“Rich in Mercy”
My dear People of God,
Sacred Scripture instructs us that God “is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us” (Ephesians 2:4). Let us explore this concept of God’s mercy as we begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by our Holy Father Pope Francis.
Pope Francis began his proclamation of the Year of Mercy with these words: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordia Vultus, # 1). When we encounter mercy, we encounter God. And we meet God in the person of Jesus Christ who is the fullness of God’s revelation to us. “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (John 1:18). To meet Jesus Christ is to meet God’s mercy.
Human beings are like Philip in the Gospel of St. John. There is something in the heart of each one of us that wants to meet God. Philip pleads with Jesus, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Philip seems to be exploding with intent. He has heard what Jesus has taught. He has seen the miracles. He knows there is something greater here. He wants more. He wants to see God. Jesus satisfies him and says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Whatever Jesus has taught and whatever He has done, His words and His works, are possible because Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Him (John 14:11). And, when we meet Him, we find the mercy of God.
To deny this basic fundamental desire can only lead to frustration. We can also, to our own peril, substitute this need with other objects of desire. This is, of course, the danger of a secularized and materialistic world, where God is excluded from consideration, has no real part in our lives, and is ignored. How can we yearn for what we refuse to admit exists?
We cannot hear that sentence—“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy”—without thinking of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31). It is the key to understanding mercy. We know the parable well. There is a father who has two sons. At his request, the younger son receives from the father his inheritance in advance. The younger son then squanders his wealth “on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13). In dire circumstances, he takes the only job he can find, raising pigs. His plight is so extreme that he even hungers for the food the pigs are eating, “but nobody gave him any” (Luke 15:16). Finally, destitute and starving, the younger son comes to his senses and says, “I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers’” (John 15:18-19). What do we learn here?
First, there is always a father. The younger son may wander and stray, but the father is always there waiting for him. The young man believes in his father. The father sees the repentant son coming at a distance and runs out to meet him (John 15:20). The father’s first reaction is not anger but “compassion” (John 15:20). He embraces the son and kisses him (John 15:20). The father doesn’t even allow the son to finish his prepared speech. He calls his servants and orders two things for the returning son: the finest clothing and a delicious banquet. The son receives back the dignity of the family, symbolized in the clothing, and the food of the family, symbolized in the banquet in which all participate.
Certainly the father’s abundant forgiveness is more than the son expected, but the son had confidence in the father’s ability to forgive. And this confidence was rooted in the father’s existence and presence. The son knew he would find the father home. This is faith, a faith rooted in the Creator of our being. To paraphrase St. Augustine, our hearts are restless until they rest in God (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1). God’s mercy is not elusive. It is we who make ourselves elusive. It is we who hide from mercy or ignore it or make excuses for our refusal to acknowledge it. All the while, God waits. God is patient. He exists, and so does His mercy.
Second, there is a turning point in the life of the son, and that turning point is repentance. The son has lost his dignity. Every time we sin we lose our dignity. This is a basic fact. It is at that moment that we come to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can return to the Father, where even the servants have more than enough. The son has squandered his inheritance and will return not to reclaim his status as a son but to accept even being a servant (Luke 15:19). In this act of humility we find the thoroughness of his repentance. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:18). God cannot penetrate a heart that has shut the door to Him and consequently His mercy. This brings me to the Catholic practice of having a “holy door” during a Jubilee Year.
When I was child, I recall the door of a house was seldom locked during the day. Family and old friends arrived for a visit, and they found the door open. They knocked and came right in. How times have changed! But the door of a house has always been symbolic of welcome and openness. So it is spiritually in the Church.
The custom of having a “holy door” is based, like all traditions in the Catholic Church, on the Sacred Scriptures. Doors and gates in the Bible are frequently mentioned, and they almost always have to do with opening ourselves to God and entering into His presence. I think of the cry of the victor in Psalm 118, when in a hymn of thanksgiving he says:
Open the gates of victory;
I will enter and thank the Lord.
This is the Lord’s own gate,
where the victors enter (Ps. 118:19-20).
The one who enters through these gates is sharing the glory of the King whose house he is entering. We seek to follow through the door. Psalm 24 will ask, “Who can stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). The answer comes that the one with clean hands and pure heart may follow through the door that has already been opened by the Lord.
Such are the people that love the Lord,
that seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, your ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter (Psalm 24:6-7).
I could mention so many references to doors in the Bible that take place in visions and dreams, are sung of in hymns and canticles, and symbolize our closeness to God. But in the New Testament the door communicates something new and it is best described in the Book of Revelation.
Our Lord dictates seven letters. In the last letter, the one addressed to “the church in Laodicea” (Revelation 3:14), He says:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my
voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine
with him, and he with me. I will give the victor the right to
sit with me on my throne, as I myself first won the victory
and sit with my Father on his throne (Revelation 3:20-21).
The door has gone full circle. In the Psalms, the door was that of God’s house. Here the door belongs to us. The Lord stands at our door and knocks. We must open the door, allow Him to enter, and we will share together in the victory.
In the past, the only Holy Doors for a Year of Jubilee were located in Rome, the object of our pilgrimage. To make this highly symbolic act of welcoming the Lord present to more of the faithful, Pope Francis has given permission for each diocese in the world to have a Holy Door.
The Holy Door for our diocese is located at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Lake Charles. Here special indulgences are granted and we can participate in this significant act of entering God’s house and demonstrating our own willingness to welcome Him into our house. There mercy is found. Let the door of God’s mercy be opened. Like the prodigal son, let us renew our faith in the existence of God and His mercy. Let us return to God’s house. Let the doors of our hearts be opened through repentance and conversion from sin. May we love more completely our God who is “rich in mercy.”
In the hope that each of us will open that door and return to the Father’s house, I remain with blessings for you and your families,
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles