the-vision-to-st-francis-at-porziuncola-phi-starsThe message of Jesus is mercy.  For me, and I say this with humility, it is the Lord’s strongest message.” – Pope Francis

In the life of St. Francis of Assisi, we see how the Mercy of God met him in his darkest hours.  Not only meeting him, but redeeming him, transforming him, filling him with hope and life.  And, from the grace of this encounter with Mercy Incarnate, Francis lives the rest of his life.

In July 1216, the little poor man of Assisi, was praying in the tiny chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (aptly called the Portiuncula).  Within him was burning an immense love for God and a consuming desire for the salvation of souls.  Suddenly a light shone all around him and Our Lord and His Mother appeared to Francis.

Jesus spoke to Francis saying: “You are very zealous for the good of souls.  Ask me what you want for their salvation.”  Francis replied: “Lord, I – a miserable sinner – beg You to concede an indulgence to all who enter this church, who are truly contrite and have confessed their sins.”

Our Lord replied: “It is a very great thing that you ask Me; but you are worthy of even greater things, Friar Francis, and greater things you will have. So I accept your request, but I want you to go to my Vicar, to whom I have given the power to bind and loose in Heaven and on earth, to ask him on my behalf for this indulgence.”  Francis set off for Rome, to ask this indulgence from Pope Honorius III.  The Pope granted his petition. Now, 800 years later, the faithful are still invited to receive this indulgence every August 2nd, in every Catholic church.  On the first day this indulgence could be received, St. Francis – with indescribable joy – cried out with full voice: “O my brothers and sisters, I want you all to go to Heaven!” 

Having recounted this story, it is easy to see a reflection of St. Francis’ magnanimous heart present in the heart of Pope Francis.  Less than 3 years since his election, 0ur Holy Father proclaims an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, complete with a Jubilee Indulgence that he makes widely available…it’s there for the taking, so to speak!  In his words and actions, we hear the distant echo of St. Francis’ voice crying out: “O my brothers and sisters, I want you all to go to Heaven!” 

In an interview a few years back, when Pope Francis was asked to describe himself, he said: “a sinner who has been looked upon by the Face of Mercy.

Thinking back to my own life and my experience, to September 21, 1953, when God came and filled me with wonder, I have always said that the Lord precedes us, He anticipates us.  I believe the same can be said for His Divine Mercy, which heals our wounds; He anticipates our need for it.  God waits; He waits for us to concede Him only the smallest glimmer of space so that He can enact His forgiveness and His charity within us.  Only he who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of His Mercy really knows the Lord.” (from The Name of God is Mercy)

Flowing from the grace of his own encounter with Mercy, he has become an Apostle of Mercy for the whole world.

Reaching out to those in the peripheries and those in the pews and everyone in between, our beloved Holy Father says: “I believe this is a time for mercy.  The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded.  She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them in the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she takes care of them, she makes them feel loved.” (from The Name of God is Mercy).  

This is our time for an encounter with Mercy – when Our Lord, through His Bride the Church, comes knocking at our door, seeking us out, gathering us in, and healing our wounds with His Mercy.  This is our time for be forgiven, redeemed, transformed, and filled with hope and life…again and again.  This is a JUBILEE of Mercy.

Further on in this book, the interviewer poses the very question that many of us are asking:  What should we be doing during this Holy  Year of Mercy?  His response is to the point, very brief, and emphasizes the need to receive and then give: “He should open up to the Mercy of God, open up his heart and himself, and allow Jesus to come toward him by approaching the confessional with faith.  And he should try and be merciful to others.”  His response in in accord with his own experience, with St. Francis’ experience.  First we receive (always we receive), then we become a reflection of God’s mercy to others.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us that – like you – we may open our heart to encounter God’s divine and transforming mercy, especially in our places of pain, sin, or separation from God. Pray for us, that we – with deep trust – will show Jesus our wounds and receive His healing which flows freely and without limit from His Merciful Heart.  Amen.

(An addendum: This article by Bishop Barron clearly unpacks Pope Francis’ approach to mercy, which is at times misrepresented/misunderstood. Worth the read!)