in his youth. The old man with the same stance, is Matthew as he could have turned out if he hadn’t heard Jesus’ call. This old man wears glasses; in the 16th century this was a sign of corruption and decadence! To have poor eye sight was seen as a symbol of spiritual blindness too.
The most likely figure of Matthew, is the one in the foreground, pointing to himself and asking the question, “What me, you're calling me?”

Christ points with divine intent. You will note the hand with bent wrist mirrors that of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, which Michael Angelo painted about eighty years before. The wrist and hand mirror Adam’s....for this is the second Adam. But the finger points with the intention of The Creator, for this is God Himself, who through the action of His Son reaches out to the human person.

This hand gesture is mirrored in the figure of St Peter in the foreground; his hand is a replica of His Lord’s. These two figures – Jesus and Peter - step from the pages of the Gospels, and are in 1st century dress, whilst the other figures are in contemporary sixteenth century garb. There is a post-Reformation catechesis going on here, to remind everyone of the Christological and Apostolic foundations of Office and the sacraments in the life of the Church. It is God who initiates his Life and light through Christ. This is mediated to us through the Office of Peter, through the priesthood in a call to conversion, to a change of life. It mirrors the experience of Confession, which is both the gift of mercy and a call to conversion.

You will be aware that this is also the experience of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. His episcopal motto is "Miserando atque eligendo": "Looking with mercy, he called him". Some would translate it as "mercying him, He called him". Using mercy as a verb. At many times in his Pontificate, Pope Francis has described himself as a sinner who has been looked upon with love. We could say, of course, it's true of each of us.

You will know the experience of the Pope’s youth. He described it at the Pentecost Vigil and meeting with Ecclesial movements in 2013:
"One day in particular, though, was very important to me: 21 September 1953. I was almost 17. It was “Students’ Day”, for us the first day of spring — for you the first day of autumn. Before going to the celebration I passed through the parish I normally attended, I found a priest that I did not know and I felt the need to go to confession. For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened, I can’t remember, I do not know why that particular priest was there whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.”

In that meeting, Pope Francis goes on to speak about what this means for each one of us:

"This experience of faith is important. We say we must seek God, go to him and ask forgiveness, but when we go, he is waiting for us, he is there first! In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear — the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace. You go to him as a sinner, but he is waiting to forgive you. ……The Lord is waiting for us. Moreover, when we seek him, we discover that he is waiting to welcome us, to offer us his love. And this fills your heart with such wonder that you can hardly believe it, and this is how your faith grows — through encounter with a Person, through encounter with the Lord. Some people will say, “No, I prefer to read about faith in books!” It is important to read about faith, but look, on its own this is not enough! What is important is our encounter with Jesus, our encounter with him, and this is what gives you faith because he is the one who gives it to you!"

We know that in his visits to Rome, Cardinal Bergoglio stayed in the Casa del Clero just a few doors away from this Church. How often he must have contemplated himself in this image. Indeed, in that famous interview he gave in Sept 2013, Pope Francis said to Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, referring to the painting, "This is me...."

I think it's important for us to remember this truth of The Lord who is there before us, in our work of evangelisation, particularly in respect of those who seem furthest from God. We live in a world redeemed, a creation which has been touched by the Fall, ruptured at its roots by that primary disobedience. But a world, too, which is saved by Christ, which has been radically transformed by the Incarnation, and by the Redemption. It means that when we encounter any person, we do so from the perspective that this person is made in His image and likeness, made according to the pattern of the 2nd Adam, made to be with God the Father forever. The Lord is already present there before us, waiting for them to discover Him, to know that He is there waiting for them. This is the heart of the God we believe in, the one who has poured Himself out in his creation, and the one who, in Christ, gave Himself up to death, in order to manifest His heart, a heart which overflows in mercy for all whom he created in love.

I think too often we've looked at mercy as something that bridges the gap between an impossible ideal and our sinful situation. This leads to an opposition between doctrine and pastoral life. It is, of course, important to remember that God in His inner life, is not Mercy. God, who is Love, does not express that Love in his Trinitarian communion through mercy. We need only reflect, “Why should Father, Son and Holy Spirit need to show mercy to one another?” Neither is it out of mercy that God is Creator. The creation, we believe came about, not through mercy, but through the ecstatic rupture of God’s overflowing love.

At the same time, we cannot look on Mercy as something which comes along at the end to get us out of the mess we've created. So often we think and we say, “There’s the doctrine, the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the Church. That's an ideal", we say, "we strive after it, but it’s impossible for most to reach or to live. Therefore, we need to remember Gods mercy." This is what I mean by setting up an opposition between doctrine and pastoral life.

This goes against something fundamental in the whole of Christian faith. This is the reality that the God who in his innermost being is a communion of life and love, the God who created the world, is also the God who in Jesus Christ is the God who reaches down to us. We call this the divine self-emptying, or kenosis. "Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and being found in human form, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross." (Philippians 2).

Many of you will know this image of Andre Rublev, sometimes called the “Angels at Mamre” or “The visitation of Abraham”. Some of you will appreciate I've used this image a lot in my priestly life. Indeed, in the days before PowerPoint, I had a poster size version of this image, rather tackily pinned to a piece of card. I would trek it around the Northern area of the Westminster diocese speaking to catechists or school teachers and on more than one occasion, overheard someone saying, “Oh here comes Fr Mark again, with the Trinity under his arm!”

One of the reasons I like it, is that it helps to illustrate the strong connection between the inner Trinitarian life and God’s engagement with our world. The divine kenosis is such that, the God who, in the superabundance of His love, poured His love into creation, this is the same God who comes down to us in our need. The inner Trinitarian kenosis of God is a superabundant, ecstatic, love whereby the persons of the Trinity pour themselves out in love eternally one for the other. Here, in Rublev’s painting, that’s shown in their bowing to one another in an eternal act of mutual surrender. This overflows into Creation. But when this love comes into contact with the human person, this love manifests itself as Mercy. Whilst Mercy as such is not part of the inner relations of the Trinity, self-emptying love is the very heart of the Trinity. And it is this self-emptying love, which is manifest in the Incarnation and in Jesus’ death on the Cross.

In this sense there is a correspondence, in God’s kenosis, God’s self-emptying love, between God’s inner life and God’s engagement with His creation. The love which is poured out between Father, Son and Spirit in that communion of life and love which is the Trinity is most clearly manifested to us in the merciful love which goes to death on the Cross. That's why the Son points in this image to the chalice, to sacrifice, to the Eucharistic banquet. The love which is eternal between Father and Son is directed towards pouring Himself out in love in this sacrifice. Indeed, we would want to say that the Cross, the triumph of merciful love over death, is the way for us to enter into the very inner life of God. In this respect, Merciful love is the heart of Christian revelation because it is the reality which brings us to the house of the Father.

You know several years ago I was confessor to an enclosed community of nuns. They always came to confession every week, starting with the youngest in formation, and then the longest in the life. Towards the end, one elderly sister would come. After I'd given absolution and as she was leaving the room, she'd turn with her head over her shoulder and say, "Thank you Fr Mark for giving me the power of Christ". I used to feel about 2 inches tall. But she knew what she was about. The mercy she experienced in the sacrament, the mercy of Jesus poured into her heart thorough the instrument of a priest, this was the power which brought her into the very inner life of the Trinity. His self-emptying love, was the power which transforms.

Our reflection on this Year of Mercy then, must also, therefore, contain for us a serious reflection on the Mystery of sin. Because it is through seeing our turning away from God that we most of all, also realise our need of the Father’s embrace. I think this is what is behind that extraordinary cry of the Exsultet, that we hear at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night, “Oh truly necessary sin of Adam…….that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer". The experience of mercy is one of gift, and also of conversion.

The original sin of Adam is that he thought he could overcome the distinction between God and His creation. He forgot he was a creature. He thought he could be God. At the dawn of human history, the forgetfulness of Adam, introduces a deep fissure into the relationship between the Creator and His creation.

It is for this reason, that St John Paul II, in that lovely encyclical, Dives in Misericordia - which I advise us all to re-read in this Year – he describes mercy as “Gods second face”. Only the Son can bridge the divide, the Son who is in Himself God, and at the same time "born of flesh" subject to the human condition, and who out of love takes upon Himself the disobedience of Adam and all it brought in terms of alienation from God. This is the heart of the Incarnation and Redemption as we see it in the New Testament, and as articulated through St Athanasius, and the Patristic witness, and which is synthesised so beautifully by St Thomas Aquinas.

In his reflections, at the retreat he gave to the Spanish Bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio makes this clear in his reference to the Ignatian idea of the two kingdoms and the two banners. We each know that there is basically a battle within ourselves, he notes. Which will we give ourselves to? Under whose banner will we walk - under the banner of Christ, or under the banner of the enemy? Left to ourselves we could not negotiate this choice; our humanity is too wounded by the Fall. With Christ, we have the power – that word again - to stand strong against the enemy and move into a proper, human freedom.

In this respect, Mercy is not something which I experience to bring me from my individual sinfulness up to the ideal. It is rather that gift of God, whereby He reaches out to a fallen creation in Order to bring us to Himself. This is why we talk of God's justice being His mercy. In God, these two are not at odds with one another.

What Pope Francis is doing in this Year of Mercy, then, is to bring us back to the roots of Christian faith, to what, in Evangelii Gaudium, he calls the “Primary Proclamation”. For me this is beautifully put in one sentence in paragraph 164,

“Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”
You will be aware that he goes on in that paragraph, to remind us that this proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense, too, because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another. And so, too, for us - “the priest..... ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized”.[127]

We each need "to be mercied", to take up that verb use age again! So what does all this point to for us, personally, in this upcoming Year?

That the year of Mercy is to bring us individually back to the roots of our own vocation story. When we reflect on that we will see again that it is an experience of being specifically called, of being chosen. And within this an experience of the mercy, the tenderness of our God. When we think about our own history and life, we know that it is not the overcoming of the gap between an ideal to which I'm called and the reality of my own sinfulness. It is rather a coming into the full depth of a choice and a call which is not merited by me. It is not something I can bring about within myself. It is rather God’s reaching out to me, or rather, a reaching down to me, which is the gratuitous gift of God, "poured into our hearts", as St Paul would say. In that lovely passage from 2 Corinthians, we hear..."we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, to make it clear that such an overwhelming gift comes from God, and not from ourselves."

This experience of merciful encounter is vital in Christian life. In the New Testament, the experience of the disciples is, firstly, one of encounter of The Lord. This is followed by the call and the need for deeper conversion, a growing and deepening in faith. We might call this Formation or Catechesis. Then comes the gift of the sacramental life - the gifts of Eucharist, of Anointing, of baptism, and so on.

This mirrors I suppose the arc of a couple who fall in love and marry. There is the period of encounter, of falling in love, then deepening understanding and knowledge of one another, one might call it a conversion to one another. You throw your lot in with this one other person. This leads to engagement and eventually the lifelong commitment of marriage.

Of course, in the Church, we do things the other way round. Generally, we sacramentalise people, then catechise them, and along the way we ask the question, “Have they ever had the experience of evangelical encounter?” This means we kind of expect conversion without encounter. And we often have to ask, “Do they have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

It seems to me a little bit like an arranged marriage.....they have the gift of permanent commitment, then you hope they can make a life of it together, and fall in love over time. But what if that doesn't happen?

Why is it that people can so easily walk away from the practise of their faith? Even really good people. Some of the parish priests in Plymouth were saying recently that they've had some really good people whom they've noticed seem to stop practising. These were parents who were heavily involved in the parish in the years their children were growing up. Some of them were 1st communion or confirmation catechists. But the children grow up and go off to university and the parents stop practising.

Now none of us can bring another to faith, to evangelical encounter. It is a gift and a mystery of God. But maybe we do need to start reflecting on what are the contexts which can cultivate evangelical encounter. That encounter is vital, not just at the beginning, but as an ongoing experience of conversion and growth if someone is to sustain a Christian life. Recently I made my first visit to The Isles of Scilly. You must recall I probably live in the most beautiful diocese in the country. As you take that rather precarious flight, in a twin engine plane that bobs about in the wind, you line up for the small runway, and part of you thinks it's going to ditch in the sea. And as we flew over the island I couldn't help but notice the daffodil fields. Scilly has a micro climate which means the daffodils flower about six weeks earlier there than in other parts of the UK. But there's a problem with the wind and the salt in the air. So they grow these large, 8-10 feet high hedges around the fields. These act as wind breakers and keep the salt out, so that within the field there is the possibility of delicate daffodils bulbs growing and flowering.

How do we create the Eco system which will allow the possibility of evangelical encounter, the encounter with mercy? How do we provide the contexts which will allow faith to deepen and grow in a climate where people are simply being blown away by a culture, an environment, which, in many ways can be toxic to Christian faith? I think our parishes and our Churches are called to be those spaces, those Eco-systems, and we have to strip them back to that foundational reality, go back to the roots of our call and our vocation, so that the parish can indeed be a "sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey", to use that lovely phrase from Evangelii Gaudium.

Just three areas of reflection to leave with you, in regard to the Holy Year that might help build some of those wind breakers for this Eco system, both personally and ecclesially. These are, the Holy Door, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Corporal and Spiritual works of mercy.

The Holy door – I believe Cardinal Vincent is right that we should not go through one on our own but invite somebody to go with us. I think this is really about threshold points and places. Those points in our lives where we cross over from our earthly life into the deeper life of faith. To live as St Paul says, “according to the Spirit”, and not “according to the flesh”.
Within this I think we are all called to reflect seriously on the important place that our Churches play. We need to take the risk to leave them open – open wide the doors. We should not underestimate the importance of the church building. It brings people literally into another world. Within this, is the power and place of beauty. The Church uses the phrase via pulcritudinis – the way of beauty. In Catholic theology and understanding beauty is often seen as the 'lost transcendental'. We believe that we come to know God through what is true, good and beautiful. Perhaps we have concentrated on the first two, on truth and goodness. In this missionary key which proclaims mercy, we recognise that we do not try to argue people into faith, or badger them about what they are doing right or wrong. We provide opportunities for them to see or experience the beauty of an encounter with Jesus, the face of the Father’s mercy. The Sacraments, the Church's liturgy, Eucharistic adoration, sacred music, the beauty of the Church building, are all important in discovering this way of beauty. We must never undervalue their importance. For the experience of beauty, in whatever way it comes to us, to our people, is an experience in which a Holy Door opens up and the mercy and love of God flows into the human heart.

Secondly, you will know that within this year, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has a particular place. We have all known the power of this sacrament in our own lives. We've also had the privilege of seeing it change others. How do we encourage people back to a celebration of it? Of course, it begins with ourselves. You will know that successively, the last three popes have stressed that I can't be a good confessor if I don't personally regularly celebrate the sacrament as a penitent. We’ve all been touched by the experience of seeing Pope Francis go to confession.

I personally like the programme, “The Light is on for you”, which urges a season of confession in all the parishes of a diocese on one evening. In this next year there is also the 24 hours for the Lord in those days before the fourth Sunday of Lent. Also, look at other liturgical opportunities…one is always impressed by the numbers going to confession after the Good Friday service, but perhaps the parish carol concert could be another moment, maybe with one or two parents giving a testimony and with the opportunity for confession at the end.

We also need to think about more creative ways of celebrating it. And to take the risk, to go outside our churches, on to the streets. To risk celebrations in shopping centres or squares, with the necessary permissions. I know there is an issue for non-Catholics, but would it not be possible to offer a blessing or a prayer for individuals who are non-Catholics/ non-believers? In this, we have much to learn from those groups who have tried being on the streets - I think of Youth 2000, Spirit in the City and what takes place at Soho Square, as well as the insight and experience of the movements such as the Neo-Catechumenal way.

Finally, you will know the stress on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in this Year. You will be aware of the Corporal works well, from Matthew 25 -

1. To feed the hungry.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
3. To clothe the naked.
4. To shelter the Homeless
5. To visit the sick.
6. To visit the imprisoned
7. To bury the dead.

These are vital works of mercy, and we need to continue to give ourselves to them generously. Of course there is always the possibility of doing more, but we do some of this reasonably well. One has only to think of the work of CAFOD, Missio and Aid to the Church in Need on an International level. On more local levels we have food banks, breakfast clubs, parish homeless shelters as well as our prison and hospital Chaplaincy, and a whole host of local outreach projects in our parishes. And of course we know that in doing all these good works we encounter Christ himself. "In so far as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."

It's also true that if we left it at this, we could be in danger of being what Pope Francis calls a kind of NGO. Doing those things is a good thing in itself, it’s true, yet we have been entrusted with a spiritual power, too, to heal the world's wounds.

Just as the Corporal Works of Mercy are directed towards relieving corporeal suffering, the aim of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to relieve spiritual suffering. They direct us to the question, what helps people begin to make the journey from alienation to the Father’s house? These works are traditionally enumerated as;

1. To instruct the ignorant.
2. To counsel the doubtful.
3. To admonish sinners.
4. To bear wrongs patiently.
5. To forgive offences willingly.
6. To comfort the afflicted.
7. To pray for the living and the dead

In this we see the relationship between care of body and care of soul - corporal and spiritual works should be seen as two sides of the one reality.

Five of those Spiritual works, I’m very happy with and can look for opportunities to live them. But two of them - “to instruct the ignorant” and “to admonish sinners” – these are more challenging. I don’t have easy answers about how we do this, except to say that it must be done with a mother’s tenderness and not as some kind of judgmental looking down on people. The greatest witness is, I suppose, if we practice what we preach. Yet it is also true that we must preach, must teach, what we practice. Particularly, in the face of contemporary unbelief, it’s important that we both witness and teach. I believe, the Spiritual works of mercy, are calling us into the heart of that unity between witness and teaching, a unity again between doctrine and pastoral reality.

A starting point is, of course, with ourselves. How do I develop a deeper love for what the Church teaches, so that it's much more a part of me, personally? How do I individually allow myself to be admonished as a sinner, so that I can grow and deepen in my conversion to The Lord?

And let's face it we've all got things to learn. Recently, I was asked to visit one of our older priests. There had been complaints from the Health and Safety people in the diocese that things were not properly sorted; various people had tried and said they were getting nowhere. So I was asked to go and talk to this senior priest about light fittings, and leaks and drains. The Episcopal Vicar for Administration came with me, and when asked, the elderly PP was able to indicate he’d done all that was required and all was in order. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Anyway, Bishop Mark, what are you doing here talking to me about these things. Shouldn't you be asking me about the spiritual and pastoral life of the parish?” You know he was absolutely right....I apologised and asked if we could have a cup of tea and chat about some of those things.

Yes, we've all got things to learn. That's why it's good, personally, to have this gift of the Holy Year of Mercy. May it indeed be a real Jubilee for each one of us, and for each one who, in His Mercy, He has invited us to serve.

+Mark O’Toole, Bishop of Plymouth