I. Introduction: A Year of Favor from the Lord
A. When people have lost their way or feel downtrodden, they look for a word of encouragement. They seek something or someone they can put their hopes in. So it was that, as the people of Israel were nearing the end of their exile in Babylon, they listened with joy as Isaiah the prophet, filled with the Spirit of God, proclaimed “glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and a year of favor from the Lord,” that is to say, a year of Jubilee. How the Chosen People rejoiced to think that they were going home at last, to begin anew their way of life and worship. What a chord those words of mercy must have struck in the hearts of those who heard the announcement of this year of favor, this Jubilee, in which their debts were forgiven and they were given the chance to start all over again.
B. Now let us move ahead to the Gospel where we find Jesus in his hometown synagogue, in Nazareth. Once again the Chosen People are oppressed by yet another conqueror, this time the mighty Roman Empire. Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah; he unrolls it and reads the same passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” With everyone looking at him intently, Jesus proclaims (to the annoyance of many in the congregation) that he is the living fulfillment of this Scripture passage. In effect, Jesus proclaimed himself the Messiah, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and sent by the Father to bring the Good News of Salvation to one and all but especially to the oppressed and the suffering. To them and to all, Jesus came to announce an ongoing time of God’s favor, a never-ending year of God’s mercy when new beginnings are always possible.
C. Lest, however, we trip over these same two Scripture passages which are proclaimed every year at the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis, following in the footsteps of Jesus, announced a special year of favor, a year of mercy from the Lord – indeed an extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy! “This is what the Lord proclaimed,” Pope Francis wrote, “and this is what we wish to live now.” Our Holy Father goes on to say what he hopes this Year of Mercy will bring about: “This Holy Year will bring to the fore the richness of Jesus’ mission… to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who cannot see because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed” (MV, 16).
II. The Need for Mercy
A. Why did Pope Francis proclaim this special Holy Year dedicated to mercy? I think it is because he surveyed the world with the eyes of a true pastor and saw how much oppression and hopelessness still dominates the world— not unlike the oppression that afflicted the Chosen People of old. Our Holy Father sees refugees drowning off the shores of Lampedusa, men, women, and children fleeing from violence in the Middle East, and Christians suffering not only persecution but genocide. When the Pope travels, he often goes into the most desperate neighborhoods where the social fabric has long since unraveled and where people live in abject poverty, fear, and despair. A few weeks ago, Bishop Madden, Father Sterling and I traveled to Rome with a group interfaith colleagues and friends. We spoke to Pope Francis about such neighborhoods here in Baltimore, and he listened with the intensity of a pastor who loves his flock with the merciful love of the Savior.
B. And being an experienced pastor of souls, Pope Francis knows that the need for mercy is by no means confined to those who lack life’s necessities. So many people who think of themselves as free and prosperous are in fact oppressed and held captive by broken family relationships, addictions, confusion, anger, the loss of civil freedoms, all of which are reflected in harsh public discourse across the political spectrum. All of us stand in need of mercy and all of us need to be agents of mercy. What a challenge this presents to me and to you, and to the whole Church.
III. A Challenge to Priests
A. It is a great challenge to those of us who serve the Church as bishops and priests. In all that we do – preaching the Word of God, celebrating the Mass and Sacraments, visiting the sick and the homebound, instructing young people in the faith, celebrating funerals, preparing couples for marriage, counseling individuals and families, leading parishes in outreach to the poor … the list is endless … in all this and more you and I, brother priests, are called to be living sacraments of God’s mercy. Mercy is the sum and substance of what the Church proclaims and imparts. It is the subject of every homily and instruction; it is the core of every Mass and sacramental celebration, and it is the driving force of every pastoral initiative, big or small. We have nothing to offer other than the loving Mercy of the Father revealed on the Face of Jesus and communicated now through our humanity. Through Holy Orders our humanity, in the power of the Holy Spirit, has become a sacramental sign of that merciful love more profound and more beautiful than anything we could ever conjure up from the depths of our own being. For this reason we tonight consecrate holy oils brimming with the new life of the Resurrection and replete with the power of the Holy Spirit – oils by which we accomplish our priestly mission of divine mercy and fittingly we renew the promises we made on the day of our priestly ordination.
B. Brothers, unworthy as I am, I am grateful to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in administering what St. John XXII called “the medicine of mercy” rather than “the medicine of severity.” Mercy has nothing to do merely with improving appearances or with making excuses for sins that bring about so much unhappiness or with exonerating us and those we serve from ongoing conversion of heart. Jesus teaches us that God’s mercy is no mere palliative. It is given to us and to those we serve to heal the human heart in its depths, to impart a joy more profound than any fleeting pleasure. It is poured out on us and on the people so that we might form communities of faith that exemplify what it means truly to love God and to love one’s neighbor, what it means truly to serve the poor, the sick, and disadvantaged, and to bring real freedom to those who are the captives of injustice and sin.
C. The entirety of our pastoral ministry must aim to connect with the profound need for mercy so evident in these times, especially in our role as confessors in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As we saw in the Pope’s initiative, 24 Hours for the Lord— and as we see whenever the Sacrament of Penance is readily available – people want to avail themselves of this Sacrament; and often they have been carrying heavy burdens for years and years. I saw this firsthand at the Men’s Fellowship Conference and I saw it again at the recent Palm Sunday Eve youth pilgrimage, this year titled “A Walk in Mercy.” People are hungering to unburden their hearts, seeking a mercy that engages their struggles, looking to make a new beginning with all their sins forgiven. For many, such mercy, administered with the care of a pastoral heart, is the portal of evangelization, the first steps on the way from being a disaffected Catholic or an occasional Catholic to becoming a faithful parishioner and God willing, a missionary disciple. As we fill our pews with active parishioners and missionary disciples our parishes become mission-driven beacons of hope in a darkened world.
IV. A Shared Challenge
A. Dear friends, I want to thank all of you, deacons, religious, seminarians, lay leaders and parishioners, who have crowded this Cathedral of Mary Our Queen this evening. Thank you for sharing with us the gift and challenge of God’s mercy. Thank you for your presence and thank you for all that you do in support of the Church’s mission – most especially for your witness to the beauty of the Gospel and the merciful love you show to so many who are in need. Thank you for living the vocation of marriage and family and for encouraging vocations among your children to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage and continue to pray for all of us who are privileged to serve you as your priests.
B. Together, as a family of faith, let us celebrate intensely this year of mercy, this year of favor from the Lord, so that when it has run its course, we may rejoice in the glad tidings Jesus came to proclaim, experience true freedom, deep spiritual insight, and the joy of bearing witness to God’s mercy all the days of our lives.
C. May God bless us and keep us always in his love.